Moderne Gebäude am Ufer eines Flusses
19 October 2020

“A new generation of high-rise building”

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The WATERKANT Berlin high-rise building is the first that Gewobag has built this century. In this interview, renowned Berlin architect Eike Becker talks about the special features of “his” new building and about what role a new generation of high-rise buildings might play for people and for the development of modern cities.

WATERKANT-Architekt Eike Becker.
Eike Becker and Helge Schmidt have run the internationally renowned Eike Becker_Architekten office in Berlin since 1999.

Mr Becker, as the designing architect, you and your office Eike Becker_Architekten are responsible for the project development and general planning of the WATERKANT high-rise building. What is special about the project?

Eike Becker: First of all, it’s one of the first socially acceptable high-rise buildings in Berlin for many years. It provides space for 58 grant-eligible, accessible flats, including multi-generational and family homes. All four flats on each floor have interior loggias sheltered from the wind with a view of the water. The façade cladding connects the individual windows to form larger units and gives the house its calm, pleasant proportions.

Moreover, the almost 60-metre high, 16-storey building is an important component of a diverse new neighbourhood. It’s located directly on the public promenade. Around it, there are a variety of communal gardens and roof terraces that are open to the public. A nursery on the ground floor establishes a connection to the large public playground next door. Space for quiet business on the ground floors and access to e-mobility, car, bike and cargo bike sharing create an overall high quality of life.  

Lots of new high-rise buildings will be built in Berlin over the next few years. Why are more buildings being built upwards?

Becker: Redensification is a current hot topic. Many fronts collide: owners want to increase their property values, cooperatives want to build additional housing for their members, project developers and investors want to increase their profits. Architects want to improve construction quality and state-owned housing associations want to expand their range of housing.

What’s your opinion?

Becker: Today, political, economic, ecological and social aspects speak in favour of significantly more compact construction. Politicians are also demanding an urban mixed city with short distances, local jobs and social mix. The overriding political goal is to enable as many people as possible to participate in an inclusive and creative city in the best way. However, the specific local implementation fails all too frequently due to populist pragmatism.

The intensive use of already developed properties with their existing infrastructure combined with more voluminous buildings could make a significant contribution to reducing costs in housing construction. But many agencies brace themselves every extra metre with their existing building laws, like rugby players.

And in what way are high-rise buildings ecological?

Becker: Compact cities have a smaller ecological footprint and, as a result, use fewer resources, less energy and less land. Compared to Hong Kong, one of the most densely populated cities in the world, energy consumption in Berlin, which is less built up, is three times higher; in more sprawling cities like Zurich, it is six times higher, in expansive Melbourne twelve times higher and in green Los Angeles as much as 18 times higher. No amount of ambitious energy-saving regulations can make up for this.

But don’t residents in high-rise buildings have a lower quality of life?

Becker: No, because it’s about bringing people closer together so that people get together more often and neighbourhoods develop. We are talking about a new generation of high-rise buildings. These new vertical villages have almost nothing in common with the soulless residential machines of the dormitory towns of the 1960s. Modern high-rise buildings take into account the needs of people and their changing living situations. They are built in the middle of the city, conveniently situated, carefully integrated into their neighbourhood and are planned in an architecturally discerning way. For logical reasons, they get a base in which meeting places such as shops, cafés and restaurants are created. And why not also make the ground floor areas available to sports clubs, music clubs or social facilities at an affordable price?

Scheel, Senator for Urban Development and Housing, and member of the Gewobag board Snezana Michaelis at the start of construction of the 16-storey high-rise building at WATERKANT Berlin. Photo © City Press.

Are high-rise buildings a necessary part of modern cities?

Becker: If they bring people together, encourage community and create neighbourliness, then yes. High-rise buildings make a city denser. And denser cities increase the probability that people who are like-minded will also come together. Furthermore, density also encourages economic innovation. The probability of achieving a higher economic level, closer social ties or a stronger subjective sense of well-being is greater in the city than it is in a residential area of single-family homes in the suburbs.

Let’s take a look into the future: will Berlin and other cities in Germany also be packed with skyscrapers?

Becker: No German city will be participating in a competition for the world’s tallest building. Most German cities have a historical silhouette made up of domes and church towers, which is also why skyscrapers do not usually have majority appeal – and urban planning is a community matter: because many social groups are involved, high-rise buildings are not the type of building that has gained or will gain widespread acceptance in Germany.

Is there a justified cause for criticism?

Becker: The question is: what is the right dose of excitement and calm to increase the quality of life in a neighbourhood with an unnaturally fast pace of life? Simply copying 19th century Gründerzeit-style neighbourhoods is not enough. But urban densification also only works if it is an overall concept and if the people are not content with simply increasing the number of storeys on the same area.

An extensive improvement in the quality of life can be achieved with densification combined with retrofitting public spaces. This notably applies to the quality of recreation and open space and requires a decisive repurposing of the areas: reducing roads, extending cycling and pedestrian paths, opening up ground floors, creating roof gardens and adapting parks to changing play and leisure activities. Streets and spaces have to become versatile places for movement, meetings, services and inspiration. WATERKANT Berlin is a good example of this.

Thank you for talking with us!

Foto und rendering © Eike Becker_Architekten

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