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Karin Lompscher on progressive approaches to developing Berlin as a global city


[Translate to en:] Berlin, 5.2.2023: Jahresempfang der Hermann-Henselmann-Stiftung mit Katrin Lompscher und Thomas Flierl
Katrin Lompscher and Thomas Flierl at the Hermann-Henselmann-Stiftung’s annual reception, 5 February 2023. Photo: Patricia Haas

The non-profit Hermann-Henselmann-Stiftung was founded in 2005 by the lawyer Dr. Andreas Henselmann, son of the architect Herman Henselmann (1905–1995), one of the German Democratic Republic’s most important architects who designed some of East Berlin’s most iconic buildings. The organization promotes critical work on questions related to architecture, urban planning, and socially minded urban development. Legally a trustee foundation, the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation acts as its fiduciary manager, but in keeping with its charter, it has independent control over the content of its work.

Katrin Lompscher served as Senator for Urban Development and Housing in Berlin from 2016 to 2020 and is currently the chair of the Hermann-Henselmann-Stiftung.

Translated by Joel Scott and Joseph Keady for Gegensatz Translation Collective.

Until the end of 2022, the foundation chair was cultural theorist, architectural historian, author, and former Berlin Senator for Culture Dr. Thomas Flierl. Katrin Lompscher, who served as Senator for Urban Development and Housing in Berlin from 2016 to 2020, where she gained international notoriety for instituting the so-called “rent brake” that was later shot down by a federal court, and has been a member of the foundation’s board since 2012 and took over as chair in January 2023.

She sat down with Stefan Thimmel from the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation to talk about Henselmann’s architectural legacy, the work of the foundation that bears his namesake, and the urban planning challenges confronting Berlin as one of Europe’s most dynamic and fast-growing metropolises.

The official description of the Hermann-Henselmann-Stiftung on the Bundesstiftung Baukultur website reads: “The foundation promotes critical work on questions related to architecture, urban planning, and socially minded urban development. In doing so, it not only seeks to commemorate the work of Hermann Henselmann, but also, and in particular, to discuss the social and cultural aspects of modern and contemporary architecture.” You took over the reins of the Herman-Henselmann-Stiftung at the start of this year. What is the foundation’s value in your eyes? Why is it important?

Since it was founded, the Hermann-Henselmann-Stiftung has filled a gap in the broad urban development field in Germany — namely the critical assessment of the legacy of post-war urban planning, particularly in Berlin and East Germany.

After the social upheavals that led to the reunification of Germany, this era of urban modernism — in particular as manifested in socialist architecture and urban planning — not only tended to be neglected in debates focusing on planning the future of the city, but was also actively discredited, and its particular qualities were negated. This was part of broader, at times heated debates around the legacy of the GDR. These debates coincided with plans to modernize East German cities to help them “catch up” to their West German counterparts according to a capitalist playbook.

The key figures in the Hermann-Henselmann-Stiftung have been active participants in the debates around urban planning in Berlin since the 1990s. Since the foundation’s inception, this engagement has focused on events, publications, and participation in public debates.

The aim of the foundation has always been to propose new ideas and offer suggestions about the current problems and projects in the field of urban development in Berlin. And it combines this with a commitment to rigorous expertise and a focus on social and political concerns. Critical analysis of the plans for Berlin-Mitte, launching and supporting the application for World Heritage status for the most important examples of post-war modernism in Berlin — Karl-Marx-Allee, the Hansaviertel, and Corbusier’s Unité d’Habitation of Berlin — are the most important examples of this.

The current decade will be decisive when it comes to laying the foundations for a just future.

In addition to the architectural history of East Germany and post-war modernism, the urban history of Berlin is an important field of activity for the Hermann-Henselmann-Stiftung. In 2012, the foundation held a conference to commemorate the one-hundred-and-fiftieth anniversary of the Hobrecht Plan for Berlin, which to this day remains a cornerstone of the city’s urban development. In 2015, it conceived a multi-year programme under the title “100 Years of Greater Berlin”, which wrapped up in 2022 with the final publication in a five-volume series on questions of housing, traffic, green development, planning culture, and regional perspectives.

With these kinds of projects, the Hermann-Henselmann-Stiftung has managed to make a name for itself and reach a broad public. That would not have been possible without the work and expertise of the long-serving chair Dr. Thomas Flierl. Picking up where his work left off is a somewhat daunting prospect.

Who was the architect Hermann Henselmann for you? What does he mean to you? As somebody who studied architecture, worked in the field, and has a degree in urban civil engineering, you actually had the chance to meet him, did you not?

I never actually met Hermann Henselmann personally, but his work is ubiquitous, and I certainly became familiar with him once I began studying at the College of Architecture and Civil Engineering in Weimar, where he was the first rector after the war.

He played a decisive role in the post-war development of German cities, particularly in the urban centres of the GDR. That is particularly true of Berlin. The Hochhaus an der Weberwiese, Karl-Marx-Allee, the TV Tower, the House of the Teacher, and the Kongresshalle have left their mark on the appearance of Berlin-Mitte to this day. His ability to combine social functions and architectural and aesthetic ideals remains exemplary.

Keeping the memory of the life and works of this important designer and his colleagues alive and fostering new research into it remains an important area of our work, and it will continue to be moving forward. Explaining the qualities of the architecture of the GDR and documenting them and defending them against revisionist attacks — both unthinking digs and deliberate attempts to denigrate this history — is something that runs through all the work we do at the Hermann-Henselmann-Stiftung.

In your opinion, what specific contributions can the foundation make to the aforementioned debates in the future? What are your plans for the coming years, and what are some of the most important projects?

The Hermann-Henselmann-Stiftung will continue to address issues related to urban development and our interaction with our architectural legacy through events, publications, and conferences.

The debates about Berlin-Mitte are currently focused, on the one hand, on the design of the large open spaces beneath the TV Tower between Alexanderplatz station and the Spree River, and, on the other hand, the plans to build a new neighbourhood at Molkenmarkt, between the Rotes Rathaus and the Altes Stadthaus. Our aim here is to ensure that development is rooted in both sustainability and historical awareness, and that backward-looking urban ideas do not gain the upper hand again — which is by no means a given, in light of the on-going controversies in the field and changes in the urban policy landscape. We want to bolster progressive approaches to cooperative urban development and campaign for them to be integrated into current and future projects.

Moreover, we will continue to support Berlin’s application for its key examples of post-war Modernist architecture to receive World Heritage status. We will be focusing in particular on erecting pavilions on Karl-Marx-Allee and on co-organizing a new exhibition.

Issues related to the social cohesion of the city, climate-friendly transformation, and strengthening the ability of cities to cope with the consequences of climate change are becoming increasingly central and urgent. The need for a social-ecological transformation of society and our way of life as a whole has knock-on effects for our planned and architectural environments. The foundation will address these challenges by introducing “urban transformations” as a new focus for our annual conferences and symposia.

The current decade will be decisive when it comes to laying the foundations for a just future. If we look back at the same decade in the twentieth century, we see that the 1920s was characterized by major reform proposals and by significant social upheaval, and we all know about the awful events that ensued when these efforts at reform failed. Consulting history to ask important questions in an effort to find proposals for the future, and doing so with reference to the eventful history of Berlin, is a long-standing tradition at the Hermann-Henselmann-Stiftung. We will continue to do this over the coming years, with a focus on the climate-conscious transformation of urban areas.

Working together with skilled and knowledgeable partners in the field, the foundation continues to be a force that provides new avenues for investigation and is an active participant in discussions around the search for the best solutions for the future of the city. We will continue to promote dialogue with industry professionals and academics, we want to reach more young people, and together, improve the social and aesthetic quality of our built environment.

Just a final little plug: the Hermann-Henselmann-Stiftung is run on a voluntary basis and, thanks to our fiduciary managers, has access to a modest operating budget. As such, we tackle these big, pressing issues with limited resources. For this reason, we are always all too happy to receive additional support or financial donations. You can visit our website for more in-depth information, and if you are interested in our work, you can contact us about getting involved.