Tenement blocks

Due to their tenant-unfriendly design, droves of tenements built in late 19th century Berlin quickly got a bad reputation. Most of them were cheaply made, five-storey structures financed by private investors. They were located inside so-called "block edge developments" that occupied the front of entire street blocks. Behind the smart street facades, tenement gardens or other open spaces were gradually filled in to accommodate ever more tenants and boost rental income during the city's great housing shortage of the 1920s. This type of complex dominated the landscape of Berlin's working-class districts such as Moabit, Wedding, Kreuzberg, Neukölln, Friedrichshain and Prenzlauer Berg. The inner reaches of these huge blocks were typically built around a series of courtyards.

Typically, Berlin tenement blocks had one or two cheaply-constructed side wings followed by a cross-wing, which was in turn followed by another courtyard, and so on. Such complexes were often several courtyards in depth. According to the legal requirements of the day, these rear extensions could be very narrow: legally, an inner courtyard did not have to be more than five-and-a-half metres wide, the clearance needed for a horse-drawn fire engine to turn around. In a complex of one to two storeys, you might not find that space narrow, but because the bulk of Berlin's tenements were higher – generally five storeys with an average height of about 22 metres – these properties felt cramped.

Foto einer typischen Berliner Hinterhöfe
Typical situation with numerous courtyards, Berlin-Wedding, around 1910, photo: Willy Römer, Source: Wikimedia / Kunstbibliothek SMB, Photothek