Viva la Villa
by Gernot Schaulinski / translation by Rachel Marks
From the windows you can see the cars racing the Ringbahn, here where the city's arteries are sunken deep into its fabric. The Westend station appears, an artificial island amidst the streaming flow of traffic, to lift passengers out of the noisy ravine; simultaneously the old station shows what makes this nineteenth century neighborhood.
If you didn't know better, you might think the station's building, constructed in 1884, to be a magnificent villa. The interiors, with its paneled walls and coffered ceiling, today house offices and a wine shop, but the grand staircase still maintains a palatial air. What here may seem an exception is actually the rule only a few hundred meters west of the Autobahn. Berlin has often cast an envious glance over the proverbial fence, revealing its desire to compete with its worldly peers. Thus was built a posh, London-style neighborhood for the upper classes on the Grunewald forest's plateau in 1866. Prussian elites looked longingly to England's class society, which didn't hesitate to allow classes to live in distinctly separate areas. The area's air played a large role in choosing the best ground: the westerly winds diverted the exhaust from the factories' smokestacks away from the new neighborhood. The checkerboard terrain was shielded by an avenue of acacias to the north, plane trees to the south, maples to the east, and cherry trees to the west, with Branitzer Platz in the center.
When the project stalled after two years, the North German businessman Heinrich Quistorp took the reins and grandiloquently made the project the talk of the town. By 1873 more than 120 homes had been erected, but the stock market crash in the same year brought the corporation – and Quistorp personally – to a halt. He emigrated to Paraguay and together with a few comrades founded "New Germania." The area he chose, however, soon proved less than ideal: malaria, mosquitoes, and flea beetles drove the colonists to abandon their project. In 1885 the adventurers returned to Charlottenburg, impoverished and defeated. Here Quistorp was able to experience, until his death in 1902, the successful development of his Prussian settlement. Marlene Dietrich and Johannes Heesters, Robert Koch, composers Arnold Schönberg and Kurt Weill, architects Erich Mendelsohn and Albert Speer – they and many other prominent artists, politicians, scientists, and intellectuals lived in the villa colony.
The antipode to Westend is the Eastend. Though that isn't actually its name, the appellation for the neighborhood surrounding Klausenerplatz on the other side of the tracks seems fitting given the social disparity between today's villa owners and earlier squatters. The residents' involvement in the 1970s and 1980s brought about a change of tide in Berlin's building policy. The almost completely intact Gründerzeit building stock (from the period of rapid industrial expansion around the turn of the century) was to be torn down and replaced with public housing and underground parking. The terminated residents, shunning the idea that "concrete is what you make of it," vehemently resisted. The area around Danckelmannstraße became a hot spot in West Berlin's squatter scene; students, artists, musicians, and punks moved in behind the barricades. Where bulldozers had already cleared out courtyards was turned into green space, like the "rural" goat farm at Danckelmannstraße 16. Most of the squatters were forced out in 1983, but further radical reconstruction was avoided thereafter. A number of former squatters still live here today, though little unites them with the villa owners on the other side of the tracks. Here on the Ringbahn, two worlds can seem so close and yet so distant from one another.