by Katharine Tyndall
On the outskirts of Berlin in a district called Adlershof, a group of ten ultra-modern apartment buildings stand unassumingly next to a few vacant lots and the Johannisthal park. Like most of the buildings in Adlershof, the site of Humboldt University’s Engineering and Psychology expansion, these apartments are brand-new, built to house the rising numbers of students arriving in Berlin each school season. Unlike many student dormitories, this one is up for an architectural award for its vivid, inviting exterior, and the number of students milling about the structures certainly make it seem successful – though in a city where cheap, reliable short-term housing is increasingly difficult to come by, the rental office may have been just as successful with a fleet of live-in trailers.
The structures appear commercial, yet avant-garde, the kind of design one might expect from a chain of coffee shops or frozen-yogurt restaurants. The white plaster walls are interrupted by jagged wood paneling and brightly-colored window-shades, everything geometric and all sparkling with newness. Although the asymmetry of the panels and windows gives an impression of careful, thoughtful design, the sheer quantity and uniformity of the structures reminds the visitors of the mass-production that must have occurred here. These are the apartment-sized versions of Ikea – the same minimalist design for all, but with no assembly necessary.
With an exterior so carefully calculated to attract the youth of Berlin to move in, the interior strives to accommodate a large number of students. The three floors of the building each host one “house,” with ten individual cells giving students a private room and bathroom. The kitchen/dining/living room occupy a large space in the center of each floor. The student living cells have all of the mass-produced uniformity of the eye-catching exterior with none of the panache – poured concrete floors and white plaster walls are hung with the same arrangement of shelves-desk-bed in every room on every floor. The communal area in the center is outfitted with a similar level of Ikea-style minimalism, with the chosen color scheme appearing to be a spectrum of greys.
To make these rooms ready for a continuous cycle of students to move in and out, most of the amenities needed to be built in. Here is where the designers began to sacrifice function for aesthetics. In an attempt to make the area seem sleek and youthful, the surfaces of the kitchen are unbroken streams of stainless steel – sinks, ovens, stoves, and refrigerators all built-in. The side-by-side sinks in the kitchen are separated by an impractically wide swathe of stainless steel, and the rim of the counter has no lip. Thus, in many of the houses, water from the sinks is constantly splashing from the central post of the sinks, onto the countertop, and cascading down to the floor, where it puddles on the concrete until it is mopped up. Additionally, the size of the kitchen itself says more about the architects’ university experience than anything else – the cooking/washing area is crammed into a quarter of the common area to make room for a massive section of sofas and lounge chairs. Here is a man who spent his college days on the couch eating bread and cheese.
Admittedly, the design of the Adlershof Studentendorf took a little more thought than your average concrete Plattenbau, and at least on the exterior of the building, a little attention was paid to aesthetics. But with every room, floor, and building identical across ten buildings and three hundred residents, clearly more thought was given to the enticing exterior than the comfort and livability of the interior spaces. Underneath its jaunty geometric exterior, the village is nothing more than a very attractive commercial sardine-can, designed to pack in as many people as possible and maximize profits. Those wishing to move in to the village may want to visit a house before they move in, but don’t stick around for the grand tour – believe me, when you’ve seen one room, you’ve seen them all.