Germany: Onkel Toms Hütte - Colorful Interwar Modernism in Berlin

What?
A colorful Bauhaus-era housing estate.

Why Visit?
While Berlin is famous for its historical sights associated with the Cold War, the Third Reich, and the Imperial era of the Kaisers, reminders of the Weimar Republic are generally absent from the tourist circuit. 

However, a half-hour trip on the U-Bahn (metro) from the city center to Onkel Toms Hütte station brings one to a place that embodies Germany’s hopes and tensions during the years between the end of World War I and the Nazi rise to power in 1933.

Where?
The Zehlendorf section of Berlin reachable by the U3 line on the U-Bahn. Map.


FROM THE U-BAHN station, walk around the surrounding streets to the north, east, and south, and you will find the the Onkel Toms Hütte housing estate, consisting of three- and four-story apartment buildings and rowhouses interspersed with an abundance of trees and lawns. 
They were built from 1926 to 1932 by GEHAG, a housing cooperative owned by left-wing labor unions, and contain 1,900 apartments. This balance of urban density and open space is reflected in the area’s other name, the Forest Housing Estate (Waldsiedlung in German). Riding on the U-Bahn from central Berlin, one is retracing the journey made by thousands of working class Berliners who moved from crowded inner city tenements known as rental barracks to these new apartments offering light, air, modern kitchens, and private bathrooms.
Those interested in architecture will find both the expected and unexpected. To emphasize a break with the past, Onkel Toms Hütte was designed in a Modernist architecture style with unornamented facades and flat roofs. This was the “New Architecture” of the 1920s and was being practiced by the likes of Le Corbusier, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, and the Bauhaus school. 

However, unlike most buildings of that style and period, which were monochromatic with white facades, Onkel Toms Hütte beams with a range of bright colors. The project’s lead architect and planner, Bruno Taut, believed that color was critical to residents’ well-being and therefore was compatible with the functional emphasis of Modernism. (The village is also known as Papageiensiedlung, Parrotville, in reference to its bright colors.)

Although the area is mostly residential, a walkway connecting the U-Bahn station to the street is lined with shops and a community center named for Taut. The housing estate also includes a few retail buildings that also follow the colorful Modernist design.

'Frisierkunst' loosely translates as 'Hair Art', i.e. the local hairdresser. 
While residents then and now seemed pleased with the results, Onkel Toms Hütte became a flashpoint for critics of Modern architecture and what it symbolized. To see this, walk to the southeastern edge of Onkel Toms Hütte, along a seemingly minor street called Am Fischtal. On one side of the street you’ll see Taut’s flat roofed buildings but on the other side there are more traditional looking residences with pitched roofs and muted colors. These buildings, completed in 1928, initiated what newspapers of the time dubbed the “Roof War.” 

Traditionalist architects and many on the political right, including members of the Nazi party, opposed flat roofs as alien to German character. An interpretive sign on Am Fischtal, provides a summary in German of this architectural conflict. Today, both sides of the street form part of a listed historic district.

There is also a plaque commemorating Taut located near the U-Bahn station. He went into exile after the Nazis came to power and died in 1938 while working in Turkey. If anything, he was too successful in his effort here. The housing estate remains so attractive that it now houses a more well-to-do population, including many architects.

Taut's memorial. 'Architecture is the art of proportions'. 

A visit to the area should also include a detour of a few blocks down Onkel-Tom-Strasse to the neighborhood’s namesake - the Onkel Toms Hütte equestrian club and restaurant. This establishment is the successor to a nineteenth century tavern and horse stable whose owner was named Tom. 
This way to the original Uncle Tom's Cabin. 
The original place became known as Onkel Toms Hütte, borrowing, albeit out of context, the name of the famous American novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin. 

Improbably, the name became attached to the surrounding area and was adopted when the U-Bahn station and the housing arrived in the 1920s.

Editor's note: There are lots of parallels between Onkel Toms Hütte and Betondorp, a 'garden village' of Modernist concrete just outside of Amsterdam, which we covered before.

Getting There:
Take U3 U-Bahn line to Onkel Toms Hütte station.



Useful Links:
Onkel Toms Hütte residents’ association (in German).
Onkel Toms U-Bahn Station Shopping (Onkel Toms Ladenstrasse)  (in German).
Onkel Toms Hütte Equestrian Club (Reitervereins Onkel-Toms-Hütte) (in German).

About the author:
Jeff Reuben is an urban planner and writer based in New York City. He regularly contributes to the website Untapped Cities.




5 comments:

  1. A revealing article with carefully selected informations, thank you!
    One historical aspect has to be added: The time after the Second World War, when this part of Berlin belonged to the American Sector, and "Onkel Toms Hütte" was in walking distance to the American Headquarter.
    From 1945 to 1994 U.S.American military personnel with their families lived next door to German inhabitants. In the very beginning of that friendly relationship the hairdresser's shop (see Jeff Reuben's picture above) had been occupied and operated under the name "Onkel Tom's Barber Shop" (unfortunately this post prevents to show an old picture of the shop).

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hello Anonymous, interesting story. If you send ya the picture we. And see if we. An add it. Thanks! Editor AT MinorSights.com

      Delete
  2. Wonderful architecture. The Regenboogbuurt in Almere is inspired by this colourfull neighbourhood. You're welcome! www.regenboogbuurt.nl

    ReplyDelete
  3. There are lots of parallels between Onkel Toms Hütte and Regenboogbuurt in Almere also, near Amsterdam.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks for pointing that out! We will have a look at the The Regenboogbuurt. Maybe someone can write a guest article about it...

      Delete

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