Cities Can Be Beautiful. If We Dare to Listen.

Traditional and modern building in Berlin
The author mourns the loss of identity of the Berlin’s districts he knew since his childhood. Berlin, Budapester Straße. Image: Author’s archive

The profession of the architect holds great responsibility towards the citizens of our cities. After a century of denial, we are starting to recognize again that experiencing beauty and pleasure from our environment is one of the fundamental elements of a good life. This denial has been caused, among others, by many deficits in architectural education, led by authority figures spreading ideas that were not based on a deep understanding of human beings, but rather on futuristic, mechanistic visions.

Because of this, topics like aesthetics or theory of proportions and forms have been mostly abandoned, or in the case of architectural psychology, not even adopted in the first place. The knowledge of building with natural, local materials while still adhering to modern requirements and regulations, has met a similar fate. Added to that, a credo of “form follows function” has been the leading idea of modern architecture for a long time, neglecting that buildings don’t only have technical functions, but emotional ones too.

Authentic Urbanity

A more sensitive approach to built structures and urban society is urgently needed. At the same time, we need to acknowledge that it’s the citizens, for whom we build, and that they must be listened to – again, not only when it comes to functional needs, but also their emotional and aesthetic ones.

Surveys show time and time again that the general public, when given the option, overwhelmingly prefers forms present in traditional architecture, to those of the modern one. This means that with every new building not considering these facts, we are not meeting the real needs of the majority of people for whom we build. 

At the same time, we alienate ourselves, as design professionals, from those people we ought to serve. We are often even unable to explain in human terms, why certain designs are regarded as better than others – why buildings that don’t attract people are winning architectural prizes.

Modern building reflecting traditional building in Berlin
The traditional building’s reflection gives a glimpse of the view that the workers in the modern building enjoy. But what about the other way around? Dorotheenstraße, Berlin. Image: Author’s archive

Fortunately, during the many centuries that humans have been creating a built environment for themselves, we have accumulated a huge amount of knowledge and experience about creating spaces that create deep positive emotions when experienced by most people. Let’s take a look at a few areas, where we can draw inspiration from those who came before us.

The character of a city is defined by the residential and commercial buildings. These houses enclose streets and alleys to form street spaces. In exposed places, these streets open up into squares. Town squares were also lined with townhouses, some of them palaces, but always mixed with commercial functions.

Houses stood and still stand in intact and functioning city quarters on small plots of land. Streets were rarely wider than the houses lining them measured in height. Talking and calling distance were guaranteed within the street spaces but also in squares. The squares are so manageable that individuals also play a role and do not seem lost.

Identifying With the Neighborhood

We describe the spatial setting of a neighborhood as strong when the most significant information (information leads to orientation) reinforce each other in such a way that the place is remembered as unique and unmistakable. From this, we derive the concept of identification. A memorable locality of the built environment has a pragmatic effect as a sign bearer of the local society.

Traditional and modern buildings in Berlin
Cessation instead of continuation. Berlin. Image: Author’s archive

This leads to an increase in familiarity and thus further to the willingness of individuals to identify with the community. These statements have been empirically proven over centuries and are already mentioned in many texts on urban space. 

Identification-worthy neighborhoods also usually draw on the local topography. They use it to make them more unique, instead of trying to overcome it, cover and flatten the landscape. In this way, each city can develop its own distinctive identity. This city identity is based primarily on the memorable sequence and variety of streets and squares in manageable dimensions – the Stadtgrundriss.

Although houses have changed constantly (city fires, sale, demolition, rebuilding) in Berlin, where I live, the city layout has been maintained for over 800 years, creating an identity with only a few deviations. It was not until the 1960s that Berlin’s old town disappeared from the city map. The destruction caused by the war was much less than the dramatic interventions and changes caused by clear-cutting for oversized blocks of houses and highway-like traffic lanes. 

Until today, despite good beginnings at the IBA 1987, and the discussion rounds on the Planwerk Innenstadt since the beginning of the 1990s, which were carried out at the highest professional level, decisions were and are being delayed politically and at the administrative level. Currently, many of these decisions are being ignored and discussed anew at a low level, as if certain areas of Berlin had never been discussed.

The Experience of Urban Spaces

When walking through an authentic city, the optical, haptic, and acoustic stimuli with their perceptual fields change continuously with only a few steps one makes. Due to constantly changing stimuli, walking through a city as described above is never boring. The curiosity about what emerges as a new experience behind every corner makes the walk through a city interesting. 

If urban occupation (residential follow-up facilities, cultural facilities, small business, gastronomy) is added to the inhabited houses, such urban spaces will develop into a rich network of experience. It is undisputed that the currently most popular and best functioning city quarters in terms of urbanity are the residential quarters of the Gründerzeit (mid 19. century), and not only in Berlin. 

With the demand for more social housing, affordable rents, for sustainability, it’s necessary to develop urban quarters with great variety. And small plots are one of the conditions to do this. This also means densification and creating local centers all over the city. The buildings must adapt to the existing urban environment plot by plot in terms of proportion and structure and thus blend in carefully.

Living Architecture

Even when we manage to create conditions for a good urban experience and places that people will identify with, we still need to frame those places with buildings that will cause feelings of pleasure and life in people who come in touch with them.

Although construction methods have changed over time, we can still seek inspiration in two main principles of any traditional construction – support and load. When building with traditional, natural materials, these structures were usually reflected in a building’s facade. However, unlike many modern buildings, which try to be “honest” by displaying their load-bearing structure, the traditional builders used this structure in accordance with aesthetic principles.

Kronprinzengärten, Building 1 by Patzschke & Partner Architects
Renewed interest in new traditional architecture increasingly spawns buildings such as this at Oberwallstraße in Berlin. Kronprinzengärten, Building 1 by Patzschke & Partner Architects (2016). Image: Patzschke & Partner Architects

The outline elements were usually in the right proportion in relation to the overall shape of the building. The structure creates opportunities for facade projections and recesses, which cast a variety of shadows as the daylight changes – giving the building a different face for different parts of the day. 

The use of local and natural materials, as well as manufactured materials with a large visual variety and detail (like the traditional brick) also contribute to this effect. They also help the building age well visually, as any damage and wear get absorbed by the already existing detail and imperfections – instead of showing on a visually poor, empty plane of a perfectly manufactured glass, coat, or facade panels.

Openings like windows and entrances then created opportunities for the creation of elaborate detail, creating character and predictable support for human eyes looking at the building and trying to understand the environment. However, all of this can only be achieved on a human scale. Make it too big and all the details and proportions get lost in the building’s mass.

With overwhelming public support, as well as scientific evidence supporting the validity of the principles mentioned in this article, the new generation of architects today has a great opportunity to tune in, as a profession, to the human being and its needs again. So that the ever-urbanizing population of our world can live in an environment that doesn’t only support their basic needs, but fulfills them on a deeper psychological and social level.

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Hubertus Müller. Image: Author’s archive

About the Author

Hubertus Müller was born in 1947 and has grown up in Berlin Neukölln. He studied architecture at Technical University Berlin. Afterwards, he trained in painting and became a teacher of arts in 1975. He has been teaching arts at Luise-Henriette-Gymnasium at Berlin Tempelhof for the past 40 years.