Most people know the name Karlshorst either as the place where the Third Reich officially went kaputt (it was here that on the night of 8-9th of May 1945 the Nazis signed their unconditional surrender), as the site of some of the most famous horse-races (the Karlshorst Horse-Racing Course used to be among the leading racing tracks in Europe) or as the bizarre location where within the already divided city, the locals were not allowed to enter certain streets (Russenkolonie was the restricted section of Karlshorst with access for Soviet troops and their families only).
But it is also home to a listed heritage site hidden off the beaten track.
Shortly before the outbreak of the First World War Berlin was bursting at its seams: the city (before the reform incorporating all of its surrounding cities, villages and estates) had nearly two million residents. By 1920, when Greater Berlin appeared on the map, that number grew to 3.8 million.
Just like today, the city faced a dramatic situation: the population kept growing but where should all these people live? The well-heeled citizens had, understandably, less reason to worry – Berlin had enough eight- or ten-room flats in “beste Lage” (best location) to cater to their ever-growing needs. But about those who could not afford to live on Lützowplatz, Kudamm or, even though playing in a much lower league, could not find affordable accommodation in over-populated Wedding or the equally full Wrangelkiez?
Just as today, one of the answers to the rapidly-growing problem was “Build!”. New Siedlungen – residential estates – designed with all the necessary care but without any of the frills began to appear on the fringes of the city (these fringes being the only empty areas suitable for affordable construction).
One of these by now world-famous estates (many of them are UNESCO World Heritage sites) was Waldsiedlung Lichtenberg in Berlin-Karlshorst. Built only twelve minutes’ of a walk away from the station “Karlshorst” on the southern edge of the Wuhlheide (then still a spreading woods), it was never completed – or at least not the way its architect wished it to be.
The man who created the Waldsiedlung on paper, following the principles of Neues Bauen (in this case: functional, simple, comfortable, well lit and well ventilated), was none other than Peter Behrens – the court architect to AEG. Soem of his best known Berlin works are the Turbinenhalle in Berlin-Moabit, Behrensbau tower built as part of the AEG’s car factory in Oberschöneweide (and used as an interior for filming Babylon Berlin series) or Alexanderhaus and Berolinahaus on Alexanderplatz. In Karlshorst, like in neighbouring Oberschönweide where he designed another residential estate for AEG’ workers, his idea was to create 500 affordable new flats within a simple garden-city estate.
Keeping roads within the estate down to the necessary minimum (after all, humans would always choose the shortest route, no matter how baroque the planning), Behrens made sure that the approximately 15 hectares of land along Köpenicker Chaussee were used wisely.
The fact that Germany was at war also played a huge role: there was no money for anything extra – for the ornamental or twee.
Behrens made sure that each house – whether Type V (for one large family) or a smaller Type II or the type Gruppenhaus with four flats for different size families – had everything that made daily life easier. All amenities were provided, including a private bathroom (not a granted by any means – as many of those who lived in Berlin-Kreuzberg’s Altbau flats in the 1980s or even 1990s could tell you).
Each household in Waldsiedlung Lichtenberg would have its own garden between 100 and 300 m², including a shed to be used as a chicken coop, a cowshed or a pigsty (livestock was welcome). The estate, so the plans, was to get its own school and a pharmacy as well as a small sports ground. Even its own railway stop, albeit not one for passenger traffic: the line known as Bullenbahn (officially name: Industriebahn Oberschöneweide), used by the famous factories that like AEG’s production sites used to line the Spree in this part of Berlin, would provide transport for potatoes and coal needed by residents.
The list of the latter, by the way, was to begin with the names of the “war heroes” returning from the (one hoped) victorious battles on the WWI fronts.
The reality, as so often, turned out to be less rosy. Germany lost the war, the national economy found itself in a free dive, the country on the verge of a civil war – ambitious plans of creating modern social housing lost some their significance on the municipal priority list and the Waldsiedlung Lichtenberg, whose construction did not begin until 1919 anyway, ended up half-baked. Out of the planned 500 flats only 117 were ever completed and all the wonderful ideas for own school or pharmacy or sports ground had to be abandoned. It wasn’t until 1937 that the remaining plots were built over – the houses erected on them were like the new Germany after 1933: they were not very similar to the Behrens’ houses and you immediately noticed the disturbing difference.
The next war was not kind to the estate either. Some of these lovingly designed houses and their well-kept gardens vanished among the bombings and fires. But even though only some of them were restored later, a walk or a leisurely bike-ride through the Waldsiedlung today will take you to a place both incredibly charming and astoundingly well-planned. Peter Behrens might not have seen his project realised the way he hoped it would but he definitely did a great job designing it – in 2021, a century later, it still does what it promised on the tin: it is functional, simple, comfortable, well lit and well ventilated. And a dream if you can have it.
To visit Waldsiedlung Lichtenberg (also called Waldsiedlung Wuhlheide), take the S3 to S-Bhf Karlshorst and follow your map from there. If on foot, choose the route along Wandlitzstraße-Liepnitzstraße to enjoy the sometimes pretty stunning architecture of the old “Dahlem of the East” (as Karlshorst was presented to potential investors in the late 19th and early 20th centuries). To get to the estate by bike and faster, ride along Treskowalle and turn right into Hegermeisterweg.