It was a warm spring morning when I started packing my bags and cleaning up the apartment in Zizkov, Prague. I had it in my head that my train to Berlin was due to leave at 14:21, so around midday I walked to Zizkavarna, a cafe just around the corner, for lunch. At some point I took out my phone to check my train tickets and as I was casually taking another bite of my toasted cheese sandwich, I was hit with the shocking realisation that my train had already left at 12:21. For a few moments I was stunned. I thought it couldn’t be possible and checked the ticket details again. There was no doubt I had missed it and there was little else I could do but finish my sandwich, order another coffee and book a seat on the next train. Thankfully it was a relatively easy, although unexpectedly costly error to fix.
At the train station I noticed several billboard-size advertisements of men standing around drinking beer and men sitting at tables in bars raising their pints of beer in a toast. It occurred to me that almost all of them had beards. On the train itself, I noticed a group of men, not necessarily bearded, seated around one of the tables drinking beer and another group of men walking through the carriage, each of them carrying several cans of beer as they made their way back to their seats. Several of them even had a can of beer stuffed into each of their back trouser pockets while their arms cradled a six-pack of cans. Despite the overt reverence for beer in the Czech Republic, particularly among the men, the train journey did not resemble the alcohol-fuelled aftermath of a football match or a stag do, but was actually a pleasant and civilised journey.
The train was more-or-less packed and because I hadn’t reserved a seat, unlike most of the other passengers, I found I had to move several times between seats and carriages, although I always managed to find a place to sit. We travelled through scenic landscapes, eventually joining the Elbe River and following it over the Czech border into Germany. Nestled along the river’s edge were quaint villages and behind them a backdrop of hills and rocky outcrops, forested with pine and birch.
After passing through Dresden we travelled over large expanses of less-inhabited farmland, forests and national parks. The German countryside was well cared for and very beautiful. Fuelled by the fairytales of The Brothers Grimm and the romantic landscapes of Casper David Friedrich, the Germans have always had a deep attachment to their forests. My sense is that the tree is revered for its strength and endurance, its connection to the earth, its beauty and diversity and for its timber, which is used for everything from building houses to making musical instruments. Just over a third of Germany is still covered in forest. A close-to-nature management program allows for a viable timber industry, while ensuring the preservation and natural regeneration of forests with virtually no use of pesticides or fertilisers.
Four-and-a-half hours after leaving Prague, the train pulled in to Berlin’s main train station. I’d been in contact with my Airbnb host and we’d organised to meet outside his apartment building. After getting some euros from a cash point I took the S-Bahn westwards to Tiergarten station, only a short walk from a 17-floor apartment building known as the Giraffe. It was located right on the edge of the Tiergarten park, in the tiny district of Hansaviertel. My host was waiting for me out the front and took me up to a studio apartment on the fifth floor. It was early evening by that time and I was pleased to have noticed on my arrival a restaurant right underneath the building, its outdoor eating area teeming with customers. I was relieved I wouldn’t have to go far for an evening meal.
The apartment was perfect. It was small but highly functional, with a balcony that overlooked nothing but the tree tops of the Tiergarten. It seemed like the ideal place for someone engaged in some kind of creative/professional work. It was well lit, had a natural view, was quiet, had a wireless sound system, a coffee machine, a small but well-stocked kitchenette, a comfortable bed, and a nice modern desk facing the door-sized windows that open onto the balcony. Downstairs was the restaurant and expanding eastwards as far as the eye could see was the natural greenery of the park. There was nothing stressful about the environment. It felt conducive to getting things done, in what I imagined would be a timely but relaxed manner. In the mornings, the east-facing apartment was filled with sunshine and natural light and the windows at either end of the apartment’s east-west axis allowed for adequate airflow.
The Giraffe apartment building, designed by German architects Klaus Müller-Rehm and Gerhard Siegmann was completed in 1955 and was one of the first buildings ever erected exclusively for single residents. It was just one of over 40 apartment buildings built in Hansaviertel for an International Building Exhibition known as Interbau 1957.
During the Second World War much of Berlin had been damaged by air raids, and Hansaviertel in particular had almost all of its buildings destroyed. After the War, the government of West Berlin invited urban planners, architects and artists from around the world to design a new modern, futuristic residential housing estate in Hansaviertel. Their vision for the estate centred around “a purely residential area with a high quality of life, offering residents a functional space in a quiet, healthy and green environment with good transport connections”.
Of the architects chosen to transform the vision into reality, 19 came from abroad, 16 were from West Germany and 18 lived in West Berlin. Upon completion, the new estate was presented publicly during the Interbau 1957 architectural exhibition.
The Hansaviertel development was considered a model of modern city planning and a prime example of the classical modernism or post-modernism of the time. It represented Berlin’s desire for renewal after the war and provided a glimpse into the future of residential housing. The buildings in Hansaviertel are all unique. Some are apartment complexes up to 17 stories high, others are ‘row houses’ consisting of between 4 to 10 stories and others are single detached houses of one or two stories. Each is separated by landscaped green space which flows between the buildings and melds seamlessly with the boundaries of the Tiergarten park.
One of the closest buildings to the Giraffe apartment was Gropiushaus, a nine-story residential apartment building distinguished by the gentle curve in its facade. It was the work of German architect Walter Gropius, who founded the Bauhaus movement. Another building close by was that of the late Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer. Sitting on distinctive V-shaped supports, Niemeyerhaus is the only one of his architectural endeavours completed in Germany.
Several buildings that were part of Interbau 1957 but were located outside of Hansaviertel included an apartment building by French architect Le Corbusier and the House of World Cultures, designed by American architect Hugh Stubbins. All of these architects and many of the others involved in the Interbau 57 project are considered key figures in the development of modern architecture.
With the expansive grounds of the Tiergarten right on the doorstep it was not long before I began exploring it. Too large to really accomplish on foot, I hired a bike for most days of my stay. It was a simple process where I could book, pay for and lock and unlock the bike, all from an app I downloaded to my phone.
Tiergarten park was originally the hunting grounds of the king back in the 16th century before it was transformed several centuries later into a pubic park. Its current state is the result of considerable replanting and landscaping shortly after the end of the Second World War and refurbishments and additions made in recent years. The beauty of the park, the sense of naturalness and tranquility one experiences upon entering it are a testament to its thoughtful landscaping and ongoing maintenance. It is a park adorned throughout with sculptures, many from the distant past as well as streams, ponds and lakes, grassy recreational areas, several cafes and numerous pathways for walking and cycling.
Each day a ride through the park would be integral to my explorations of the city. It was a place I wanted to linger and get lost in exploring its vistas, its secluded sections, its waterways and its open spaces. The park’s edges were lined with many of Berlin’s most famous attractions – Brandenburg Gate, the Reichstag, the Holocaust Memorial and Europe’s most visited zoo, Zoologischer Garten. All were easily accessible by bike from where I was staying but the real joy was not the sites. Instead it was the opportunity to stay in such a well-designed and purposeful environment, a place devoid of the normal noise and stress of city living, a place integrated with nature, yet not cut-off from the city.
I count my stay in Berlin at the apartment in Hansaviertel as one of my best experiences to date of encountering a truly ideal environment for city living.