Architecture and History in Germany

Model, Laboratory, Centre for Art: Garden City Hellerau

Auf dem Sand 27. Timber house of the Deutsche Werkstätten, built in 1929.
(Photo: from the picture ­book „Garden City of Hellerau/One Hundred Years of Germany's First GardenCity © Palisander Verlag)

The garden city Hellerau in Dresden was and is a blueprint for many urban development projects. The foundation for its architectural and social reform concept is a utopian novel that inspired the founder of the “Garden Cities”, Ebenezer Howard.

When in 1898 the London shorthand typist Ebenezer Howard read Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward, a fictional retrospective of 1887 from the point of view of the year 2000, he got a pellucid urban planning idea. Howard outlined a form of hosing that could combine the advantages of country life with those of city life: a circular settlement structure with radiating boulevards, public parks and a central square with shops. Very important in this concept of “Garden Cities”, as Howard called his utopia, was access to public transportation.

The cooperatively administered apartment buildings, each with its own small garden, were to be affordable for everyone, labourer and white-collar employee alike, with a fixed low rent guaranteed for the life of the tenant.

The best of town and country

In late-industrial Europe this vision of social reform found many friends. The soon global garden city movement led to the building of numerous settlements. The “Garden City Letchworth” (1903), about 60 km from London, is considered the first. The versatile garden city concept was applied to the planning of colonial and post-colonial cities such as New Delhi, Canberra and Quezon City, and ultimately became the most influential urban planning model of the twentieth century.

It also interested groups in Germany: the “German Garden City Society” in Berlin, founded in 1902, even stipulated the cooperative aspect as an essential feature of its statutes. The homogeneous, green neighbourhoods seemed to entrepreneurs the ideal solution for pacifying workers aroused by the unions. In the Ruhr region there arose workers settlements such as Teutoburgia in Herne, the Dahlhaus Heide in Bochum and the garden city Hüttenau in Hattingen, which still function today on a cooperative basis.

Utopia before the gates of Dresden: Hellerau

The most consistent realisation of Howard’s garden city concept in Germany began in 1909 in Dresden-Hellerau. The furniture manufacturer Karl Schmidt, an adherent of the life reform movement, consigned 140 acres for the new construction of his “Deutsche Werkstätten” (i.e., German Workshops) together with a garden city settlement conceived of as a unity of life and work, culture and education: short walking distances from flats in green surrounding to the factory, instruction for children in the settlement schools. To Hellerau Schmidt fetched important architects such as Richard Riemerschmid, Heinrich Tessenow and Hermann Muthesius. Amidst the excitement of dawning modernism they discussed the contemporary realisation of a garden city: flat roof vs. gable roof, historicism vs. functionalism, traditional craftsmanship vs. industrial production of finished parts. Thus in the Hellerau settlement one finds quite different kinds of houses: villa-like single-family residences, simple terrace houses and the impressive model wooden houses.

Brief heyday

While Riemerschmid’s new construction of the German Workshops emerged on the southern edge of the settlement, Tessenow’s neo-classical Festival House, surrounded by pavilions, set the decisive cultural accent at the northern end. Dwelling and work were rounded off by culture. And what a culture! Émile Jaques-Dalcroze’s educationally progressive Academy of Music and Rhythm had students such as the dancers Mary Wigman, Gret Palucca and Rudolf Laban, while the English educationalist A S Neill founded there in 1921 the International School, the forerunner of his famous Summerhill School. The activities and reform experiments around the Festival House drew many artists to Hellerau, including Emil Nolde, Stefan Zweig, Gottfried Benn, Franz Kafka, Else Lasker-Schüler and Konstantin Stanislawski.

When the financial backer and visionary Wolf Dohrn died unexpectedly in 1914 and the money ran out for the school experiments, the seed had already been sown: Hellerau was considered internationally as style-forming and ground-breaking in modern dance, stage design, theatre, educational reform and, with the German Workshops, the serial production of simple and elegant furniture.

Light, air, equality!

After reunification, initiatives, artists and curators committed themselves to developing Hellerau again into an internationally respected centre for art. In 2009 the renovation of the Festival House was successfully completed. It now houses the European Centre for the Arts, including the dance companies of William Forsythe and Constanze Macras, and the annual CYNETart, a festival for “computer-based” art.

In the garden city Hellerau, a member of the Network of European Garden Cities, today again, as at the time of its founding, artists are striking out into new creative terrain. And the political ambitions with which the garden city movement began in the twentieth century have reappeared to some extent in the resurgent interest in cooperatively financed construction projects and jointly operating building groups.
Stephanie Wurster
is a freelance literary editor, writer and translator, based in Berlin.

Translation: Jonathan Uhlaner
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Internet-Redaktion
December 2012

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