This screening, introduced by Deyan Sudjic, Director of the Design Museum, hosted the UK premiere of the documentary Leben in der Stadt von Morgen [Living in the City of Tomorrow] – an observational look at Berlin’s post-WW2 Modernist Hansaviertel district on the edge of the Tiergarten – plus a Q&A with its director, and Hansaviertel resident himself, Marian Engel.
Leben in der Stadt… was accompanied by an archival propagandist film from Hitler’s right-hand architect, Albert Speer, to complete the evening’s exploration of the changing relationship between Modernism and power, architecture and propaganda.
Programmed in response to the Barbican Art Gallery’s major Bauhaus: Art as Life exhibition.
Leben in der Stadt von Morgen (Living in the City of Tomorrow)
50 years following the construction of Hansaviertel (a modernist housing enclave on the edge of the Tiergarten) through the iconic Interbau Exhibition, this film documents the daily reality of life in the ‘city of tomorrow,’ through subtle observation and conversation with its residents. In Hansaviertel, the Bauhaus’s architectural promise could be seen to have been manipulated as a pawn in Berlin’s Cold War topology – West Berlin’s politicised ‘best practice’ response to East Berlin’s rapid social housing expansion and Stalin Alle, featuring buildings by Walter Gropius, Oscar Niemeyer, Alvar Aalto and more. But can, and has, Modernism’s promise held out against its own instrumentalisation by the state, and changing contemporary urban conditions?
In German with English Subtitles
Germany 2007, Dir. Marian Engel, 96 mins
Die Bauten Adolf Hitlers
A propagandist short from Hitler’s master architect, Die Bauten opens with a derisive jazz-scored shot of the Bauhaus Building in Dessau, before moving on to glorify the Third Reich’s greatest architectural hits – from Munich’s Haus der Deutsche Kunst to Berlin’s Olympic Stadium – all created in the five years since the Bauhaus had been closed down by the Nazi party. An important illustration of the ideologies latent in all design, and these ideas’ potential for manipulation.
Germany 1938, Dir. Albert Speer, 17 mins
Programme notes by Deyan Sudjic
writer and director of the Design Museum
Marian Engel’s elegiac lingering meditation on Berlin’s Hansaviertel has many of the elements familiar to British viewers from countless television documentaries on post war architecture. Elderly residents emerge from the slab blocks of what was meant to be an urban utopia and talk to the camera, remembering the day that they moved in, and the wonder of all that space, that light, the greenery, and constant hot water. They are intercut with grainy black and white news reel footage that shows their younger selves, ribbons being cut at opening ceremonies, and grave looking architects pointing at models, and stirring announcers declaiming about how the future is being built here and now. The gentle shock from Living in the City of Morning comes from what is missing from what we have come to expect of such films on post war building. There is no shot of the blocks as they are today, with the camera panning back to reveal boarded up, burnt out flats, widows living in fear marooned by lifts permanently out of action, and gardens full of discarded shopping trolleys.
The remarkable thing about the Hansaviertel built for the 1957 international building exhibition by scores of what were then the worlds most celebrated architects from Le Corbusier to Niemeyer by way of Walter Gropius, Arne Jacobsen and Alvar Aalto, is that it looks better now than it did then. In 1957 it was an urban curiosity, with specially constructed cable cars ferrying visitors around, queuing to get a look at the patio houses, the apartment blocks, the public art and the children’s playgrounds. The landscape is extraordinarily lush now, and German construction and maintenance standards have ensured that the architecture has matured beautifully. And most important people still want to live here.
The story of Living in the City… is a subtler, but more profound one. It is on one level an attempt to explain to a lay audience that architecture is not only a question of surface and form, but is also made by plans, and the manipulation of space. But as the film moves on its stately way, it reveals that this was not just an exercise in city building. The Hansaviertel was an overtly political act in a city divided by the Cold War. Berlin in the 1950s and 1960s was a divided city where it was not just two political systems that were spoiling for a fight. It was also a place in which two competing views of architecture confronted each other. In the East, the Communists dynamited the Royal Palace that Berlin is now planning to reconstruct, and set about replanning the mutilated city on Soviet lines. This took the form of a Beaux Art plan, aligned on what was initially called Stalin Allee, which became Karl Marx Alle after the dictator was discredited by Khruschev. It was lined initially by the kind of socialist realist classicism of which Albert Speer would have approved, and later by a soviet reflection of modernism - Khruschev denounced his predecessor’s taste for marble as well as for purges.
The West replied not with unfettered individualism - the new Hansa was not going to be an American suburb - but by returning to the pre war principles of the Bauhaus and Le Corbusier’s Ville Radieuse. The Hansaviertel then could be seen as an index of European modernism. Below the surface Engel reveals another, rather less well-known story. Hansa was once a comfortable predominantly Jewish quarter of the Berlin whose remains were dynamited to make way for the new development. Its bricks lie beneath the surface, and the names and fates of some of its residents - deported by Albert Speer - are recorded in tiny brass plaques set into the pavements.
The makers of those British TV documentaries almost certainly did not know that they were following a technique pioneered by the maker of tonight’s other film Albert Speer, who used music on the soundtrack to convey a not-so-subtle message about the buildings he was portraying; syncopated rhythms for the Bauhaus, swelling patriotic strings for the Berchtesgaden. British television in the 1980s did much the same when they used Vivaldi as the background to images of Palladian harmony, and Stravinsky for the Roehampton version of Le Corbusier’s Unité d'Habitation. But a closer examination of Speer’s film reveals that the Third Reich never had one coherent approach to architecture. It went from the creepy homely brick vernacular, to masonry neo classicism, to Luftwaffe bases designed by Gropius’s assistants in a steel and glass manner that the Bauhaus would not have disavowed. The propaganda message is of the sheer quantity of building that the Third Reich undertook, but Lilli Riefenstal did a more effective job of making it look good.
Download programme notes here.