Monday, February 11, 2013

Berlin 5: With equal quality for all

Schiller Park UNESCO cultural heritage houses

Micah takes me on tour of two of the six modernist housing estates recognized by UNESCO as world cultural  heritage sites. The two we see are on the edge of Schiller Park and the other the Weisse Stadt. These estates are expressions of the social democrat consciousness of post World War I Weimar Germany. The movement reflected a commitment to free workers from the tenements and provide housing for a variety of incomes with equal quality for all, each with their own kitchen and indoor bathrooms and most with balconies. 
Bruno Taut
The states we see are the work of Bruno Taut. Under the direction of Walter Gropius and chief city architect Martin Wagner, Taut became the chief architect of the GEHAG, a housing construction cooperative that continues to this day. Influenced by the Garden City ideal of urbanism, part of the Bauhaus movement, and using visual lines common to the deco era, Taut’s work is an expression of a Utopian visionary with practical principles. Between 1924 and 1931, his team produced over 12,000 units of housing. Forced into exile by the Nazis, Taut later worked in Japan and ultimately Turkey where he was given a hero’s burial in the national martyr’s cemetery.
For me, walking through these estates is like being is a wonderland. Part of it is the  lines of 1920’s architecture I grew to love in Tulsa, whether the outrageously ornate deco or the simpler objectivist style. But more so, it’s the idea, an expression of optimism and hope that a better world is possible ( as my Occupy friends would say..). A world where decent housing in a healthy and aesthetic environment were a basic human right, not a luxury reserved for the few. These ideals were somehow brought into concrete (literally) reality even as the terror was about to descend.
Drive through house
So who's building affordable housing today? In New York City, creation of affordable housing has slowed to a trickle. And most of what is developed is trickle down, IE, housing that has decreased in value. The 421a program (which West-Park was going to use) actually wound up with most of the  money going to market rate housing through tax concession trade offs. Most new construction has come from community organizing groups like Manhattan Together (IAF) and the SRO conversions of the Westside Federation for Senior and Supprtive Housing (WSSFSH). 
It’s also strange to ponder the political moebius strip that defines contemporary urban preservationism. On the one hand, in New York City,  if more affordable housing is going to be created, it’s got to be vertical, in opposition  to preservationist ideals. On the other, neighborhood activists rightly oppose tax free properties like churches being turned into fertile ground for developers. The opposition to our original West-Park proposal crossed a lot of ideological lines, from those who wanted simply to protect their view, to anti-development activists, to preservation fundamentalists, to those opposed to affordable housing to those simply wanting to preserve neighborhood coherence and cultural heritage. I was always uncomfortable that you could make a progressive argument either way. The loss  for us of some 24 million dollars in value through a government declared landmark decision is a reality we haven’t fully recovered from yet. The whole issue raises questions that challenge our conventional wisdoms. And for us at   West-Park, the questions are not philosophical  but very real and present..   
At the end of the day, I train down to Dahlem to visit Zeljko and Uli. They've organized a special showing of the Second Meeting at the Niemoller House. When I get off the subway, I'm amazed to see a snow globe scene as there are several inches of fresh snow on the ground. It's quiet and almost magical. I hear there's a blizzard hitting New York City.                        

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