The following text was originally published in “NOTMSPARKER´S BERLIN COMPANION or EVERYTHING YOU NEVER KNEW YOU WANTED TO KNOW ABOUT BERLIN”
The Zehlendorfer Dächerkrieg or ‘Zehlendorf Roof War’ was a bitter conflict between two schools of architecture – represented by two architect collectives known as Der Ring and Der Block – which took place in Berlin before the Second World War. What began as an artistic squabble, eventually proved to be about much more than just the shape of the roofs.
In the 1920s, a large piece of land along Argentinische Allee – between Krumme Lanke and Fischtal Park – was divided and sold to two different construction companies with entirely different visions for their respective projects. One of those projects, the Waldsiedlung Zehlendorf – better known as Onkel Toms Hütte, Onkel Toms Siedlung or the Papagaiensiedlung (Parrot Estate), because of the vibrant hues of the façades – was designed by a group of Modernist architects from the progressive collective Der Ring: Hugo Härting, Otto Rudolph Salvisberg and, last but not least, Bruno Taut. The latter was an erstwhile advocate of the garden city, who had come to embrace the ideals of Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity) popular among German modernists.
Together with his colleagues, Taut – who was a member of Der Ring, a group of architects promoting modern architecture created to meet both individual and collective needs – believed that form should follow function and that people deserved light and fresh air instead of damp and gloomy tenements – designed a series of houses that were sober and minimally adorned, with large windows and flat roofs. It was the roofs in particular which would become a source of ire among the well-heeled residents of the pre-war Zehlendorf: not only did the flat-roofed houses look nothing like their own highly decorative villas, but, adding insult to injury, they were to be inhabited by people of the middle- and working-class.
But ‘good’ news was on its way: the Siedlung (housing estate) planned on the other side of Argentinische Allee was clearly intended as a counterbalance to Taut’s architecture. Paul Schmitthenner – later a prominent Nazi party member who worked in collaboration with Heinrich Tassenow – designed a series of traditional, gable-roofed houses which were built between 1938 and 1940; flat roofs, according to Schmitthenner, ‘do not belong to this culture – they belong in Arabia or in Palestine.’ Schmitthenner’s approach fit well with the budding Nazi Kulturkampf: saddle roof, gables and lattice windows became synonymous with ‘true German culture’, while Taut’s more minimal, modernist designs, designed to improve the living conditions of their inhabitants, were viewed as distinctly ‘un-German’.
Indeed, the very purpose of Schmitthenner’s Siedlung appealed to a particular (and sinister) understanding of ‘true German culture’. Originally known as the SS-Kamaradschaftssiedlung Zehlendorf, the residential estate was designed to accommodate high-ranking SS (Schutzstafel) officers and their families, providing them with space and conditions necessary for, as one SS officer’s wife put it, ‘men, who belong to the racial elite of the German nation, [to] pass their invaluable genetic material onto a possibly large number of racially-sound offspring’. Although it may sound like a Nazi breeding facility, the Siedlung was in fact a well-designed housing project with a group of detached houses for higher ranking officers, followed by semi-detached and terraced houses for those of a middle rank, and three-storey blocks of flats for the lower-rank officers without children.
With a ‘village green’ in the middle of the compound, as well as generously planted trees, quiet paths and small gardens, it was not ultimately too far removed from the early twentieth-century ideal of a garden-city by which Bruno Taut, the architect of the modern Waldsiedlung Zehlendorf on the other side of the road, had also been inspired. Despite the attractive living conditions, the SS-Kameradschaftssiedlung failed to gain even half the popularity of Taut’s Waldsiedlung: the high-ranking SS officers were not interested in living so close to colleagues of lower rank, and remained in their nearby villas instead. Those who did move in complained about the houses being too small and the rents too high; their frustration was further increased by the fact that neither the promised kindergarten nor the private club, the SS-Mannschaftshaus, were ever built. Although the project had been supported by the Heinrich Himmler’s Hauptamt Rasse und Siedlung, the SS office responsible for safeguarding racial purity, Himmler himself would distance himself from the estate starting from the official opening ceremony which he failed to attend.
Both Taut’s and Schmithenner’s Siedlungen survived the Second World War mostly intact. Schmithenner’s – which became known as as Hessisches Viertel after 1947 – was forced to change almost all of its street names: Victory Street, Service Road, Fidelity Lane and Führer
Plaza suddenly sounded out of place. However, a few streets retained their pre-war names: Im Kinderland and Himmelsteig (Path to Heaven), may sound reasonably innocuous now, but for anyone who knows the context, they contain obvious reminders of a past that most would prefer to forget.