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R.I.P.: 100-year pioneer Hilde Weström

Weström reached her 100th year last October as a pioneering and unusual architect. She died on Feb 10, but her efforts to aid in the reconstruction of social housing in Berlin after the war will be remembered by Berliners as well as us.

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Photo by Christian Vagt

The pioneering architect Hilde Weström reached her 100th year last October. She died this past February 10, but she and her work will be remembered by many Berliners. Exberliner was lucky enough to talk to the centenarian for our November “Old and bold” issue. For those who want to learn more about Weström, her work is featured in the permanent exhibition “The Destroyed City Was My Chance” at the Berlinische Galerie.

On October 31, the pioneering architect Hilde Weström celebrated her 100th birthday. That kind of monumental occasion would fill many people with excitement.

Two weeks prior to the day, however, Weström was feeling unimpressed. “It feels like commemorating an end,” she said, sitting in her room in the Haus Christophorus, a retirement home she designed herself in the mid-1960s. “I get more excited about novelty.” Weström’s voice is thin, cracking often as she speaks. Seated in a wheelchair, her slender body remains quite still, with only her hands moving to emphasise her words. But beneath this frail physicality a surprising amount of spunk and humour resides.

I guess whatever comes after this, it’s bound to be new.

Ten minutes into the conversation, eyes twinkling, she gibes: “I didn’t really want you to come – I’ve answered enough journalists’ questions already. But now I’m rather enjoying having you here.” Then she suggests we have a glass of red wine. Just a short walk away from the Haus Christophorus is the Hansa-Viertel, where the architectural exhibition Interbau took place in 1957. Weström presented an apartment display for the show’s City of Tomorrow (Stadt von Morgen) section.

“Family life interested me,” the mother of four explains. “I wanted to find a way to give every family member a space – even in small apartments – but also integrate their lives. For the Interbau apartment I made a hallway that was broad enough for kids to play   in and an open kitchen where cooking and family life could coincide.” Her visionary design brought the then-45-year-old to prominence.

One of the first female members of the Bund Deutscher Architekten (BDA), she would eventually design over 800 condominiums, apartment buildings and subsidised housing units. She also worked with Hans Scharoun on Berlin’s Staatsbibliothek, but found the famed architect “had little worth noting”.

Working in the male-dominated architectural world was not easy. Not only did Weström have to juggle being a mother and a professional, she also did not receive the same level of trust as her male colleagues. “I entered a lot of competitions for larger projects. But even if I won first prize, in the end a man would wind up with the job.”

In response, Weström began focusing on social housing in post-war Berlin, where there was a need for an additional 600,000 apartments in 1946. She famously once said that the destroyed city was her opportunity – a quote that is now the title of a Berlinische Galerie exhibition on her work.

But Weström was never one to rest on her laurels. “It’s true that post-war Berlin opened doors for me. But my favourite project was the bungalow I made for the ceramicist Liselotte Küster. Those projects for artistic women were real pleasures. Actually, my last big contract was refurbishing a farm for another ceramicist in Wettenberg.”

Weström valued her contact with artists. She became a member of the Federation of Women Artists and Patrons of the Arts, GEDOK, travelling regularly with her artistic friends and taking up painting herself. “When you have a lot of plans, you almost forget to look back at all the things you did,” Weström says of her many endeavours.

Looking back she has few regrets, except that her birthplace, Upper Silesia (now part of Poland), is gone. “I had to leave my home in 1945 and come to Berlin. I had three children and was expecting my fourth. The journey took seven weeks – but I can hardly recall it,” she says her face serious.

Then she notices my glass is empty and requests I have a refill. “Drink up, and then drink some more.” Weström smiles again as we clink glasses. “You know, it took me a while to realise this home is my final stop,” she says, tilting her head slightly. “But I guess whatever comes after this, it’s bound to be new,” she adds as an afterthought, and there is no sorrow in her voice.