Sunday, 3 September 2017

Margaretenhöhe - refuge from dystopia

Essen is the heartland of the industrial Ruhr. For 400 years it was the centre of the Krupp dynasty with its massive iron and steel producing plants, coalmines and manufacturing from armaments to locomotives. In 1887 control of the business passed to Friedrich Alfred Krupp (known to all as Fritz) who profitably refocused the company on arms production, including warships and U-boats. Leaving behind his wife, Margarethe and his two daughters he would spend several months each year in his villa on the island of Capri. There he would indulge his passions for oceanography and the company of Italian adolescent males. Following his arrest by Italian police for immoral conduct in October 1902 he returned to Germany to be utterly overwhelmed by public scandal as the news filtered back to his homeland. Meanwhile Margarethe, having received anonymous evidence of Fritz’s proclivities, appealed to the Kaiser, a close family friend for assistance in protecting the reputation of the company. Her reward was to be declared insane and confined to an institution on the orders of the Kaiser. Despite the support of the Kaiser, prosecution seemed inevitable and it was Fritz’s sudden death in November that brought matters to a conclusion. There is no agreement on whether he died by his own hand or from natural causes but Margarethe was returned to the family home and managed the business on behalf of her daughter (who inherited the controlling shares from her father) until she came of age in 1906.

After all this turbulence, Margarethe Krupp chose to embark on a personal philanthropic project in 1906 to establish Germany’s first Garden City in the southern suburbs of Essen. She donated the land plus a major sum for construction costs and established a foundation (Stiftung von Margarethe Krupp) to build and administer the new settlement. Guided by the principles of Ebenezer Howard, the first homes were occupied in 1910 and the project proceeded in phases under the supervision of architect, Georg Metzendorf (1874-1934) until completion in 1938. Until 1933 there was a small artists’ colony, prominent among them being the photographer Albert Renger-Patzsch, associated with Die Neue Sachlichkeit movement. Renger-Patzsch specialised in cool dispassionate recording of industrial landscapes and photographs of still-life and the natural world in which he expressed a strong preference for serial imagery.

Allied bombing destroyed many of the buildings in World War 2 – by 1945 less than half of homes were habitable. After a long rehabilitation it was meticulously restored to its original character by 1955. Protected status as an architectural monument was obtained in 1987. The Foundation continues to manage and allocate the letting of houses and apartments. Applications are considered in reference to the Foundation criteria and many are unsuccessful. The Foundation also takes a close interest in protecting the building fabric from unauthorised additions or modifications – tenants wishing to relay a tiled or parquet floor must have their plans approved, special permission is required for dogs or cats and gardens must be maintained to an agreed standard and formula. Satellite dishes are forbidden.

Surrounded by woodland and entered via an archway in the sprawling gateway complex (seen in the vintage postcard above) gives a sense of enclosure and separation from the clamour of the world outside. This quality must have been much more apparent in the days when Essen was an industrial metropolis with 291 collieries and thousands of chimneys and cooling towers venting dark, toxic fumes into the atmosphere. Since the 1990s and the advent of globalisation, Essen has massively de-industrialised while the relics of heavy industry have been transformed into heritage attractions and public amenities. In this context, while the Margaretenhöhe has lost none of its foliage-sheltered charm, it is no longer such a precious refuge from industrial dystopia. The architecture has echoes of Arts & Crafts and German vernacular traditions in its proliferation of quirky features and contrasting rooflines designed to refute any accusation of dull uniformity. Streets were expressly kinked to compose a scene that constantly changes and intersections offset to offer the greatest variety of views. Generous tree planting and amenity space, a central square for markets and community events, a hotel and retail premises and places of worship complete the picture.

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