Berlin has some of the world’s most interesting social housing projects and initiatives, with the government supporting the development of baugruppen and cooperatives, and even buying buildings. It’s actually written into their zoning bylaws (PDF) that if you want to build taller than the surrounding buildings, then there has to be a social benefit; “High-rise projects over 60m tall must contribute to vital urban neighborhoods by creating a functional mix appropriate for the location.”
This may well be the most interesting thing about WoHo, a 322-foot (98-meter) tower being built in the Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg of Berlin. Norwegian firm Mad arkitekter won a two-stage competition to design the 29-story building for developer UTB. Managing partner and jury member Thomas Bestgen noted:
“I was very impressed by the committed, even passionate, discussion of the individual designs. They had to withstand many aspects, including, above all, the programming of ‘mixed city’ and ‘Kreuzberg mixture’, the embedding in the urban context, wooden construction, spacing areas and feasibility. We now have a strong result that reflects our attitude towards social mix, orientation towards the common good and sustainability,”
The social mix is unlike anything North American developers would even think about. The ground floor is designed to support local bakers, cafes, late-night shops, and workshops. There are daycare centers and after-school care centers and youth facilities. One thing that it doesn’t have is very much parking; instead, it has more space for mobility options like bikes and cargo bikes.
“Of the 18,000 m2 usable area, 15% is planned for the social infrastructure, 25% for commercial facilities and 60% for living. A third of this is divided into rent-linked apartments, affordable cooperative apartments and condominiums. Very different typologies are taken into account, including forms of living for social organizations such as assisted living for young people and people with dementia, but also student studios and so-called “joker rooms” for short-term additional space requirements.”
According to Feargus O’Sullivan of Citylab, the neighborhood is known for its “Kreuzberg mix,” a working-class mix of housing and workshops.1 “Mixing uses and income levels within one complex may have made these complexes noisy and dirty during the steam age, but this feature of the neighborhood’s bedrock has been much appreciated since the later 20th century.”
Mad arkitekter claims that they are turning this on its end.
“Kreuzberg is unconventional and diverse, and our goal has been to reflect this in our proposal for the high-rise. Our concept is therefore intended as a vertical interpretation of a typical Kreuzberg block. It has been important for us to design a building that people can use, where the needs of residents, users and neighbors are the most important focus.”
Is This a Good Thing?
The words “vertical interpretation of a typical Kreuzberg block” are familiar, similar to descriptions of high-rise housing built in the UK and North America with “streets in the sky.” Everyone is talking about the building because it is made of cross-laminated timber, but I can’t help wondering if the ambition to be the tallest wood building in Germany hasn’t buried the fact that 75 years of building high-rises since World War II pretty much proved that it is really hard to do a vertical interpretation of a horizontal street.
It may well be that the tower portion is where all the expensive condominiums are, with all the affordable and rent-linked apartments in the broader base. That raises its own issues of stratification. I have questioned why we are trying so hard to build tall buildings, whether wood or not before when you can build like Montreal or Paris or even Berlin and get pretty close to the same residential density.
Building tall is also more costly to construct and studies show that tall buildings cost about 20% more to operate. That’s all moot if the tall stuff is just for the rich people, but does tall wood make sense? Do tall buildings make sense, whatever they are made of? After seeing this project I asked architect Andrew Waugh, who has designed a lot of wood buildings, for his thoughts and he told Treehugger:
“I think there is a right height for cities… and that has to do with material efficiency as well as all the urban factors such as servicing wind transport etc. Mass timber is great at 10- 14 stories – but I’m sure can probably go significantly higher… but why bother? Isn’t this competitive endless growth and increased use of stuff what got us into this position in the first place?”
But then Waugh reconsidered and sent another email saying “I sound like a grumpy old man,” and the same possibly can be said about me.
There is so much to admire about this project; the mix of uses, the social model, its role in the continuing revitalization and resurgence of Berlin. Perhaps it is the tower that pays for this all. But I just wish we would stop this pursuit of designing and building the tallest wood building. It’s hard, given how much attention they get even when they are little more than fantasies, but it is diverting us from building truly sustainable buildings now.
And don’t get me started about hanging plants on the outside of buildings 29 stories up in the air.