When I lived in West Berlin during the last days of the wall, the historical image of the Berlin apartment had for me two facets, both familiar from literature, film, and art. The working-class apartment was part of the story of suffering in the German capital. “A Berlin apartment can kill,” Heinrich Zille reported in the 1920s. And then there was the apartment of the bourgeoisie, which in art seemed to become immediately a setting, not the subject. But in the divided city, housing was no longer so much a question of whether it was intended for the poor or for the rich as one of whether it was a new building or an old one. We were all young then and wanted romantic spaces—the prewar architecture of the city, a city that in those days still showed blank spaces, areas of the not yet reclaimed.
In the time of the Berlin Wall, the city’s medieval remains, its eighteenth-century charms, most of Schinkel’s glorious neoclassicism, and its echoes in Frankfurter Allee were in East Berlin. So, too, were the mistakes, public and domestic, of the Soviet style. West Berlin had its early and late concrete monuments to modernist values. And both sides tried to distract from the wall by constructing city centers some distance from the former center of town. East Berlin had Alexanderplatz; West Berlin had Europa Center—in both cases modernism’s unattractive utilitarian descendants. But the Berlin that the twentieth century would one cold November night come to an end in gave the feeling of being in general a late nineteenth century creation—solid, sturdy, ample. One dominant apartment house-design unified the city. Many addresses were front and rear buildings separated by a cobblestone courtyard. The hinterhof struck me as utterly German. It was what set Berlin apart from the way the British lived in London or the French in their capital. It captured that sense of Berlin as being secretly cozy, in spite of the city’s reputation to the contrary. Read More