How Women Urban Builders Collaborated to Remake their Environment

The redesign of cities at the turn of the 20th century was nowhere as evident as in Berlin

Release Date: September 5, 2008 This content is archived.


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Despina Stratigakos' new book, "A Women's Berlin," examines the era between 1871 and 1918 when women took control of Berlin's spaces and laid the foundation for a novel experience of urban modernity.

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- "The modern city and the modern woman invented each other," says architectural historian Despina Stratigakos, a fact she says is clearly demonstrated in Berlin, a city that women began to claim as their own in bold and dramatic ways at the turn of the 20th century.

In a new book published this month, "A Woman's Berlin: Building the Modern City" (University of Minnesota Press), Stratigakos, assistant professor of architecture in the University at Buffalo School of Architecture and Planning, examines the era between 1871 and 1918 when women took control of Berlin's spaces and laid the foundation for a novel experience of urban modernity.

Berlin was not the only city to experience this phenomenon. Professional and affluent women of the age established elaborate private clubs and residences in many American and European cities, some of which were architecturally grand and included libraries, restaurants, spas, child care centers and other specialized services. Their boldness and independence was not lost on a frequently horrified male establishment.

Stratigakos' demonstrates that in Berlin, however, women clients collaborated with female design professionals to produce an alternative metropolis that articulated female aesthetics and spaces and made the urban experience work for women as it did in few other places.

In particular, she says, "Their Berlin embraced feminine modernity, both culturally and architecturally, and permitted women's presence to be felt in the streets and institutions of that dynamic capital."

From residences to restaurants, dormitories, apartment buildings and schools to exhibition halls, private clubs, settlement houses and even a retirement community, a visible network of women's spaces arose to accommodate the changing patterns of women's life and work -- all of this prior to World War I.

"Architecture is expensive," says Stratigakos, "but the women's movement in Germany was well-established by 1890 and German professional women came into their own financially at the turn of the 20th century. They learned how to pool their money through building cooperatives, which enabled them to build on a monumental scale.

"There were a surprising number of such buildings put up in this period," says Stratigakos, "many still there, and although not functioning in their original context, they stand as mute witnesses to a history unfamiliar to most people.

At the same time as women were literally building a new city in architecture, she says, "female journalists, artists, political activists and social reformers were remaking Berlin in words and images.

"Although the city was often described in popular publications as a dangerous place for women, and avant garde art focused on prostitutes and other victims," Stratigakos says, "women portrayed themselves as influential actors on the urban scene and wrote guidebooks in which they encouraged female audiences to view their relationship to the city in a radically different light.

"Their remapping of Berlin connected the imaginary to the physical, merged dreams and asphalt, and inextricably linked the creation of the modern woman with that of the modern city," she says.

The book unites Stratigakos' research interests in women's history with 19th- and 20th-century European art and architecture. She has published on the public image of women architects, the gender politics of the Werkbund, connections between architectural and sexual discourses in Weimar Germany and exiled Jewish women architects in the United States.

The University at Buffalo is a premier research-intensive public university, a flagship institution in the State University of New York system and its largest and most comprehensive campus. UB's more than 28,000 students pursue their academic interests through more than 300 undergraduate, graduate and professional degree programs. Founded in 1846, the University at Buffalo is a member of the Association of American Universities.

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