The epidemics behind urban planning: The welfare state

Bruno Taut’s “Waldsiedlung Zehlendorf, Berlin”. Photo by Gyxmz – own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=31676705

by Prof Ares Kalandides

This is the second and last part of the blog post on the epidemics behind urban planning, Part 1 examined the origins of urban planning in the 19th century, and how the fear of epidemics and the social unrest which would ensue from them, shaped cities in Western Europe and North America. You can read Part 1 following this link.


By the early twentieth century, housing conditions for people of the working classes had once again become appalling in most cities of the industrialized north. In 1902 the Dutch government decided to pass a housing act containing several provisions to address this crisis. Among others, city authorities were to develop building codes setting quality standards for construction, while cities with over 10,000 inhabitants were to develop an expansion plan indicating different housing zones. In terms of housing provision, the act gave municipalities the right to provide financial support to non-for-profit housing associations that worked in the field of public housing. Following the act, Amsterdam’s social-democratic government commissioned the architect Hendrik Berlage with the design for an expansion plan of Amsterdam’s South (Amsterdam Zuid) and provided subsidies to housing associations even into World War I, when private construction had come to a halt.  The plan for Amsterdam Zuid is for a city where green permeates everything, the vast courtyards, the streets and squares. Housing and retail are largely separated and – underpinning the form – there is a political conviction that even lower classes deserve adequate, affordable housing and the role of the state is to provide it.

(Amsterdam Zuid. Photo by Maaike98, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1857267)

However, in most other European cities implicated in World War I all building activity was brought to a halt, aggravating the massive house shortage already a standard feature in many of them. By the end of the war about one million dwellings were missing in Germany turning the housing question into a cardinal issue of social policy and a claim for political mobilisation. The Weimar period (1918-1933) was a turning point in terms of housing interventions in housing. The state took on an active role in at least two ways: as a regulator, with tightened tenant protection, massive rent limitation and public housing management on the one hand, and as a financer through the “house interest tax” after the currency reform of 1923 on the other. These funds flowed to a large extent to unions, associations and local authorities for extensive new construction.

The housing situation in Berlin after World War I was particularly catastrophic. Against the background of insanely high land prices and a largely fixed street grid, it was necessary to fundamentally improve the living conditions of the population. Already before the war, 90% of Berliners lived in 4-5-story apartment buildings (“Mietskasernen”), where nine out of ten had no bathroom, and almost half of the toilets were in the stairwell or in the courtyard. Almost half of all apartments, were in rear buildings without sufficient light and fresh air; 42% were one-room apartments in which lived an average of three people.

(Berliner Mietskasernen. Exterior and interior views of tenement building development in the early years of the 20th century)

Urban planning in Berlin of the 1920s was shaped by the social democrat Martin Wagner, who was city councillor responsible for planning from 1926 to 1933. The socialist and committed social politician Wagner was a strong supporter of the “Neues Bauen” (“new architecture”) movement which combined standards of industrial construction with the principles of polycentric urban landscape of the ideal garden city. For Martin Wagner, a system of green spaces which would loosen up the big city, ventilate the densely built-up residential areas and offer the residents a leisure area was decisive in urban planning. Martin Wagner differentiated between sanitary and decorative green, whereby only sanitary green would enable healthy and humane living. His conclusion was that open spaces must be created where they are needed, that is, in close proximity to the residential areas. Following the ideals of the garden-city, the decisive factor was the connection between town and country to a supra-municipal spatial planning. Through decentralization, the formation of sub-city centres and the expansion of suburbs, he wanted to control population growth and prevent further clustering in the centre.

Bruno Taut, with whom Martin Wagner worked closely until 1933, was the most prominent architect of the “Neues Bauen”, the architectural movement that broke radically with the existing traditional building approach. Dwellings would no longer be built around dark, narrow courtyards, but should get light, air and sun in green surroundings. The first large settlement to be realized in Berlin by Wagner and Taut was the “Hufeisensiedlung” (“Horseshoe settlement”) in the south of the city. Here, the architects’ goal was to design functional and healthy apartments at an affordable price, integrated inside a healthy, green landscape. Other settlements (e.g. Carl-Legien-Siedlung, Waldsiedlung Zehlendorf) were soon to follow.

(Hufeisensiedlung, Berlin-Britz. Photo by Sebastian Trommer – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=32740210)

Hannes Meyer was the director of the Bauhaus school between 1928 -1930 and followed similar aspirations. Meyer was very critical of the way the Bauhaus had developed, as its products were already too expensive and thus reserved for an exclusive group of buyers. His building theory, which emphasised the social aspects of design, was moving away from the artistic intuition that had become the core of the Bauhaus. Meyer called on the students to study the “life processes” of the future users. For him, building, as the design of the human environment, should be “based on society” and its goal should be society’s “harmonious organisation”. In his urban development plans, Hannes Meyer, who considered himself a Marxist, was committed to the cooperative movement, setting the inhabitants’ well-being at the centre of his considerations.

The rise of Nazis to power in January 1933 brought both the Bauhaus and the “Neues Bauen” movement to an abrupt end. Although the state remained a key provider of housing, this provision now excluded vast groups of the population deemed “un-German”.

In July of the same year, in 1933, the International Congresses of Modern Architecture (CIAM) held its fourth congress under the title of the “Functional City” on an ocean liner that sailed the Saronic Gulf islands off the coast of Athens, Greece. CIAM was founded in 1928 in Switzerland, by a group of 28 European architects and was organized by Le Corbusier, Hélène de Mandrot and Sigfried Giedion. Its goal was the formulation of an architectural manifesto suitable for the new era. Among its members feature Hendrik Berlage (the architect of Amsterdam Zuid), Hugo Häring (one of the architects of the Siemenstadt settlement in Berlin), Hannes Meyer and later Walter Gropius (Bauhaus directors).  On arrival in Athens in August 1933 an exhibition on the Functional City was held at the National Technical University of Athens. The publication of the “Athens Charter” ten years later, in 1943, although an indirect outcome of the CIAM conference, is today considered an expression of Le Corbusier’s individual concerns, rather than an agreed outcome of group work. The document makes several references to healthy living both in its observations (“Psychological and biological constants are influenced by the environment”; “In the congested urban areas housing conditions are unhealthy due to insufficient space within the dwelling, absence of useable green spaces and neglected maintenance of the buildings”; “Dwellings are scattered throughout the city without consideration of sanitary requirements”) and recommendations (“Residential areas should occupy the best places in the city from the point of view of typography, climate, sunlight and availability of green space”; “The selection of residential zones should be determined on grounds of health”; “A minimum number of hours of sunlight should be required for each dwelling unit”; “Unsanitary slums should be demolished and replaced by open space. This would ameliorate the surrounding areas.”; “The demolition of slums surrounding historic monuments provides an opportunity to create new open spaces.”).

(Le Corbusier’s Unité d’habitation, Berlin 1957. Photo by A.Savin Wikimedia Commons · WikiPhotoSpace) – Own work, FAL, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=63473337)

The Athens Charter became the blueprint for urban planning in many places around the world in the post-War era, leading to the construction of new towns and estates, with very diverse results: from desirable residential areas, such as Hansaviertel in Berlin, to areas of social segregation, as in many city peripheries.  The elimination of large-scale epidemics in Europe after World War II has led to their obliteration from collective memory, so that today the rationale behind modernist planning is often forgotten and the planning itself mocked.  However, the health aspect of urban design as well as the social provision of housing as a right, are both at the core of modernist planning and are political dimensions that need to be considered together. It is no coincidence that healthy living and the role of the welfare state in providing adequate housing have been at the forefront of housing struggles ever since.

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