Topographies of Class: Modern Architecture and Mass Society in Weimar Berlin

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In Topographies of Class, Sabine Hake explores why Weimar Berlin has had such a powerful hold on the urban imagination. Approaching Weimar architectural culture from the perspective of mass discourse and class analysis, Hake examines the way in which architectural projects; debates; and representations in literature, photography, and film played a key role in establishing the terms under which contemporaries made sense of the rise of white-collar society.

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Overview

In Topographies of Class, Sabine Hake explores why Weimar Berlin has had such a powerful hold on the urban imagination. Approaching Weimar architectural culture from the perspective of mass discourse and class analysis, Hake examines the way in which architectural projects; debates; and representations in literature, photography, and film played a key role in establishing the terms under which contemporaries made sense of the rise of white-collar society.

Focusing on the so-called stabilization period, Topographies of Class maps out complex relationships between modern architecture and mass society, from Martin Wagner's planning initiatives and Erich Mendelsohn's functionalist buildings, to the most famous Berlin texts of the period, Alfred Doblin's city novel Berlin Alexanderplatz (1929) and Walter Ruttmann's city film Berlin, Symphony of the Big City (1927). Hake draws on critical, philosophical, literary, photographic, and filmic texts to reconstruct the urban imagination at a key point in the history of German modernity, making this the first study-in English or German-to take an interdisciplinary approach to the rich architectural culture of Weimar Berlin.

About the Author:
Sabine Hake is Professor and Texas Chair of German Literature and Culture at the University of Texas at Austin

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Topographies of Class

Modern Architecture and Mass Society in Weimar Berlin
By Sabine Hake

THE UNIVERSITY OF MICHIGAN PRESS

Copyright © 2008 University of Michigan
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-472-07038-1


Chapter One

Setting the Scene: Weimar Berlin, circa 1920

Despite the modernist office buildings and public housing initiatives for which it has become known, Berlin during the 1920s and early 1930s remained essentially a Wilhelmine city. While its social composition and administrative structure underwent fundamental changes, its external appearance continued to reflect the political ambitions and economic developments of the prewar years. Having left an indelible mark on the layout of the city center and the look of many neighborhoods, the imperial past consequently provided the stage on which modernism and modernity after World War I made their spectacular entry in the form of new media, technologies, and audiovisual attractions. Moreover, the prewar ideologies of the urban established the conditions under which Weimar architectural culture assumed such a key role in the reconfiguration and rearticulation of class.

After the founding of the Wilhelmine Empire in 1871, the German capital experienced a period of exceptional growth, with its population increasing from one million inhabitants during the 1870s and two million around 1900 to four million by 1920. The belated emergenceof a world city that, before German unification, had been little more than a Prussian garrison town and royal court produced a unified, homogeneous cityscape that, with the exception of the historic center, lacked the rich layers of medieval, feudal, and imperial history found in other European capitals. The creation of Greater Berlin in 1920 made the German capital the third largest city in the world after London and New York. With rigid class divisions already under attack since the rise of social democracy and working-class movements in the 1870s, and with the political institutions and structures of the Wilhelmine Empire either dismantled or weakened after Germany's defeat in World War I, the city was more than ready to complete the process of urban reform initiated around the turn of the century and to fully realize the project of modernity under democratic conditions (fig. 1.1).

Born out of the spirit of reform and revolution, Weimar architectural culture came to function as a laboratory for artistic innovation and social change. A politically radicalized generation of architects emphatically rejected the legacies of the Wilhelmine Empire and set out to develop forms and structures more appropriate to the political goals of the Weimar Republic. Because of the lack of available funds and resources, first during the immediate postwar period and then during the world economic crisis after 1929, public and private commissions remained few and far between, prompting many to turn their creative energies toward urban utopias and architectural fantasies. The irreconcilable gap between theory and praxis-and the strong desire to close that gap sometime in the near future-contributed to the emergence of architectural culture as a master discourse bringing together diverse ideas about social reform, technological progress, economic growth, industrial design, and modern life. Key to the resulting synergies was the power of architecture to provide a spatial image of the project of modernity and to make visible the changing dynamics of modern class society.

During an all too brief period after the stabilization of the currency in 1924, these ideas found their clearest articulation in the work of Martin Wagner and the architects associated with the Neue Berlin (New Berlin). In terms of measurable accomplishments, the program of the New Berlin remained limited to a few well-known buildings, and many more incomplete or unrealized projects. Even enthusiastic endorsements in the feuilleton, the cultural pages of daily newspapers and illustrated magazines, could not distract from the fact that the city's basic structures, beginning with its geometrical layout and unified form, and its eclectic and, more often than not, ostentatious styles were products not of the modern spirit in architecture but of the enormous waves of urbanization, industrialization, and modernization already completed before the outbreak of World War I.

Before and after the war, the oppositions, contradictions, and non-synchronicities of Weimar architectural culture became most apparent in relation to the changing structure of class society. Wilhelmine Berlin had been defined by the old aristocratic and military elites as well as by an influential educated bourgeoisie, a rising entrepreneurial middle class, a small but powerful group of nouveaux riches, and an enormous industrial proletariat and urban underclass. Soon after national unification, technological progress and economic growth brought louder demands for adequate representation from various social and ethnic groups and different political and cultural organizations within this vast agglomeration of independent cities and counties. After the lost war and failed revolution, these unresolved problems culminated in what many architects, city planners, sociologists, philosophers, and urban critics anxiously and persistently evoked as the specter of the urban masses and what it really stood for: the problem of class.

The discrepancies between the ubiquitous architecture of class domination and imperial ambition and new proposals for democratic forms of living and rational models of organization provide the underlying structure for this introductory chapter on city planning in Weimar Berlin. The arrival of New Building produced a surfeit of symbolic activities surrounding the idea of metropolis, a surfeit that required a continuing negotiation of what Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe describe as the opposition between the "totalitarian myth of the Ideal City" and the "positivist pragmatism of reformists without a project." Bringing together past and future in the present, the real and imaginary spaces of Weimar Berlin will subsequently be approached in a two-part fashion: through a historical overview of the legacies of Wilhelmine architecture in the first part and a critical assessment of the work of Martin Wagner, the most influential city planner of the Weimar years, in the second part. Throughout, I will repeatedly turn to traffic as an overdetermined trope of modernity to tease out its symptomatic functions within the sociospatial dialectic, an approach that concludes with Potsdamer Platz as the first of four case studies presented in the book.

I. Historical Legacies and Reformist Beginnings

If Berlin after 1919 remained largely a Wilhelmine metropolis, how are we to approach the real and imaginary architectures of Weimar Berlin? How are we to envisage the physical environment that gave rise to the program of the New Berlin? And how are we to imagine the city that inspired bold proposals for social change as well as dire pronouncements on the crisis of the metropolis? We could begin by assuming the perspective of visitors arriving from elsewhere. Finding themselves in unfamiliar terrain, tourists and foreigners often turned to the popular Baedeker city guides and tourist maps to make sense of their first impressions. Time and again, the verdict remained the same: Berlin was an ugly city. The 1923 Baedeker complained about the uniform layout of streets, a product of the late-nineteenth-century boom years that made no "distinctions between wide arteries and smaller side streets." Similarly, the 1927 Baedeker concluded: "The overall image of Berlin is that of a young world city that, filled with an ardor for work, began to grow quickly and vigorously only in the mid-nineteenth century. As a result, it lacks the attractions of the organically developed, artistic cityscape characteristic of older big cities."

To a few foreign visitors, including a large number of writers and artists, such shortcomings opened up new and as yet unexplored possibilities. Russian-born Iwan Heilbut praised the "stern, orderly beauty, an order that, in its most beautiful sense, does not aim at monotony but at brightness, conviviality, and health." In Der Querschnitt, Parisian Amédé Ozenfant expressed surprise about the absence of street crowds and traffic jams, while Jean Giradoux raved about the many public parks, gardens, and forests, proclaiming that "Berlin is not a garden city, Berlin is a garden." Arriving from Oxford, Stephen Spender was pleasantly surprised by the unified cityscape, a product of the infamous Prussian sense of order and discipline. Yet he admitted that this monotonous layout also deprived Berlin of a discernible identity:

There were a good many squares, but these had little positive character. They were just places where several streets halted and had a rest before going on with their uniformed march, at the exact opposite side of the square from where they had left. They were more like spaces in time than in place, intervals in which the passerby was able to breathe before resuming the logic of the street.

Used to the rich splendor of Vienna, Stefan Grossmann similarly felt a deep sense of spatial alienation: "The brand-new, geometrically laid-out streets in the West, straight and clean, with sixteen and a half square meters of lawn in the middle, all that was practical, useful, sanitary, and bright but, at the same time, foreign, insurmountably foreign."

Many German critics and writers insisted on the benefits of such monotony and uniformity for the ongoing project of urbanization. In 1918, Berlin native Julius Bab noted: "Only one thing is unique to Berlin: the perpendicular, straight, and broad systems of streets that ... may not make an aesthetically pleasing impression but are well able to accommodate larger traffic volumes without any problems." Equating spatial openness with artistic freedom, Würzburg-born Leonhard Frank observed that "Berlin is flat, and it is wide. Someone leaving Berlin by car might believe that it never ended," and linked the absence of such external boundaries to the city's remarkable susceptibility to "all new and future art and literature in the world." Hermann Kesser from Munich arrived at the opposite conclusion and described

a layout that almost entirely lacks visual persuasion and represents little more than a network of lines, an order ... a series, a calculated sum. Points had to be connected with each other according to objective principles. Straight lines were drawn from one point to the other. The space in between was filled with houses. That is how streets developed. Their sole meaning is connection, movement, and traffic-not living, relaxing, and strolling.

Even Curt Behrendt, a strong supporter of New Building who advised municipal agencies on new projects, noted that the German capital had tempo and energy but still lacked "the coherent form that ... would allow all neighborhoods to showcase the country's economic, intellectual, and artistic accomplishments."

The perceived lack of beauty, history, and tradition, which often found expression in vague pronouncements on Berlin as a city without identity, and the obsession with traffic and movement prompted Egon Erwin Kisch, in his typical matter-of-fact style, to remind his readers of the social and economic inequities behind such critical clichés and to draw attention to the clash of tradition and modernity visible everywhere in the streets of Weimar Berlin:

At the airport mechanics stand by to repair the engines of incoming transatlantic airplanes, while on the Landwehr Canal an old barge carrying fruit floats by, as it did a hundred years ago. On the Avus racecars pass each other, and drivers get killed in the attempt to generate a little advertisement for businesses, while the mailman trudges up three, four, five flights of stairs day after day, year in and year out. At Gleisdreieck the long distance, underground, and elevated lines meet in the air, yet not far from here the baker's apprentice delivers bread to customers with a dogcart. In the North Harbor cranes unload freight weighing hundreds of tons, activated by the push of a button, but no machine helps the poor woman laborer carry bricks from the Spree barges to the canal's bank.

Taking a highly critical approach to the "iron landscape" of expanded traffic networks, Joseph Roth used Gleisdreieck, a triangular intersection of several train lines near the Anhalter Station, to diagnose the ascendancy of traffic as the new urban paradigm and to measure the destructive effects of technology on the very foundations of urban life. As an allegory of modernity, Gleisdreieck for Roth offered a truly apocalyptic vision: "The future world will be such a Gleisdreieck of powerful dimensions. The earth has lived through several transformations based on natural laws. It is experiencing a new one based on constructive, rational, but no less elementary laws.... The 'landscape' acquires an iron mask" (fig. 1.2).

In the same way that Weimar Berlin has been celebrated for its cosmopolitan atmosphere and its openness to artistic experimentation, Wilhelmine Berlin has been denounced for its resistance to cultural innovation and political reform. In light of the extensive continuities between prewar and postwar architectural culture documented by Julius Posener and others, such persistent myths can only be explained through the self-representation of architectural modernism, repeated in much of the early scholarship, as a radical break with tradition and the past. The apotheosis of Weimar Berlin as the founding site of German modernity and the continuing influence of the modernist master narrative have distracted from the strange admixture of liberal, progressive, and conservative politics, of antiurban, nationalist and völkisch ideologies, and of traditionalist, regionalist, and modernist sensibilities that informed the prevailing attitudes toward the metropolis in the first decades of the twentieth century. The artificial separation of architecture from other techniques of mass organization has also made it difficult to see the larger ideological configuration in which architectural culture assumed such a unique function in the discourses on class. Adding to these blind spots, scholarly assessments of the prewar metropolis have tended to focus on individual buildings and individual architects. As a result, the sustained efforts by city governments to provide an adequate infrastructure (canalization, electrification, mass transportation), a range of municipal services and facilities (hospitals, schools, public parks), and, most important, affordable housing have until recently been downplayed or ignored.

(Continues...)



Excerpted from Topographies of Class by Sabine Hake Copyright © 2008 by University of Michigan . Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Ch. I Setting the scene : Weimar Berlin, circa 1920 19

Ch. 2 Mapping Weimar society : on masses, classes, and white-collar workers 60

Ch. 3 Organizing the modern masses : new building in Weimar Berlin 98

Ch. 4 Walking in the metropolis : the city texts of Franz Hessel and Siegfried Kracauer 134

Ch. 5 Picturing the new Berlin : photography, architecture, and modern mass society 170

Ch. 6 Deconstructing modern subjectivity : on Berlin Alexanderplatz 209

Ch. 7 Reconstructing modern subjectivity : on Berlin, symphony of the big city 242

Notes 275

Index of names 313

Index of places 317

Index of titles 321

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