Everything You Never Knew You Wanted to Know About Berlin
What makes a park a park? Is it the nature: the right sort of trees, bushes and lush green meadows? Is it the skilfully planned landscape with a clever arrangement of theme areas connected by a network of convenient paths? Are those park facilities: benches, lights, ponds and fountains? Or would a park still be one if it were a small woods in the midst of a big city, with none of the above provided or taken care of?
According to Erwin Barth, one of Berlin´s most renowned park and landscape designers, a park needed a structure. It required all of the above but served in the right measures. As a great advocate of the idea of Volksparks, people´s parks accessible to all city residents but especially to those particularly disadvantaged in their urban environment, a park should be a bright, airy place with a calm frame of paths and greens. In short, it should be a place to relax, to tank light and to play.
Berlin, the City of Stone, with its dark, damp Mietskasernen (residential blocks) full of cramped little courtyards swathed in an almost permanent shade, offered little respite to its tenants. The better off classes had plenty of leisure opportunities at their disposal but the rest were locked in the brick-and-mortar walls like in ice.
Those who could afford Sunday trips to the suburbs with their forests and lakes – to Grunewald, to Müggelheim, to Tegel or even to Königs Wusterhausen – were as lucky as those who owned tiny allotments, mostly outside the S-Bahn Ring. The rest were doomed to spend their lives surrounded by what felt like and endless expanse of stone. Remember that many of the streets lined with trees today, like those in Wedding or Kreuzberg, originally had none: leaving the building meant stepping out into a long corridor of bricks and plaster.
Garden and landscape architect Erwin Barth, born exactly 136 years ago today in Lübeck, arrived in Berlin in 1912. He soon became the head of the Parks and Gardens Department in the then still independent city of Charlottenburg where he single-handedly designed at least seven of its squares and plazas: Brixplatz, Karolingerplatz and Mirendorffplatz (former Gustav-Adolf-Platz) among others. In the mid-1920s Barth re-designed the popular Savignyplatz to add a touch of modernity to it: the shape of the plaza in which we know it today.
Between 1926 and 1929 Barth held the position of the Stadtgartendirektor (Head of the City Parks and Gardens) for the Greater Berlin. He used this time to realise his plan of building new Volksparks (the oldest Berlin public park is in Friedrichshain, followed by Humboldthain in Wedding). It´s to Barth that we owe Volksparks Jungfernheide, Rehberge, Mariendorf as well as Köpenick.
He also created the “Luisenstädtischer Park” or rather a series of gardens and park facilities along the old Luisenstadt Canal in Kreuzberg. The shipping canal between Urbanhafen and the river Spree, designed by Joseph Peter Lenné and completed in 1852, proved to more of a burden than help – filled in in 1926, it was converted by Barth into a chain of public gardens and playgrounds.
And even though his initial plans to build public baths with a swimming pool in the Wassertor basin (Wassertor, or “Water Gate”, was a loading and unloading basin and part of the canal) and/or in today´s Engelbecken failed – in the latter case due to furious protests from the parish of Saint Michael directly north of it – Erwin Barth managed to create enchanted green spaces like rose, Indian or ever-green gardens, enjoyed by tens of thousands of people, both before WWII and after the fall of Berlin Wall (which was partly built on top of the filled-in Luisenstädtische Kanal).
Barth´s canal-park was especially important to both grown-ups and children from the neighbouring Mietskasernen of Mitte and Kreuzberg. Exactly what he hoped it would be.
Considering how much Berlin owed and still owes to Erwin Barth, how he changed it, improved it and made it a better place to live in for those who needed it the most, his end, like the ends of so many others, feels like a terrible injustice: suffering from cataract and glaucoma, almost blind, the 53-year-old Erwin Barth killed himself several months after the Nazis came into power. He died on July 10, 1933.
You will find his grave at a large cemetery in Wilmersdorf: at Waldfriedhof Stahnsdorf. The park-cemetery was Erwin Barth´s design.