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James Hobrecht: The man who built Berlin

James Hobrecht created the Berlin that we see today; read more about his story here.

The man who shaped Berlin. Photo: Imago/Jürgen Ritter

If you want to understand how Berlin came to be, you could do a lot worse than study the work of one man: James Hobrecht. Many of the quirks of Berlin can be accounted for by Hobrecht. For instance, unlike many German cities, Berlin has no real centre. Yes, there are central areas, like Unter den Linden and Alexanderplatz, but these tourist spots are actually quite rarely frequented by locals. This is because each district has its own centre. And James Hobrecht was the founder of this decentralised Berlin. 

James Hobrecht and the misery of industrialisation

In the early 19th century, Berlin stank, diseases were rampant and there wasn’t enough living space. Industrialisation had brought irrevocable changes to the city. The rapidly increasing number of factories and workshops drew more and more people from the country to the city to find work. Berlin’s population exploded. As a result, living conditions worsened. Anyone could see that change was needed.

Luckily for the city, James Hobrecht (1825-1902) was able to deliver. After studying civil engineering, he obtained the degree “master builder for water, road and railway construction”. He was then employed as a “master builder” at the Royal Police Headquarters in Berlin, and it was in this role that he presented what would become known as the “Hobrecht Plan”.

Anyone could see that change was needed

In the plan, which was officially called the “development plan for Berlin’s surroundings”, existing highways were kept in place and a network of smaller roads were planned in between these highways. This is how many of today’s apartment buildings came into existence originally. The roads leading to the city centre formed a start shape, and were connected by ring roads. Various city squares were designated as places in which this development wouldn’t happen – creating the decentralized city we know today.

Berlin’s rental housing: A tight squeeze

The legacy of the plan can be seen today on Prenzlauer Allee. This main thoroughfare was one of the highways that preceded the Hobrecht plan. However, Hobrecht adapted this road to accomodate more housing – which Berlin desperately needed. Adjacent to Prenzlauer Allee is one of the largest blocks of houses in Berlin in the Prenzlauer Berg district. Nestled between Prenzlauer Allee, Marienburger Straße, Winsstraße and Immanuelkirchstraße, this housing block contains an astonishing 30 backyards.

The Hobrecht Plan Image: Wikimedia/Sebastian Gollin CC BY-S.A 3.0

This dense development of tenement housing, with countless backyards, was typical for 19th century Berlin, especially during the period of industrialisation. Today the backyards in Mitte look pretty nice, but in those times they were a symbol of the cramped and narrow living conditions in the city.

Sadly for Hobrecht, who intended to improve the situation, many people accused his plan of making things worse – despite his intentions to stabilise social conditions in Berlin and alleviate the suffering of industrialisation.

“He was scolded a lot for the plan because people said: ‘Well, that’s how all the tenements came about’. There was also a lot of propaganda in the criticism of the tenements,” Berlin biographer Jens Bisky explained to Deutschlandfunk Kultur. Strictly speaking, the tenements were a result of the Hobrecht plan, but they weren’t exactly part of the plan.

James Hobrecht’s vision: Gardens, not gloomy tenements

The living conditions in these tenements were miserable; the residents lived in overcrowded, damp, stinky, dark houses

On the contrary: Hobrecht imagined gardens and playgrounds between the build which would forming a space of leisure and recreation for the tenants. These houses wouldn’t just form an intersection between work and leisure, they would also be a meeting place for different socioeconomic classes with employers living in the front and the workers living in the side wings. He planned the apartments to differ in size and quality depending on their location, so that different rent prices would correspond with the inhabitants’ income level. In this way, Hobrecht hoped that the tough political realities would get softened through the daily meetings of neighbours from different backgrounds.

However, Hobrecht’s liberal vision never came to fruition. The development of the housing blocks was left to private companies. During in the Wilhelminian boom, this freedom was exploited by the private firms and landowners and a belt of shoddy tenements arose around Berlin.

The living conditions in these tenements were miserable; the residents lived in overcrowded, damp, stinky, dark houses. Hobrecht had unintentionally created the verry thing he had tried to eliminate.

The bleakness of these conditions was documented in various paintings by the artist Heinrich Zille. It was he who coined this fitting aphorism: “You can kill a person with an apartment, just as an axe.”

“The Late Sleeper” by Heinrich Zille Image: IMAGO/Funke Photo Services

Thus, it was inevitable that workers’ quarters would form, which meant that Hobrecht’s goal of social mixing failed. The large block of flats on Prenzlauer Allee was just such a tenement.

There were many more of these at the time of Hobrecht – especially in the newly created areas of Charlottenburg, Wilmersdorf, Schöneberg and Prenzlauer Berg. Most of them have since been demolished.

A passageway to several consecutive backyards on Kastanienallee in Prenzlauer Berg. Photo: IMAGO/Jürgen Ritter

Despite Hobrecht’s failures to meet his social goals, his plan went forward and radically transformed the layout of Berlin. What made the Hobrecht Plan so successful was its ability to adapt to the changing conditions of industrialisation. It enabled growth and movement. In addition to urban development, Hobrecht was also responsible for the construction of the sewage system in Berlin from 1873, a pioneering engineering solution to an old problem.

Hobrecht sewers

An 1886 Berlin sewer plan. Many canals and waterways were built during this period. Photo: IMAGO/piemags

The system led to Berlin acquiring the reputation of the “cleanest city in the world”, which is pretty hard to believe today

This development was urgently needed. Berlin was in a hygienic state of emergency in the middle of the 19th century. The city infrastructure was incapable of dealing with the large population, which led to disastrous sanitary conditions. At the time, domestic and commercial wastewater still flowed through gutters between roadsides and sidewalks. To change this, Hobrecht designed a radial system of canals, dividing the urban area into 12 segments, each with a pumping station. The wastewater flowed down a slope to the respective stations, from which it was pumped out of the city and distributed to local sewage fields, where it seeped into the ground.

The sewage system was one of the most cutting-edge drainage systems of its time. The system led to Berlin acquiring the reputation of the “cleanest city in the world”, which is pretty hard to believe today. Perhaps this is part of Hobrecht’s legacy that we should pay a bit more attention to today.

Read more history here: Berlin history from a queer perspective, the inside scoop on Bowie’s Berlin, and the history of the inescapable history of the wall