A Women’s Berlin: Building the Modern City
by Despina Stratigakos
University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 2008
264 pp., illus. 77 b/w. Trade, $75.00; paper, $24.95
ISBN: 978-0-8166-5322-5; ISBN: 978-0-8166-5323-2.
Reviewed by Zainub Verjee
Mississauga/ON/Canada/ L5R 3K4/
The Cover of A Woman’s Berlin portrays an intriguing image of a photographer, a woman with camera in hand, perched on a high crane overlooking the city. Clearly, her clothing bespeaks of another era and time. It is this “modern” woman and the city below; that is the subject of the author, Despina Stratigakos, who argues that architectural history has forgotten the role women played in shaping the urban built environment at the turn of the twentieth century in Wilhelmine, Germany.
The book, addressed to a wide range of audiences — especially those interested in gender, urban, architecture studies — uncovers this obscurity and focuses on the role middle class women played, in spite of their social limitation, in shaping the urban narrative, through self-determination.
Two texts that inform the trajectory of this book are Henri Lefebvre’s work on the production of space and the 1913 guidebook, What a Woman Must Know about Berlin.
Following in the tradition of Henri Lefebvre, the book examines the spatial dimensions and architectural practices of women as they claimed space in the social, economic, and political terrain, thus creating the modern female identity.
The 1913 guidebook, What a Woman Must Know about Berlin, was written for and by women. The guidebook provided women with an alternative way to imagine themselves by providing insight into current issues, such as the struggle for a new all female orchestra or a look at fashion and capitalism. With the descriptive and detailed rendition of the contents of the guidebook and the role it played in depicting women as productive actors in the city, the author lays the groundwork in the first chapter for the remainder of the book.
As women gained entrance to universities at the beginning of the twentieth century, an increasing population of women made career choices over married and domestic life. This shift called for suitable housing for university students and unmarried professionals.
Wealthy women patrons aided with funding; designers and architects came together to build highly successful residences for women. Included in the examples are the all Women’s Lyceum Club, Victoria Studienhaus, the dormitory for women and the retirement dwelling Haus in Der Sonne. These residencies enabled women to continue their studies and live with other career-focused women and have a Home of One’s Own. Stratikagos argues that it was women who responded to the emergent needs of women and provides an insightful account of how middle class women interjected themselves into the built environment.
It is worthy to note that the author brings to light Emily Winklemann, the architect responsible for building these spaces, and the first woman to open an architectural firm in Germany in 1907. She collaborated with other designers, architects, and patrons, all women, and became well established gaining numerous commissions.
The other chapters are dedicated to the substantial role women played in creating spaces for themselves, both in the built environment as well in social, economic, and political sphere.
One chapter is dedicated to Die Frau in Haus und Beruf, the highly successful 1912 exhibition, portraying women’ labour. Split into the two themes of luxury and mechanization, the exhibition featured a vast range of women’s work from architecture, fashion, collectibles, fruit and vegetable markets, sewing and hairdressing among other things. This successful exhibition placed women as the subject and not the object. However, in the exhibition, working class women were conspicuous by absence.
One sub-text across chapters delineates the tensions between traditional spaces held by men and those held by women. Another recurring theme in this new found portrayal of middle class women was a challenge to the moral compass of the times: being perceived as prostitutes, deviants, and a danger to social moral fabric of the society.
The book, which received the prestigious 2009 Book Prize from the DAAD, is very well researched and illustrated. The author achieves what she sets out to argue, offering a conceptualization and imagination of a city through the lens of women. It shows the force of middle class women and demonstrates how a small group of women made lasting spatial interventions and became a socio-political precursor to the making of Weimar republic. However the author points out a paradox in the epilogue: “ Berlin in the Weimar years was identified in the popular imagination more than ever with female modernity, but the idea of the city as woman differed vastly from the notion of a women’s city, which had found architectural expression in the imperial period (p.175).”