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).

Karlshorst (until 1901 officially Carlshorst) on Kiesling’s map of Berlin.

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?

Deep crisis of the 1920s forced many Berliners to be creative in their will to survive: a (literally) domesticated pig kept in a Berlin temenent flat (image by Willy Römer, 1924).

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.

Peter Behrens’s plan of the new estate published in 1921 edition of “Wasmuths Monatshefte für Baukunst und Städtebau”. (via @ZLB Berlin)

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.

“Wasmuths Monatshefte für Baukunst und Städtebau” No.5 / 1921. (via @ZLB Berlin)

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).

“Wasmuths Monatshefte für Baukunst und Städtebau” No.5 / 1921. (via @ZLB Berlin)

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.

“Wasmuths Monatshefte für Baukunst und Städtebau” No.5 / 1921. (via @ZLB Berlin)

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.

Waldsiedlung Lichtenberg (Wuhlheide) in 1928 on an aerial map of Berlin (via @tagesspiegel).

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.

On the night of 19th to 20th of May 1880, despite its being a chilly night with frost creeping back into the park on the royal Peacock Island (Pfaueninsel), a fire broke out, destroying the island’s greatest treasure. The now legendary Berlin’s “Palmenhaus” and the priceless collection it contained went up in flames.

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Ella Fitzgerald described her as „the best singer without a voice“. Her mother pronounced her “talent-free”. And during her test performance at the State Film School in Babelsberg her typical Berlinerisch pronunciation and the habit of swallowing word-endings made the examiners cringe. Yet despite all those apparent shortcomings, Hildegard Knef, who never claimed to be a talent or a beauty, became a head-turner, a star and a legend. And not only in Berlin.

Hildegard Knef on stage in Eindhoven in the play “Nicht von Gestern”. Photo by Wim van Rossem / Anefo – Nationaal Archief.

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Eiergasse and Nikolaikirche seen from the corner of Molkenmarkt 7 around 1910 (photo by, most likely, Albrecht Meydenbauer for the Königliche Meßbildanstalt – Royal Photogrammetric Photography Office).

The longest of Berlin’s nearly 10,000 streets is Adlergestell: it stretches over 11.4 kilometres through the borough of Treptow-Köpenick. But where do you find the shortest? Well, that depends. On where you stand in your of appreciation of replicas.

If you are one of those people whose sense of aesthetic justice screams: “Nothing but the original!”, then look south towards Alt Mariendorf (a locality within the District of Tempelhof) – by these standards, the title of the Berlin’s shortest street should belong to their 19-metre long Pohligstraße. A little, pardon, stump of a road placed between Forddamm and Popperstraße.

If, however, you don’t mind a bit of solid make-believe and think that a replica is as good as the real thing (provided it traces the same lines), then you will find Berlin’s shortest street right in its middle: in Mitte. In Old Mitte, to be exact. Right next to the city’s oldest church, Nikolaikirche.

Eiergasse (Egg Lane) is but sixteen metres long but it was not always so short. In fact, it used to be almost twice as a long but the post-WW2 refurbishment of the historic plaza at its southern end – Molkenmarkt (Milk Market) – took a toll on Eiergasse’s dimensions.

The small medieval lane got its name from the tradition of placing egg-sellers’ stalls along its route. After in 1699 Elector Friedrich III (soon to become King Friedrich I) ordered that city markets be re-organised and set up anew following slightly more modern principles, like those of improved hygiene. But just as Molkenmarket kept its role as a “sales-point” for dairy products, so was Eiergasse allowed to keep its old, unbroken shell. Twice a week, always Wednesdays and Saturdays, farmers from around Berlin – but also local hen-holders – hurried to the small lane next to Nikolaikirche and offered their goods to hungry Berliners (eggs were one of the staples in their cuisine).

The lost Second World War brought an end to the historic district but the area was doomed whatever the war’s outcome would have been. The bombastic world-capital plans created by Albert Speer and his people for the Nazi Führer, the new über-city of Germania, had no need for the medieval. One of Berlin’s oldest neighbourhoods, inhabited for some 700 years and – admittedly – accordingly weathered, was to be demolished and replaced by an open-air museum presenting historic facades of other buildings torn down in other parts of the city to make space for Hitler’s new toy-town. For that purpose the church at its heart, Nikolaikirche, was promptly deconsecrated and since 1938 remains a profane building.

Eiergasse and Nikolaiviertel on the 1910 map of Berlin.

The war solved the problem of the open-air museum for good but what to do with whatever was left? After the ruins and the rubble had been removed, a new idea entered the stage: the now East Berlin authorities decided to include it in their planning for the future government centre around today’s Lustgarten and Marx-Engels-Forum. This “inclusion” would have meant turning the site into a Spree-basin, a river harbour for tourist boats operating along the river and the Spree Canal. 

Like with everything in life, some plans are best left unfulfilled. A failure to succeed can be a blessing. Once more such failure saved Berlin’s Nikolaiviertel from irreparable damage. The government’s plans had to be adjusted to the lean DDR reality and the fact that perhaps no everyone thought the idea the best possible option. 

And so, with a view towards celebrating the 750th birthday of Berlin (both East and West Berlin did it their own way), a new idea was born – to recreate what was lost. To rebuild the vanished quarters. To bring back what was gone forever. By that time it had become obvious that it would possible to combine the resurrection with East Berlin’s ambitious housing programme and that when realised, some 2,000 people could new homes in the new-old district.

Nikolaviertel Straße Am Nussbaum with a view towards Nikolairkiche in 1997 (photo by Steffen Ritter, via Bundesarchiv).

The new Nikolaiviertel built within the silhouette respected its grid but is only vaguely a replica of the old. The pre-fab concrete residential buildings – often mocked for their being “painfully DDR” by those who forget that pre-fab concrete architecture was something their architect, Manfred Prasser, learnt how to design them in Paris from an eminent Spanish architect, Ricardo Bofill – stood the test of the public and the test of the time. Go for a walk through the narrow lanes on a quiet evening in May and you are almost certain to oversee the concrete and focus on the pleasant instead.

Turn into the new-old Eiergasse, Berlin’s shortest street, from Molkenmarkt and you are almost certain to feel that even a 1980s East German architecture can become a time-machine.