Living upon a Highway
Not a single sound. Even if you listen really hard. All you hear are birds singing on this sunny day in Berlin. And some soul music from a far away apartment. You hear neighbours talking, you hear the bus stopping at the opposite site of the road – but what you do not hear are the many cars, speeding down the Highway 104 through Berlin Wilmersdorf. Speeding down the Highway right through Schlangenbader Str. 11 – 28, right through a tower block. Living on third or fourth floor here means to have one’s sleeping room right next to the Highway.
Die Schlange – the snake. A project absurd and genial at the same time. When flats were missing in the 70ties in Western Berlin and no more space was left, the town council decided to build simply upon existing grown structure. To build 1.750 apartments, a 14 store high complex, on top of 600 meters existing highway.
Lothar Hünze is one of the about 5.000 people living in the Snake. “LOTHAR Hünze”, the pensioner emphasizes his first name, “there are 3 Hünzes total living here.” LOTHAR Hünze moved into Schlangenbader Str. 23A about ten years ago. “I had a garden before. I wanted to be surrounded by green again – that’s why I decided to live here. Besser kann man es gar nicht haben. There is nothing better than this.“ For him the snake is Schönes Wohnen – Nice living. Mainly because of the big balcony and the many tress in the court. And because the snake and its 5.000 inhabitants feel like a little village itself.
“The trees almost grow right into my bed room.” Lothar Hünze and his dog Lucky
“If you tell a rumour starting out at one site of the snake you can be sure that already 15 minutes later it arrives at the other end. It is like Stille Post (Chinese Whisper). Everybody knows everything.” Gabriele Frevert is the snake’s housing manager. It is not for the first time the lists the facts. “We had so many journalists here already. And architecture students.” The Superstructure of a Highway is unique in Europe. The special architecture (two box girder that are statically and acoustical separated from the block) makes sure that the noise of the highway is not heard in within the apartments. The pioneer project is a prototype of the practicability of living next and upon a highway. It stayed a prototype ever since.
Surely, 20 years ago the snake was a structural engineering Revolution. The bloc was only partly finished when the first tenants moved in. With the missing living space plus the fact that every second apartment has a balcony or a terrace the new bloc was very attractive to many Berliners.
Two seperated constructions: The Highway tube and the living complex SNAKE
But as the years passed by the tower block started to decline. “In the 80ties the snake featured everything: crime, drugs, prostitution”, summarizes Gabriele Frevert the soon change. “The complex was about to drift to a Sozialpalast – a ghetto for the social weak.” The DEGEWO, the state owned company responsible for the block, drew their consequences: doors with coded gates were places everywhere (before one could walk through the complete building and through all the floors), security patrols hired, cameras installed. And the renting was exempted. “Now we can choose who can move in and who not.” A selective social housing. The statics about the declining crime reveal that this concept worked out. But not everybody is happy with the changes.
Viola grew up in the snake. “I was nearly born here. When my Mom got her labour pain the arriving emergency got lost in the bloc and almost couldn’t find her on time.” The 24 year jobs as a waitress in ‘Holly – the Original Washhouse’. The bar with its odd US-60ties-style-interior serves as a meeting point for the people living above the Highway. “99,9 percent of the guest are Stammkunden, regular customers. It is like a little family.” Lively Viola gives a irritated look, but one can be sure that it is because of this atmosphere that the young woman works here.
The SNAKE’s Bar: Holly – the Original Washhouse
Being asked about her childhood she starts romanticising. She tells about the beautiful playgrounds, about the block’s own youth club, how she had an attended place to do her homework. “Somehow it is all different now. There is almost no offers for the youth left.” “Man, and the prices went up.” Helmut, sitting at the end of the bar drinking a beer joins the conversation. “I mean, this is supposed to be social housing. But I pay over 300 Euro for my little one-room-apartment. What is social about that?”
Asked about the cuts and the lifting prices Gabriele Frevert voice stays ascertained. It feels like “that’s the way it goes”-mentality. “Surely – the subventions are cut everywhere. And mainly in the social sector – so our offerings changed and the rents need to go up.”