HEJDUK and the Social Contract

(above) Kreuzburg social housing tower, Berlin, 1987, by architect John Hejduk.


The Architects Newspaper, “Defacing Hejduk,” illuminates the impending threat to John Hedjuk’s Friedrichstrasse tower but may defeat its advocacy with an opening salvo that reminds us of an earlier era of lukewarm press on John Hedjuk.

The John-Hejduk-built-very-few-buildings introduction is rooted in the old propaganda, the sieve through which the poetic, anti-commercial ethics of Hedjuk’s view on architectural practice was strained. I am quite sure that the author does not wish to inherit that tone, in light of their impassioned plea to save the architectural project.

At the outset of the struggle to save the character of this first of the Hejduk IBA [International Building Exhibition in Berlin, 1979-87] projects to be threatened by new development, it is time to address the comprehensive objectives of the type of practiceembodied in this building to secure its integrity.

Any echo of the tired attempt to undermine the main thrust of the type of resistance that secured Hejduk’s presence among the group of architects who formed the architecture of the city discourse in the discipline rather than the business of architecture debilitates the potential to save this project in a manner that doesn’t render it impotent.

The spirit of the effort to sustain and preserve this building must extend to the intent of Hejduk’s position to open a new era of potent action. First, acknowledge that the preservation of this civic complex is a recognition that its historic value is in its challenge to the assessment of “quantity” over selectivity in the oeuvre of the architect. As “the house for the inhabitant who agreed to participate,” this threat to the architecture of consent leads to the issue of whether an integrity of both form and program should be advocated by our discourse. And to the question of whether separating the preservation of the building form without examining its relationship to the intended civic functionis a cause that Hejduk would care to support.

The Hejduk tower is no longer being inhabited to serve its original humanist program. It is no longer social housing [state subsidized for low-low/middle incomes] and has been sold to a developer who wants to transform it into profitable real estate. Consequently, it seems that they are trying to gut them and reconfigure them in spatial organization, programmatic function and tone. Here we are faced with the embarrassment that the IBA social housing is being converted to luxury condos without any grasp of what will inevitably be lost to the memory of Berlin.

If the city of Berlin were to honor the social vision of the IBA projects and the social structure they supported, this project would not be in danger. This is a very consequential issue and one that I think must be seen within a larger perspective. It is more than a design issue of character, maintenance, or style.

All of the architects who responded to the city’s invitations—under the leadership of  architect Josef Paul Kleihues—and designed these innovative interventions for social housing with domesticated civic space now are historically important projects endangered after the fall of the Wall and the new socio-economic aspirations of Berlin.

The question of how to frame the support for the authenticity of the project is important, as is the question of who in Berlin is working to support the integrity of the IBA accomplishments within the urban fabric. I think that the architecture community should go after this with a strong statement on the authenticity and relationship of form to program and social integrity.

The quantity versus selective practice approach contravenes the fact that Hedjuk limited his participation to projects that he was consciously willing to address, illuminate and define as consistent with his commitment to “architects as the keepers of civilization.”

His position is quality and selective quantity versus a practice of pure commercial and material demonstration, and here the social housing of IBA supplied him a definitive condition. The IBA projects he participated in to see constructed, address the site, objectives, social program and civic body to which he took responsibility and identified with. Here he supported the construction of his architecture and the framework of the IBA objectives, and restraints, in order to serve the advancement and civilizing effect on its city, Berlin.

The IBA projects were built in Berlin as innovative social housing which is currently threatened in its very raison d’etre, and consequently in the expression of tectonic and iconographic invention and nuance of character. The cooperation between architects and community in the conception, process of design, and construction of the projects is a milestone in the history of international architectural practice.

The threat of defacing the housing that Hedjuk designed is a vanguard issue that will lead the argument that must be formulated now within our architectural community with full consciousness of what John understood to be the total accomplishment. The work at hand is not only preservation; rather, it implies a re-framing of the commitment to the integrity of the social contract for its use within a new social challenge that cannot be addressed by arguments for mere physical conservation.

A purely design oriented preservation argument on the beauty of the project justifying its salvation will not fully advocate the consciousness that I believe John would want to be brought to light at this time and that threatens the very fundaments of the IBA endeavor. His social housing and many of the other projects successfully gave form to a series of intimate civic spaces within the body of a Berlin that wished to integrate a new social order and conscience.

It is important to remember that the first post-war building IBA in Berlin [Interbau, 1957]  is preserved, and intact within the Tiergarten and the Hansaviertel sector of the city. Its examples of social housing, built by Le Corbusier, Aalto, Niemeyer, Gropius and others, survive in the context of the great park of Berlin, a pastoral context. Here, with a struggle to preserve the  80s IBA which followed the model of the earlier modern movement predecessor, the challenge is to sustain social conscience for intimate civic space and affordable domiciles within the urban real estate. It is a profound idea that the fight for this highly civilizing cause is now led by the luminous presence of a John Hejduk masterpiece as the gauntlet for the battle.

I reiterate that the fight must consider the language used to advocate conditions for the future of the Hedjuk social housing tower and civic courtyard buildings. The project exists within the larger idealistic framework of the IBA. The aspirations addressed before the Wall came down are now being insulted by the threat to this building. The words that insure the survival of authenticity must work toward a continuity of the vision and courage essential to the amazing integration of architecture and the social contract that was achieved with these projects.

The example of resistance John Hejduk set in New York and internationally resulted in his place within the Berlin IBA. He demonstrated that a selective and resistant practice could signify and support humanistic programs and civic ethics. This is the idea central to the survival of his architectural works in their built form. And it is the necessary backbone to any argument that will succeed in saving this Friedrichstrasse project today.

DIANE LEWIS, Architect and Professor at The Cooper Union, New York City

Text of petition to save the tower from defacement, sponsored by RENATA HEJDUK, PhD., the daughter of John Hejduk:

To:  BerlinHaus Verwaltung GmbH

Concern is growing in the architectural community at unsympathetic alterations to the late John Hejduk’s ‘Kreuzberg Tower’ in Berlin – one of only a handful of buildings he realised during his lifetime, and one of the largest of his built works. 

After many years of neglect, the buildings are currently undergoing refurbishment works that radically alter the exterior appearance, in particular the colour scheme and significant facade elements. 

The alterations offer little or no significant improvement to the apartments or their surroundings, other than repairing the decay the buildings have suffered, and could just as easily, and at no significant additional cost, be achieved in a manner consistent with the original execution.

Doctor Renata Hejduk, daughter of John Hejduk and an architectural historian, contacted the building’s new owner, BerlinHaus Verwaltung GmbH, earlier this year to discuss the matter, but received a dismissive response.

We the undersigned: 

– welcome the fact that refurbishment works are being undertaken on these buildings after many years of neglect.

– object strongly to the nature of the proposed facade alterations, in particular the new colour scheme and replacement of facade elements. 

– regard the design of the alterations as inappropriate to the architect’s intent and ruinous to the integrity of the architectural ensemble.

And therefore demand that: 

– work on the facades of the buildings be stopped immediately. 

– the owners undertake a thorough consultation with the Estate of John Hejduk and architectural experts to establish refurbishment guidelines which are both in harmony with the intent of the original, and respect the architect’s rights of authorship. 

– amended proposals are developed in collaboration with, and with the approval of the above parties, in order to maintain the architectural integrity of this important cultural artifact.

See the signers of this petition and sign, if you want to help:


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