Developers prefer blands

The recent residential developments in Berlin fascinate me. Some of them are terribly ugly, many are unaffordable to low-income citizens, and most are hotly debated by the city’s conservative, left-leaning architecture & planning scene.

I walked past this development in Pankow/Lichtenberg today and spent some time trying to understand it. The facade of the building (facing a small public plaza) is quite horizontally blank and unadorned. It probably looked ok in the model, but it feels dismal in real life. There’s hope the trees will grow to cover it, but is that how you talk about architecture? No way! We’ve got to judge it for itself – good, bad, or ugly.

Turning the corner, I realized that it’s part of a development – a pseudo-gated development, which is rare in Berlin’s older residential areas. It’s not a tall gate, and it doesn’t lock, but it does emphasize the arrival of a more settled middle-class clientele in what was quite a run-down area just a few years ago. Note the underground parking. I suspect it’s the reason parts of the development are raised about 1m from street level, which has the unfortunate effect of putting the ground floor residents on a sort of stage.

Most of the facades actually do work better, either because they’re not as long, or because they’re more fragmented. One facade to the courtyard has the same horizontality problem – the access balconies seem particularly glum even for access balconies, which are always tricky to get right – but the staircase is raised higher than the rest, which gives it more interesting structure visually. Far from perfect, but better.

The best part of the whole development is the low concrete wall at the entrance – beautifully finished, sleek little lamps (even if the do look like air vents) and the bench is nice, too. Too bad you face the trash cans when you sit there! Oh well… “imperfection isbeauty”, eh?

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CritX is a series of architectural/urbanist reflections on the built environment. When the mood strikes and something captures my eye, I’ll perform a critical exercise on it – in different levels of depth and scope. It’s a personal, semi-professional exercise not designed for balance or enlightenment. But then what is?


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