Rambler in the Berlin Unité

After a two year association with the Unité D'Habitation in Rezé, Nantes, I confess I went to the Berlin Unité with some preconceptions, in search of another scenario to explore the concrete shell and its relationship with urban ecology. I came away with the realisation that when it comes to architectural styles, it's not so much the clothes in the wardrobe but who wears them that matter.


A day of clambering around the stairways and flats around the Corbusierhaus, as it's known, with one of its residents brought out why it's such a different place to a French Unité.
Firstly the architecture. Because German building regulations require the floor heights to be a minimum 2.5m, out went the Corbusian modular dimensions. And that produces an aesthetic chain reaction throughout the building. Further the Berlin Unité has a large number of small studio flats each about 400sq ft;  therefore it has far more apartments than a French Unité. Thus the door numbers go up and up, well above the 1000 mark, 1066, 1067,... etc
And inside the apartments, there are no warm wooden partitions, or the open timber stairway with the Jean Prouvé trade mark rails connecting the 2 floor duplex flats. Here the regulations require  all-enclosing vertical rails, floor to ceiling in thin tubular steel - strangely called the 'harp' because you can twang them.

But the critical difference is in the type of occupancy; that is who lives here. Back in 1977 all the flats in the Corbusierhaus became owner-occupied and today it's a 100% private owned block. In comparison, at the Nantes Unité the ratio is 51% public to 49% private ownership. When the social constituency changes so does the range of communal activities and associations.
This is not an Unité that engages the debate between modernity and nature through community but offers a different dialogue somehow closer to the ambition and language of the era in which it was built: the 'correct' usage of modern living, ample green spaces combined with hygienic lifestyle banishing the 'disorder of urban life'.
From the balconies here idyllic woods stretch out, stray wild boars sometimes find their way into the regular colour-coded recycling bins.


But it's still a Corbusean Unité despite his avowal as it's built on the same principles as any other Unité - reducing the building's footprint on the ground to the minimum in order to maximise the city's green space; built on the ideal that the ordinary person no longer has to live in the shadow cast by a neighbouring building as in a pre-modern street. Here's it is sun and shade, plus control: the distinctive brise soleil that produces the Unité elevation.
But irony is that the so-called internal 'streets in the air' exist in purely artificial light. Given the pale colour of the streets, they feel like hospital corridors. Whatever the intentions, a corridor will never feel like a street. For a while I ponder if this is where modernity has brought humanity to retire or die, but then conversation turns to which street has the best parties. The Christmas eve parties of the 8th floor are considered the best, and all of a sudden the 'streets' acquire a joie de vivre. They might look monotonous but some-one tells me that the kids growing up here find their way by the colour of their streets.


But the real fun and games in the Corbusierhaus is what happens behind the door; the way it is being re-jigged for modern 'needs'. The single apartments are too small for today's tastes, so the game is to break down the walls between the apartments and turn them into doubles, triples...... As there are no legal planning constraints on altering internal spaces, one has to marvel at the scale, imagination and enterprise in the way this Rubik's cube of a building is being manipulated. If you think the door of the stairwell just leads to a box room think again; it might well be the entrance room to another flat and or even, yet another exiting somewhere else. The numbers don't reveal what's behind....
At one stage I was standing in a fully gutted duplex apartment with uninterrupted views from one end to the other. A sublime experience. To the east the Democratic Republic's Alexanderplatz, to the west the clean fluted lines of the National Socialist Olympic stadium. A brise soleil sandwich inbetween tragic modern legacies.