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Suburbs evolve in different ways. Some, like Levittown on New York’s Long Island, are mass-produced experiments in affordable housing. Others are random urban overspill, like outside any Chinese city. There are exclusive but boring gated communities; low-income, densely populated housing projects on the periphery or simply the nondescript interstitial zones that the Pet Shop Boys once sang about in the 1980s song “Suburbia”. Most get a bad rap.

But while a good suburb is hard to find, some do offer personality: a quality of life that may not be urban but is nonetheless special. Take Berlin’s Wannsee, the city’s southwesternmost district, straddling several lakes formed by the River Havel. Here, a community that grew over centuries became part of the city without losing its unique qualities. “When we were first thinking of moving here, we realised the minute you crossed the bridge, it felt like we were on holiday,” says Stefanie Hering, remembering the decision to leave Prenzlauer Berg in 2000. The feeling was enough to convince the porcelain designer and her husband, architect Götz Esslinger, to relocate their family and their business, Hering Berlin, to the district, even if it hadn’t necessarily been their original plan (an estate agent showed them a plot of land in Wannsee that suited them; their third business partner, Wiebke Lehmann, eventually moved to Wannsee as well). After arriving, there was no looking back. Work is easier with fewer distractions and clients love coming to the showroom – the ground floor of a large house the couple built on a leafy street. “It was easy to meet people because of our children,” says Hering. “And all kinds of people live here.”

Her comments run counter to Wannsee’s image, which is that of an exclusive monoculture with a difficult history (it was here that the National Socialists came up with the “final solution” in 1942 in a lakeside villa that’s now a memorial). True, with its yacht clubs and manors, Wannsee is clearly wealthy. But what’s not immediately visible is a much broader mix of income levels, activities, even architectures. Found on leafy streets near Wilhelmian-era houses or the flat-roofed 1930s modernist architecture dotting the area are multi-family apartment buildings or even old farmhouses. Some villas are now public culture facilities, like the Literarisches Colloquium (a writers’ and translators’ residency) or the Max Liebermann house (a villa that once belonged to the Secession artist and is now a mini-museum and public garden).

An old barn and feed centre has been converted into a deli/café/gallery called Mutter Fourage. And each Friday the old village centre, with its church and cobbled square, hosts a farmers’ market. For the 9,437 people living here, the social, historical, and architectural layers add up to an unexpectedly varied community.

The village of Stolpe (now the centre of Wannsee) was first mentioned in the year 1299. By the late 19th century it had grown to include two colonies of grand villas developed by banker Wilhelm Conrad and Prussian Prince Friedrich Karl; the first railway connecting Wannsee to Berlin and nearby Potsdam opened in 1874. In 1898, Stolpe and the colonies were officially named Wannsee, like the two lakes, Kleiner Wannsee and Grosser Wannsee, it flanked (“see” is “lake” in German). When greater Berlin incorporated as a city in 1920, the district became Berlin’s southwesternmost area.

Little would residents then know what the 20th century in Germany would bring but Wannsee’s current charm is partially the result of ending up in Berlin’s back corner after the Second World War (in which many of the original villas were damaged). During the Cold War when the city was carved into occupation zones, Wannsee was at the end of the American sector – West Berlin didn’t get further west than this. This isolation saved the district from the suburban sprawl, industrial creep and overdevelopment often found at the edges of other European cities. “What was once the Berlin Wall’s no-man’s land is directly behind our garden,” says Trixi Kirsch, who has lived in a house that lay literally on the border to former East Germany for 38 years. Visually, she says, not much has changed. The only major shift is the faint sound of traffic on the Autobahn connecting Berlin and Potsdam nearby, which is far more heavily travelled these days. Some areas will also be affected by the new Berlin-Brandenburg airport when it finally opens.

The district’s most impressive asset is the lake that has inspired poets, rejuvenated weary city dwellers and even spawned Olympians. Strandbad Wannsee is Europe’s largest inland beach – 1.2km of fine white sand. It was developed as a public facility in the early 1990s but was especially important in the decades in which West Berliners were stuck inland. Across the lake is the Verein Seglerhaus am Wannsee, a sailing club founded in 1867 with a stately yet welcoming clubhouse dating to 1910. The club is exclusive but functions as a nonprofit organisation and runs a strong youth sailing programme. “We’ve always sent a team to the Olympics,” says club managing director Frank Butzmann, who sailed in the 1996 Games in Atlanta; this year the club is sending two teams to London.

Dining on the clubhouse terrace and watching the windsurfers beyond the bobbing masts of docked boats, it’s easy to see Wannsee’s appeal, even if it isn’t trendy. The population is older than in central Berlin (Esslinger claims the district is missing a good local nightclub or bar) and, as Kirsch mentions, “You don’t have much spontaneity here.” But plenty of young families live in the district and commute to the city centre, which takes about 30 minutes on the train. Still others work here and live in the city, like employees of the area’s several hospitals, or R Jay Magill, 40, editor at the American Academy in Berlin, a lakeside residency programme for American scholars and writers whose lectures and readings have made it a cultural fixture since its launch in 1998. “I love the commute,” he says, pointing through a set of huge windows overlooking a terrace, groomed garden, and the water. “Look at this view. When I go to work, I’m going to a villa on a lake.” And he smiles.

  • Oak Park, Chicago Few suburbs attract architecture buffs like Oak Park in Chicago’s west. Frank Lloyd Wright spent the first 20 years of his career here and completed 25 projects in the area.

  • Tapiola, Helsinki After the Second World War a non-profit enterprise called Asuntosäätiö (the Housing Foundation) bought 660 acres of forestland to develop into the perfect modernist garden city.

  • Hampstead Garden, London The rows of ivy covered houses, are often cited as pinnacles of early 20th century domestic architecture.

  • Echo Park, LA Before the US film industry moved to Hollywood, it used to call Echo Park home. It has become one of the stars in a city that’s almost entirely suburban.

  • Ladugårdsgärdet, Stockholm A chic, leafy suburb built in the late 1930s by a group of Swedish modernists. Functionalist apartments are set around the green vistas of the central Tessinparken.

Defending the suburb

Suburbs often get a bad press from urban thinkers. The arguments are simple: dense neighbourhoods in the core of the city require fewer services than sparsely populated places on the fringes. Suburbs force the fools who choose to live in them to be car-dependent. The fact that the people who tend to live in suburbs are, well, a bit suburban, also fails to endear them. But the fact is we can’t all live in the Marais or Nolita and at least the suburbs are denser than rural idylls. We need to make the ones that work prosper and encourage a culture of local stores and delivery services. Zoning laws should also be used to encourage small businesses to set up in the suburbs, stopping them being dormitory places. We also need to understand why suburbs continue to be built: some people like being close to the city but also desire space and greenery. Urban pontificators need to get over their prejudices.

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