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Our house

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onkelbraesigHelmut and I have decided to move to the Hufeisensiedlung / Horseshoe Estate in Berlin, a social housing estate designed in 1925-33 by architect Bruno Taut, municipal planning head Martin Wagner, garden architect Leberecht Migge and Neukölln gardens director Ottokar Wagler. It is one of the earliest such estates in Germany, a physical metaphor of the utopian ideals that its planners had for communal living in Weimar Germany. The estate was awarded UNESCO World Heritage status in 2008 as one of six Berlin Modernism Housing Estates, and since 2010 has been listed as a garden monument.

We’ll be renovating for a while before we move in, and have to budget and plan and get permissions and select a builder and coordinate schedules. Exciting.

On the outside our house matches the other terraced houses, with standardized doors and windows. It’s yellow ochre, with a red and black door. You can actually look through the whole house, front to back, and see dark red houses to both sides. Bruno Taut played with colors like that, and offset these with bright blue and white houses in our street, each house color coming with different multi-colored doors. Originally these houses were also very colorful on the inside. Bruno Taut believed: We must recognize color as having absolutely the same rights as form. Don’t despise this wonderful gift of God – pure, unbroken color.

Out back there are long, narrow gardens, each with a shed and fruit trees and a small vegetable patch – part of the pragmatic, socially meaningful functionalist design propagated for the working classes – with a variety of hedges between the gardens.

Being historically minded people, Helmut and I would love to restore historical elements inside, as well. There is great charm in functionalism, after all. But these houses were designed for the working classes of the 20s, which meant using relatively cheap materials like simple wood floors and concrete, which were then painted in these bright colors. Their plan didn’t quite work out, since in the end the estate was actually too expensive for the workers it was designed for, so better-situated intellectuals moved here. I wanted to get a sense what living in original colors and materials would feel like. So last week I went and had a look at a house that has been lovingly restored in every detail by Karin Lesser, who kindly gave me a tour. She and her husband run Tautes Heim (a word play on ‘trautes Heim’ , which is German for ‘home sweet home’) as a vacation home, and they have won an award for their attention to restoring every detail.

The colors are really striking. The simple wood floors are painted in oxblood enamel varnish. The flooring in the kitchen and bath floor was originally made out of a ground wood and concrete compound later often used by the Bauhaus architects, also in oxblood. Frau Lesser says it’s prone to water damage, so they’ve found a lookalike solution for the bath. The walls in the kitchen and hallways are varnish from the floor up to shoulder height where they need to be wiped, but are otherwise done in mineral paint. All of the colors are original – and striking! For example, there’s a lovely sky blue on the kitchen ceiling. I was particularly curious about the staircase, since I was wondering whether we should redo ours to match the old design.  It has grey stars, a black railing and white upright balusters.

Overall, my feeling is that we simply don’t do paint like that anymore. We need to touch materials and feel the life inside them. Varnish adds a degree of estrangement. The mineral wash on the walls doesn’t, especially if there is some translucence. The wall colors on the other hand are still fantastic.

Here is a good video that gives you a sense of the place.

Helmut and I would like to  use original doorhandles and window fasteners, and rebuild doors using the old proportions. Otherwise I think we’ll leave reconstruction to others. I hope we can use some of the mineral colors on the walls. Also, we’re playing with the idea of using bright colors to highlight functional things like pipes, which Taut did in some of his houses. Now here’s hoping we won’t have too much trouble with permissions… and that we find a builder who will make this work within our budget.


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