Living (the) Heritage – Hufeisensiedlung


Research project concerning Hufeisensiedlung - one of the 6 modernist housing estates in Berlin incribed in 2005 in the UNESCO World Heritage List.
Authors: Katarzyna Berent and Barbara Tusk

“Architecture is inhabited sculpture.”
― Constantin Brancusi

The life and evolution of a heritage site is a strongly discussed topic.
On one hand, the point of heritage protection is to preserve it in unchanged state for future generations, so that it can serve as a source of information about the past, on the other – a site strictly protected from the external influences and kept from evolving over time, ceases to be a living entity.

This is where the question of autheticity becomes important – what does it mean for a site to be authentic? In order to answer this question it is important to understand the purpose and character of the site.

The Großsiedlung Britz was erected as one of the first social housing projects. It was designed to accommodate the growing need for flats after World War 1. It was the ultimate means of putting the new socialist demands into practice on a large scale. As part of a plan to introduce new order in the German metropolis, the modernist’s ideals were to change all aspects of the inhabitants’ everyday life.

The aim was to create affordable, small to middle-sized flats with access to daylight, equipped with modern kitchen and bathroom and surrounded with greenery -in contradiction to dark, cluttered 19th century housing blocks.

The estate was designed to the tiniest detail – to assure, that all needs of the inhabitants will be catered for.

An analysis of data, concerning the history of the site, its inhabitants experiences as well as the political context, provides a reflection on the current functionality and preservation of the site.

The questions to be answered are, e.g.: what was the political context and the main aims of the site’s construction? Have these assumptions been realized in practice? Has the role of the site changed throughout years? Does the site still cater for the same needs? Is it used in a comparable way?

The data acquired from dedicated and scientific literature, magazine articles and state archives is organized along interspersed sets of timelines, showing the complex process of the site’s development.

Each of the timelines can be treated as a separate narrative; the graphical representation of these stories facilitates interpreting the data and discovering possible interconnections between the narratives.

Four main groups of events are possible to distinct among the multiple narratives: the construction phase of the site, the ideological and political background, the perception of the site as a heritage, and the recent privatisation and commercialization of the site.

It can be also observed, that the two first phenomenons gradually evolve into the two latter ones. The process of construction is slowly replaced by conservation and retreiving the original physical state. The ideological motivations dissolve over time, as financial profitability of the site becomes more important and heritage becomes commercialised.

However, an inhabited site is difficult to be kept unchanged. Inhabitants can be treated as an obstacle in keeping the site authentic as the settlement is subjected to constant changes and modifications, or, quite contrary – the constant use of the site can be seen as a means of keeping it authenitc and enabling it to play the initial role.

As Prof. Ing. arch. Vladimír Slapeta, DrSc.describes it in his Expert ́s Review in the Application for the UNESCO-World Heritage List: “The set of Berlin housing estates is also one of the most important achievements of the International Style (“Neues Bauen”) in the 1920s, and is closely connected to a social vision of a more just society, offering a higher standard of living for all social classes. Therefore, the selected set of Berlin housing developments, which have been an important object of monument care efforts for the last 25 years, deserves to be inscribed in the UNESCO World Heritage List not only as an excellent example of 20th century town planning and architecture but also as an exceptional social act.”

What makes Britz Siedlung exeptional is its social dimension. It is therefore difficult to imagine the site staying authentic, if it does not serve the inhabitants in the way it was designed – by providing comfortable but affordable housing for Berliners.

With time the ‘users’ of the design have adapted it to their needs and preferences, altering its aesthetical and functional aspects. However, this process of adaptation, or enlivening, came to a halt the moment the site started to be perceived as important heritage – from then on, a new process started: the one of bringing the site back to the creator’s vision, in order to protect/retrieve its authenticity, seen mainly in the physical form of the site.

In the discussion about authenticity of the site it is important not to forget, that the site in question is a part of the living city of Berlin. As Jane Jacobs put it: “There is no logic that can be superimposed on the city; people make it, and it is to them, not buildings, that we must fit our plans.”

As life is an essential characteristic of the city , it is important to find a balance between treating the site as a monument and allowing it to cater for the needs it was designed for.


J. Jacobs, The Life and Death of Great American Cities, New York, Random House, 1961.

G. J. Ashworth, ‘Conservation as preservation or as heritage: two paradigms and two answers’ in: Built Environment 23 (2), 1997.

Senatsvervaltung fur Stadtentwicklung und Umwelt, ‚Monitoring und Managementpläne Instrumente zum Schutz der Welterbestätten‘,
(accessed: 2015-01-15).

Housing Estates in the Berlin Modern Style. Nomination for Inscription on the UNESCO World Heritage List,
(accessed: 2015-01-15).