Refugee Housing

Berlin Needs to Grow Up

One of the hangars at the old Tempelhof airport slated to be used as a refugee home. Source: Kay Nietfeld/dpa
One of the hangars at the old Tempelhof airport slated to be used as a refugee home.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    Migrants and refugees are flooding into Berlin, squeezing housing and potentially changing the appearance of the city forever.

  • Facts


    • People are increasingly wanting to live in the center of Berlin rather than its outskirts.
    • The city does not allow buildings with an eave height of greater than 22 meters (72ft).
    • Germany has around 2 million apartments standing empty.
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Arno Brandlhuber is an award-winning architect turned urban visionary. The 51-year-old has been involved in the building of several famous German landmarks, including the Neanderthal Museum in Neanderthal and the German Aerospace Centre laboratory building in Stuttgart.

Previously based in Cologne, he founded a studio in Berlin in 2006, perched atop a ruined building in the city center, which Mr. Brandlhuber built using a low-cost concrete construction method. Since 2003, he has also been a professor of architecture and urban research in Nuremberg.

More recently, Mr. Brandlhuber has become politically active, taking the city of Berlin to task over its housing policy and offering his own radical ideas about how to solve the city’s housing crisis. Berlin is currently experiencing a huge shortage of housing as more and more people move to the German capital, and refugees arrive in their thousands from the Middle East and Africa.


Mr. Brandlhuber, one of your ideas for relieving Berlin’s housing shortage is adding eight floors onto the top of the former Tempelhof airport terminal in central Berlin. Can you tell us more about that?

One of our old models mounted the Bikini Berlin shopping center on top of the airport building. The airport roof was actually planned to be a platform. It can carry thousands of people. And on top of that, you could build a total of 3,500 apartments on six to eight additional floors. That would be as much housing as had originally been planned for the area surrounding the airport complex.

You wouldn’t stand a chance with the historic landmark protection authorities.

Actually we would. A condition for any kind of modification is that the historic building be respected. The open floor would provide an appropriate distance between the historical airport building and the new structure. And down in the airport you could put the service facilities – from a kindergarten to a supermarket. Then you would also have answered the question of what to put in the terminal. The worst thing that can happen to a monument is that it just sits around unused, decaying bit by bit.

For the time being, two hangars at the airport are slated to be used as emergency shelters for refugees. What do you think about that?

I think it is right to open unused buildings for refugees and not simply house them in containers.

Have you ever thought about building a refugee home?

No, the refugee issue is not an architectural matter. I’m in favor of dropping Schengen [Europe’s open borders policy which allows free movement between 26 states]. Then there will no longer be people with asylum seeker status, but just newcomers.

But they also have to live somewhere. The furniture retailer Ikea has built refugee shelter modules.

Refugees should be housed in completely normal apartments. And the state pays the rent. Shortly after they arrive, it can make sense for them to live relatively close to others that share their same culture. It takes time and reassurance to join another society. But there are also large housing developments where a lot of empty apartments are close together. Germany has a total of nearly two million apartments that are not rented out. Why don’t we give them to the new arrivals?

Do you see yourself as a political architect?

I see myself as a completely normal architect. Simply put, there are two tendencies in my line of work: Some people express their messages as part of their work. Others see themselves as pure service providers.

What do you believe were the biggest mistakes made by Berlin’s urban planners?

That the lump sale of municipal buildings led to them giving up space for creative leeway in favor of one-off profit. It took too long for them to start thinking of Berlin as a growing city.

Together with the urbanists Florian Hertweck and Thomas Mayfried you have come up with a future scenario for a growing Berlin.

The last attempt to come up with such a plan was 40 years ago. Back then, architects including Oswald M. Ungers used Berlin as a role model for shrinking cities. In order to prevent the city from thinning out, they wanted to maintain areas with similar architecture. Other areas were to be left to decay. Urban islands in the middle of the woods. Berlin as a green archipelago.

Instead, every empty site is now being filled in the inner-city areas.

Berlin is turning into more and more of a pyramidal city, with a golden middle and outskirts that drop off into suburbs. But historically, the city grew up around several centers. For example, up until 1920, the boroughs of Charlottenburg, Schöneberg and Neukölln were their own cities. Today, Berlin’s districts are still relatively autonomous. In the second half of the last century the division of the city added to it. This polycentricism is now at stake – and social mixture as well.

Capital from all over the world is flowing into Berlin’s real estate market. Can urban development still be controlled?

Of course. Because Berlin is governed as a city-state, politicians can take legislative measures. For example, they could allow an additional floor to be built onto all of the buildings, exceeding the current height limitation if, in return, the same amount of space on a floor below it is permanently used as a municipal housing unit. An additional floor would of course be contingent on the neighbors still getting enough light and air. The new floor would make economic sense since penthouses bring in high returns. So the whole thing would make sense. That model combines personal profit maximization with requirements for the common good. It would also create socially mixed neighborhoods.

Arno Brandlhuber wants Berlin to permit extra floors to be built on apartment blocks. Source: DPA


But wouldn’t the additional floor distort the buildings’ proportions?

No, because over the past 20 years buildings were never built based on proportions, but rather according to Berlin’s maximum eave height of 22 meters (72 feet).

Is good architecture sometimes art as well?

Never – because the production conditions are different. Because there is a client, because its usefulness is more important than any epistemological value.

Some people say that Berlin will start to shrink again in a couple of decades. Do you think about how your architecture could be taken down?

I wouldn’t trust the long-term prognoses. If we are spatially able to integrate migrants, we will grow. And if we don’t think we are able to spatially integrate migrants, they’ll come anyway.


A version of this article first appeared in the newspaper Der Tagesspiegel. To contact the author:

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