Functional flats from the 50s

When we started visiting flats we noticed that the first clivage is between Altbau und Aufbau.

The majority of flats that are featured in ads online and on the newspapers are those that we nicknamed “Aufbau”,  since they date from the 1950s or the 1960s and were built following standardized plans. The use of space is intensive and clever, ceilings are not particularly high (still, they are higher than in Paris), and even small surfaces do have a nice layout.

Once you have visited a dozen of them you already know what to expect when you visit another one. The smallest flats feature a functional bathroom, a small but effective kitchen, and a Wohnzimmer with a balcony (sometimes as small as 1 sqm, a smorker’s balcony, but definitely there) that doubles as a bed room.

In some cases there are indeed surprises, like this flat’s interesting small hot house for the plants. Our Maklerin (and good friend) F. explained to us something quite logical, ie that in post-war Berlin people spent their holidays on the balcony: having dinner outside, doing some gardening. The small hot house was conceived for storing plants in the winter. In-house it would be too hot and they would take up too much space, whereas the small hot house provided a transitional temperature ideal for storing the pots of plants.

Our architect B. said that he is always amazed by the generally very good quality of design of these 50-years old flats. Very rational and functional, but never poor. You clearly have the impression that through standardization the administration needed to re-build vast amounts of the city and to house thousands of people, but good design was provided together with housing. In every Kiez you can spot the 50s flats, even in the middle of Altbau compact blocks you can still spot where the odd bomb cancelled one building, the 50s geometric lines mend up the shattered urban texture.

During our first flat expedition in august 2007, we “missed” two flats like these. The first was really small but in a fantastic location, in Motzstrasse close to the beautiful Viktoria-Louise Platz. Our bid for the flat was preceded by someone else’s…this was our first disappointment. Because disappointments happen, all the time, when you are looking for a flat. You fall in love with a location, a layout, a sort of je-ne-sais-quoi and then…it’s gone.

The second was close to Rathaus Schoeneberg, facing a nice small piazza, a standardized 1950s building. Recently renovated, and with a nice black marble staircase. Because these buildings are indeed simple, but they were conceived very well at the time. Space for storing your bicicles in the courtyard, Keller downstairs, very frequently they have lifts (quite rare in Berlin), they have nice stairs, made of stone and with windows. Simple, but very dignified and easy to maintain, never grotty. These are dignified buildings.

This time we were the first on the list! We had very clear ideas about the flat we had just visited, we did the offer after less than one hour by fax and confirmed it by visiting the Makler in her office before lunch. We did notice that this Makler looked somewhat unsure or hesitating, but when we handed her the duly filled in form with our signature and offer (she was selling formerly State-owned flats at a fixed price, on a first-come first-served basis) she said that we were the first to have done a bid, so it was just a matter of checking data and starting to talk about notary issues.

We went back to Rome, expecting an e-mail to kick-start the purchase process, but never heard anything from her anymore…she would not answer e-mails or phone calls, nor return messages. Eventually she sold to someone who did an offer after ours. Just because she didn’t feel comfortable in “dealing with foreigners”.

So we discovered that even in the reliable Germany it happens to meet The Unreliable Makler. I must admit, all the flats we visited fitted at a 99% rate the description in the Expose’. Both the Expose’ and the Makler talk are very, very transparent and reliable, reality fits description, a nice feeling compared with our past experiences when renting in Paris and Rome, where Makler equals absurd jargon and unrealistic descriptions.

We did meet with so many Makler in Berlin and the vast majority of them do not speak a single word of English, but are extremely helpful and professional. We make an effort in German, they reduce the speed of their talk, and the discussion goes on. Their Expose’ are immaculately detailed, full of pictures, so the visits are quite easy.

But apparently, there is 1 dumb Makler in Berlin, and we met her!

Bottom line: sound disappointment, feeling of being cheated on, loss of time and opportunities. Because we had seen other interesting flats, but then committed to this specific one and did not pursue the other transactions. Our first expedition to Berlin in august 2007 (10 days of our holidays) ended up with a lot of research and a big disappointment…But research is never a loss of time. You will capitalize on it.

Nevertheless, we still are fascinated by the quality of design of the 50s. Our friend in Moabit with the help of Mr B. (the architect) renovated one of these flats and the result is absolutely gemuetlich…on the balcony there is space for pots of Erika and Hypericum.

Considering all the criticism attracted by the balcony-missing Schlange or Snake-building between Moabit and the Spree, during the 50s they had an idea or two on how to build apartments, even on a tight budget…

O. Reuter / Luftbildarchiv Berlin

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