Now, I don’t want to be misunderstood: This here is not a Mies van der Rohe blog. It is a pure coincidence that the second entry is on one of his buildings again (previous entry talking about the New National Gallery). But this Sunday’s afternoon walk took me to visit one of Mies’s less known buildings.
After some of the more grey weeks that Berlin has to offer in winter, today’s sun urged me to take a walk and enjoy the bright yellows of the leafs and the fresh air of damp grounds in the parks. So I went up north to the area of Weißensee, to circle the local lake and to turn east, past one of the many neighbourhoods where Bruno Taut left his marks, namely coloured windows, and then into Hohenschönhausen. There, located right by another lake (there are quite a few in that part of Berlin) is to be found the rather unobtrusive and kind of unspectacular Haus Lemke. It is easy to walk past it as most of the houses left and right do more in order to attract the visitor’s attention.
Small and yet impressive
Built from 1932 to 1933, the house is quite stunning as to its size. It is small. Very small if you compare it to its surrounding buildings. And it follows one of the principles of Mies van der Rohe’s architecture in a most pleasant way: It is neutral and somehow steps back, merely offering space for what is happening inside without competing for attention.
Initially intended to be a two-storey home, it was built with a ground floor only. The fact that today it is the smallest house with the biggest garden is due to the fact that the proprietors bought two lots in the early 1930s. Karl Lemke had made his money with a printing company in Berlin, and it was through a suggestion of a friend that he and his wife Marta turned to the then director of the Bauhaus, Mies van der Rohe, to design a house for the plot they had bought. Here, the businessman Lemke would also hold receptions in order to impress his clients with the beautiful scenery.
In the end, it was going to be Mies’ last private house to construct before he emigrated to the USA in 1938. Even the furniture was developed by Mies and his colleague Lilly Reich, some of which can be seen today at Berlin’s Kunstgewerbemuseum (Museum of Decorative Arts).
Today it is hard to imagine that the initial plan was to build a second floor. The present house is very much connected to the ground. Following a very modern fashion of the time, the interior of the rooms is at exactly the same level as the outside. Stressed by the large windows and the reticent design of borders between the inside and the outside, the rooms form a spectacularly simple unity with the garden, opening up to the lake.
From home to laundry to Mies landmark
Given its famous author, one is surprised that it took a few years in order to restore the house and open it to the public in the early 2000s. Marta and Karl Lemke only lived in their house for about twelve years, when they were “kindly asked” by the Red Army to abandon it as the whole area had been declared a restricted zone. From 1945 up to the 60s it was used by the Soviets as a garage, followed by the secret police of the GDR who would use it as a laundry as well as a canteen for their employees. Only in the late 70s some new consciousness for the history of Mies’ building arose and it was finally a private initiative to secure the site as the landmark it is today.
The house is open to the public and can be visited. Guided tours are offered as well, enquire on site.