Berlin’s ‘rental barracks’

Today’s coveted altbau began life as the derisively titled ‘Mietskaserne,’ housing for the massive influx of workers who moved to the city during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

For those of us who have fallen in love with Berlin’s altbau (literally, “old build”) apartments, it may seem hard to believe that these were once considered tenement housing.

In the industrial boom that accompanied the first unification of Germany in 1871, hundreds of thousands of migrant workers streamed into the capital in immediate need of housing. The result? Massive construction of mid-rise, five- and six-story apartment buildings lining the radial avenues and ring roads outlined in city planner James Hobrecht’s 1861 master plan.

Then, as now, the street-facing facades concealed larger interior courtyards. Detailing the history of these developments for CityLab, journalist Feargus O’Sullivan writes:

Built to a height of five or six stories, the tenements did have spacious, light-filled apartments overlooking the street, sheltered behind often elaborate facades encrusted with factory-made plaster decorations. To pass through the main archway into the courtyard behind, however, was to enter a starker, more utilitarian space, one even now more likely to house communal trash cans than trees or flowers.

The further back and higher you went back in these complexes (many had two or three successive courtyards), the worse conditions got for early residents, with toilets shared among a whole floor. In some areas of the city, the tenements also contained artisan workshops towards the back. Developing a reputation for dinginess, the Hinterhof (back court) became an icon of Berlin poverty, celebrated in songs and paintings both as the heart and the bane of the city’s working-class life, busy with brawls and and organ grinders, damp and sooty.

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