chapter  15
The expressionist utopia
Pages 15

Expressionist architecture positioned itself, wittingly and unwittingly, as a

response to the city – more exactly, the industrial city. In contrast, say, to Britain,

industrialisation in Germany came comparatively late. Among the great indus-

trial enterprises Siemens only took off in the 1870s, Agfa was founded in 1872

and AEG in 1887. Starting late, industrialisation and its impact on the social and

urban structures in Germany was terrifyingly rapid. As the most extreme condi-

tion, Berlin offers the best example of this process. In 1848 the population of the

city was 423,000, rising to 774,500 in 1870, 1,900,000 in 1900, and almost 4

million in 1910: a tenfold rise in sixty years. This population explosion had a predictable effect on the housing

stock, as the two-and three-storey housing and corridor streets of the historic city were pulled down to make way for the mean, dark and insanitary Berlin Mietskaserne (rental barracks). Courtyard plans were favoured, with apartments lit and accessed from a series of internal courts that ran axially off the principal entrance on the street front. Three courtyards were common; seven were to be found in extreme instances. In the poorest housing the courtyards barely functioned as light-wells. In Berlin yards as small as 5.1 square metres were allowed before the building regulations were revised in 1887, and disease and contagion flourished within these dark wells, exacerbated by minimal sanitary provision. Within the local limits set for street lines and cornice heights, the individual house blocks were free to adopt for facades whichever decorative scheme appealed to the speculator or builder. While this visual free-for-all denied any possibility of creating a coherent architectural scheme on the larger scale, it gave a brash vitality to the city streets that matched the rapacious and self-confident individualism of the Gründerzeit, the twenty years of feverish speculation in the 1870s and 1880s. The human cost was high: in 1871, when the new German Reich was established after the Prussian defeat of the French at Sedan, average life expectancy in Berlin was 36.5 years for men and 38 years for women.