A Women's Berlin: Building the Modern City

July 2, 2009

Most cities trigger immediate visual associations: in Berlin's case, for example, they are of the Wall that once divided it, or the iconic Brandenburg Gate. One may also think of the Trummerfrauen (rubble women) who tackled the devastation of the city after the Second World War. After reading Despina Stratigakos' engaging study A Women's Berlin: Building the Modern City, it would seem only right to add the eye-catching images of a female builder braving a precarious construction high above Berlin's rooftops to make repairs to the town hall and of a female photographer taking a snapshot of the city from a similar construction. Both photographs were taken around 1910 and they are indicative of the impressive gendered dimension of imperial Berlin that unfolds in this volume: a host of so-far neglected female patrons, architects, designers - and workers, too - who left their mark on the city.

Stratigakos, assistant professor of architecture at the State University of New York at Buffalo, shows how women's changing patterns of life and work impacted on the vibrant imperial city between 1871 and 1918. Her starting point for this exercise in remapping is a 1913 women's guide to the city that represents "a cartography of female agency in the industrial metropolis". Was die Frau von Berlin wissen muss (What a Woman must Know about Berlin) was re-edited in 1932. Referring to the second edition, Stratigakos' epilogue shows that it is not necessarily the legendary 1920s that mark women's departure from traditional perspectives. Instead, comparing the imperial and the inter-war metropolis, the author observes a "shift from civic activism to consumerism" and, in view of the economic challenges, to a yearning "for the security and comfort of traditional domestic life". In contrast to the 1920s, the imperial city (like the first guidebook) is marked by "an unprecedented social type" that takes advantage of Berlin's entrepreneurial spirit while still faced with legal and social hurdles.

The study presents a convincing selection of new material, cases and narratives. At the heart of the analysis are visual and spatial representations that accommodate difference in terms both of a female identity and of social class. Stratigakos frequently draws parallels to other cities and thereby highlights the unique role Berlin played at the time, not least with regard to the options open to women. She considers the "politics of clubhouse architecture" (with striking distinctions from London at the same time), new residential types of housing for women (most intriguingly the Victoria Studienhaus that catered for female students) and the successful 1912 exhibition Die Frau in Haus und Beruf dedicated to women's role in the world of work and at home.

Particularly fascinating is the chapter entitled "The Architecture of Social Work", which includes various contemporary debates about female housing inspectors. This illustrates the conflict between those who argued that women lacked the technical expertise to do such work and others who stressed the importance of an understanding of domestic - and therefore also of human - affairs. It highlights the wealth of implications the realisation of a modern female identity had, albeit more in terms of (positive) change for bourgeois women than for their working-class counterparts.

Stratigakos adds colour and distinction to a crucial period in Berlin's history. The interest of her study goes well beyond that of gender and architecture and contributes to a better understanding of the daily life of imperial Berlin. "Women and architecture" is a topic that deserves more attention in general, and A Women's Berlin is an excellent example of how it can be done and of the illustrative quality such a study can have. This account of a "largely forgotten city, a site of both dreams and real spaces" will fill a gap in any library on Berlin.

A Women's Berlin: Building the Modern City

By Despina Stratigakos. University of Minnesota Press 256pp, £46.50 and £15.50. ISBN 9780816653225 and 53232. Published 12 September 2008

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