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Dark, Cold, Archetypal - a Peculiarly Berlin Phenomenon

Press release | 10 June 2020 | sn

Dark, passageway, cold, cozy, architectural freak, unique, hole, multifunctional, typically Berlin - Jan Heeres received a full gamut of responses when he asked Berliners what they associated with the Berliner Zimmer, as the archetypal Berlin room is known. Herres conducted his survey on this uniquely Berlin phenomenon as part of his master’s thesis while studying architecture at TU Berlin. His thesis, entitled “Das Berliner Zimmer. Entwicklungsgeschichte, Szenografie und Nutzungsaneignung eines polyvalenten Raumgelenks”, was awarded the 2019 Wissenschaftspreis by the Verein für die Geschichte Berlins. The thesis examines the typological developing process and the complexity of space appropriation of a polyvalent room within Berlin’s tenement buildings of the 19th century.

Most examples of the Berliner Zimmer are to be found in the capital city

Right at the outset of his thesis, Herres addresses the stubborn and widely held myth attributing the Berliner Zimmer to the architect Karl Friedrich Schinkel (1781–1841). This was not the case. “The Berliner Zimmer arose from the middle of the 18th century as a consequence of a different type of construction. Buildings were no longer aligned with their gable ends to the street but were rather turned through 90 degrees so that their eaves sides faced the street. As the city grew and became more dense during this period, the outbuildings located in the backyards migrated to the front buildings. Eventually a corner room emerged ‘grinding together’ the side wing and the front building,” explains Herres. The Berliner Zimmer as it came to be known was born. And it went on to become part of the history of Berlin. Tenement buildings featuring these rooms were also built in other cities throughout Prussia but in nothing like the numbers with which they sprang up in Berlin.

Sample books of layout plans provided templates for tenement buildings in Berlin

There is a good reason why the corner room became the archetypal room for Berlin. This became clear to Herres through his studies of sample books for layout plans. “Without these,” says Herres, “the widespread presence of the Berlin Zimmer in the city would be unthinkable.” They were published in the middle of the 19th century and the layouts they contained served immediately as, quite literally, templates for Berlin tenement buildings. These were generally not built by architects but by master builders equipped with layout sample books. “This explains why the Berliner Zimmer became so widespread in Berlin and no other city,” explains Herres. Today; Herres works as project leader and deputy head of building construction in the Berlin Senate Department for Urban Development and Housing.

A walk-through room with one window to the backyard and three doors

The Berliner Zimmer is always located where front building and side wing or transept and side wing meet. It is a walk-through room with one window to the backyard and usually has three doors. As such, it once served as the interface between the worlds of the bourgeois families living in the front buildings and their servants residing in the side wings. “This meant that from the very outset, the Berliner Zimmer had an undefined character and could be used for a variety of purposes, unlike rooms specifically intended as salon, dining room, parlor, library or study,” says Herres.

The Berliner Zimmer is increasingly used as a kitchen and communal room

This flexibility concerning its use has continued until today. In his master’s thesis of 2015, Herres describes 31 Berliner Zimmer rooms in a number of districts throughout the city, including Charlottenburg, Schöneberg, Friedenau, Moabit, Friedrichshain, Kreuzberg, Wilmersdorf and Spandau. The range of uses for these rooms is striking. Depending on the residents’ professions and social backgrounds, these include living room, dining room, study, library, bedroom, children’s room, common room and increasingly kitchen and communal area. The last of these options would have been inconceivable in the 19th century when the kitchen and its odors were banished to the domestic quarters in the side wing.

The history on the Berliner Zimmer came to an abrupt end in 1925. The building regulations for Berlin published in that year prohibited the construction of rear buildings. The Berliner Zimmer had no future any more, at least for the moment.

The Berliner Zimmer as a latter-day Greek agora?

It was only in the 1960s that the much-despised “dark hole” began to make its way back into debates on architectural theory. The reason for this was the increasing interest in social aspects among architects at that time. The Berliner Zimmer with its inherent social dimension came in for special attention. With its linking position in the middle of a flat, it forms the focus of family life and is the place where housemates can get together. For Herres, the ancient Greek word for marketplace “agora” best describes the social function of the room. Agora – a place where everyone meets, debates and congregates.

The Berliner Zimmer still has great potential today

And today? Herres observes that the Berliner Zimmer is making a comeback in today’s high-priced housing sector. The layout of flats in Berlin from the 19th century is being increasingly copied, including the construction of corner rooms. “Perhaps,” Herres ponders, “because this clientele is looking for something authentically Berlin.”

However, he also sees another potential for the Berliner Zimmer in the construction of new buildings. Because it is a room with no prescribed use and allows the tenants to decide for themselves what they want to do with it, it could serve as an inspiration for construction projects today. “I would really like architects not to determine through the positioning of sockets where the television has to go and which room is the bedroom, but rather to plan spaces with no prescribed use to allow the residents to make their flats their own and complete the building process using their own ideas,” concludes Herres.

Typical "Berliner Zimmer" © Jan Herres