Ever since that first exhausting but exhilarating week in Berlin, when I was totally absorbed by the city’s recent history, I’ve felt quite ‘heavy’ here. I know I’m weary and have been worried about my daughter, Coco, but it’s more than that. Some kind of connection I’ve made with Berlin’s shocking past? The depressing plight of immigrants here? Or maybe the fact that living in Neukölln we’re surrounded by wannabe hipsters who wouldn’t dare crack a smile.
I’m not sure but I haven’t been able to shake the feeling. So this week I went in search of lightness by exploring a neighbourhood I’d glanced at when we first arrived – Hansaviertel.
While my thing is more about finding beauty in the ordinary, Hansaviertel is actually kind of extraordinary. In short, it’s a small neighbourhood of striking 1950s buildings that West Berlin created to outshine East Berlin.
Some quick facts… Before its current incarnation, it was a densely packed residential area founded in 1874 between the Spree River and the Tiergarten. Almost all of the houses were destroyed in WWII by air raids. Name comes from the area’s connection with Hansa cities of medieval times.
A warning – for those who don’t like the tilt-shift lens effect, there are more this week. Quite a few really. I’ve been enjoying trying to tame the beast – and then just letting it have its head and doing what it will.
Also, there are less diptychs this week and more single images – to do my diptychs I need lots of details to match up with other images – and Hansaviertel, being small and fairly homogenous, doesn’t have that many. (In fact, Berlin in general has been the most challenging city as far as my diptychs go. Maybe another reason for my glumness.)
Anyway, let’s go Hansaviertel!
Part 1: Altonaer Straße 3–9
Picture this. It’s after the war. Large chunks of Berlin have been destroyed by bombing. East Berlin is busy building their massive Stalinist showpiece, Stalinallee (later renamed, Karl-Marx-Allee). What’s the West to do? Try and one-up them by inviting a handful of big name architects to design buildings for an international architecture exhibition to be built in an area destroyed by the bombing – the Hansa Quarter, Hansaviertel.
Interbau, as it was called, aimed to produce a “city of tomorrow” with modern apartments set in generous parklands. 50 or so architects, including Oscar Niemeyer from Brazil, Arne Jacobsen from Denmark, Alvar Aalto from Finland and Germany’s Walter Gropius, designed a variety of apartment blocks, ranging from low-rise single dwellings to multi-storey high-rise, as well as a library, cinema, two churches and two entrances to the U-Bahn subway station.
That was 1957-1961. What I love is that today, 5o or so years later, the only thing that’s changed are the trees – they’re bigger now. Everything else is pretty much the same.
So one day last week, after wandering around the incredibly quiet neighbourhood, Coco and I spied three girls playing on the grass at the rear of one of the buildings. Partly to ask permission to photograph them, partly to score Coco an impromptu play-date, I wandered up to the parents sitting nearby.
Turned out the ‘parents’ were Helga, mum of seven year old Juno, and Christian, dad of seven year old Valentina and five year old Emilia. The seven year olds were friends and this was a holiday get together.
Helga explained that she and Juno, together with her husband and son, lived in the building in front of us – one of the Interbau buildings, designed by Fritz Jaenecke and Sten Samuelson from Sweden.
The incredibly friendly and welcoming Helga raced upstairs to grab a few books for me about Hansaviertel – she’s a huge fan and while she only rents in the building, loves living in one of these iconic buildings.
And yes, Coco got to play. For. Hours. On. End.
A most excellent first experience of the “city of tomorrow”.
Part 2: And beyond
We spent the following days checking out some of the other buildings around the neighbourhood. Sadly for Coco we didn’t come across anymore hula hoops or hula skirts, but we did find some amazing examples of 1950s architecture set amongst masses of green.
The building that probably catches most people’s eye is the one that sits on enormous ‘V’ shaped feet, designed by Brazilian architect, Oscar Niemeyer. Aside from its ‘floating’ quality, I particularly liked the stairwells, with their different colour tiles and doors and transluscent glass.
Part 3: The mosaic
A large glass tile mosaic adorns one of the walls of the Hansaplatz U-Bahn station, apparently designed by a fella called Fritz Winter in 1958. I loved it so much I hung around it for ages, using it as a backdrop to capture those who passed by.
Like Christoph, who lives in the area and works in computer science; his genes have blessed him with incredibly youthful skin – he’s 55, looks 45 – at the same time as cursing him with muscular dystrophy.
Lisa, who works right next to the U-Bahn station at Hansabücherei, the local library. She has a tattoo on her shoulder of some of Lady Gaga’s lyrics from the song, ‘Born this way’ – “That’s me, exactly.”
Another Lisa and Ann-Marie, two young girls from an African background who were walking past with their mum and dad. They were in a rush so all I found out about them was they lived in Wedding, just north of Hansaviertel.
Helmut, originally from Austria, now living just outside Berlin. He loves Berlin because “you are free to be who you want to be.”
The lovely 74 year old Hanke was riding past on his bike with his seven year old grand-daughter, Jasmin, when I hailed them down. I took their photo – and then, when I discovered Hanke lived in one of the Interbau buildings right behind us, I asked if we could have a look. Not once did they wince.
I didn’t take any pics of Hanke’s apartment mainly because as warm and inviting as it was, it just looked like any regular apartment – you wouldn’t have known it was inside an Alvar Aalto designed building.
Hanke told me he’d been born in the area in 1938 and had lived in the Aalto building for 40 years, since 1972. Imagine the changes he would’ve seen, from pre-war to now. Amazing.
That was it for my portraits-in-front-of-mosaic.
Two details of said mosaic…
Speaking of the weather, Berlin’s ‘winter’ disappeared as quickly as it had arrived this week. In its place was hot hot weather without a drop of rain – until yesterday…
When Helga first showed me her books with photos of Hansaviertel before the war, I couldn’t believe it. The area looked so 19th century ‘normal’, with rows and rows of densely packed homes and little green. Now it feels so much lighter, like one big park with a few interesting buildings scattered around it. Even if it was all about politics at the time, who cares. It’s now a unique corner of Berlin that seems frozen in time and incredibly serene – until the hula hoops and hula skirts come out to play.
On the ‘home front’
I went in search of lightness this week and found it. As did Coco. She loved tearing around the place with her new found friends. I tried to photograph more of them playing together but kept getting the evil eye – “Mum, it’s a game, we can’t just stop.”
She had such a great time. Which is why I don’t mind sharing the photo above. It was on a different day, when I was hanging around the mosaic waiting for people to walk by. I looked around to see Coco just sitting there, with an expression that just says it all. It’s so unusual to see her looking like that – normally she’s all smiles the moment I point the camera at her. But she was so hot – and tired, and bored – she just sat there. I think that’s when I said, okay, let’s go get some ice cream. Problem(s) solved.
This suburb has been brought to you by Julie Mackenzie
See you next Monday.