The Jew Who Built Berlin

Berlin would look different today if it weren't for master builder Adolf Sommerfeld, who helped give the city a face-lift starting in the 1920s.

Yossi Ben-Artzi
Illustration: Gendarmenmarkt in Berlin.
Illustration: Gendarmenmarkt in Berlin.Credit: Dreamstime
Yossi Ben-Artzi

Berlin is today confidently recapturing its status as a major world city and a hub of European culture, recalling its glory days after World War I, when it was a thriving metropolis of two million. From the final decades of the 19th century until World War II, Berlin burst out in every direction. Villages and towns, forests and lakes were annexed to the city, and it became a center of activity for the greatest planners, architects, entrepreneurs and builders of the 20th century.

Among those who shaped modern Berlin in these years were hundreds of Jews, some of whom became great names in the annals of architecture and building. They included Erich Mendelsohn, Theodor Menkes, Adolf Rading, Alexander Klein and Oskar Kaufmann. Some designed impressive modernist buildings that graced Berlin and also other cities, such as the business establishments owned by Schocken, Wertheim, KDW, Tietz and their ilk. As Nazi persecution intensified, many of these architects, and the entrepreneurs who employed them, immigrated to Palestine, where they exercised a crucial influence on planning and construction.

Yet, that list ignores one of the greatest builders of Berlin, an architect whose main contribution was as an entrepreneur who introduced modern construction methods and business practices, and who, both before World War II and after, was a key player in the expansion of the city and the development of its planned new “garden-city” neighborhoods. A pioneering study, recently published in German, serves to rectify the record, at least in part, as it relates to Sommerfeld. In her book “Adolf Sommerfeld/Andrew Sommerfield: Bauen für Berlin” (Lukas Verlag Publishers, Berlin, 2011), Prof. Celina Kress, an architect and historian from the Technical University of Berlin-Charlottenburg has provided a survey of the career of this innovative entrepreneur, shedding light on his life and work.

Sommerfeld was born in 1886 in the town of Kolmar in the province of Posen, in what is today northwestern Poland. From 1900, his fate was bound up with Berlin. He studied methods of construction with wood in Rixdorf, then a village on the city’s fringes, and in 1910 established his first firm there, which bore his name. One of his first projects involved the extension of the famous Wertheim department store at 4 Leipziger Platz, in the city’s center.

In 1919, Sommerfeld founded a new company, FEA-Werke, which specialized in supplying construction materials, among other things. He made his brother Max the head of the firm.

During World War I, he had developed a method for building hangars, which were used primarily for building and assembling airships and fighter planes, but also served as depots for the German army. After the war, in the wake of the postwar population-transfer agreement between Greece and Turkey, he won tenders for the construction of DP camps. No fewer than 10,000 wood structures were erected near Izmir in 1924-1925, using prefabricated parts shipped by Sommerfeld’s firm in Berlin.

During the severe economic depression that plagued Germany in the 1920s, Sommerfeld purchased land in Berlin’s southwest, in distant suburbs and in areas of forest and woodland. Between 1920 and 1922, he became the chief shareholder of three construction and real estate companies that had fallen on hard times. He also began to take an interest in architectural innovations, and the fields of urban planning and modern construction technologies. The latter allowed for rapid construction of modern mass housing serving the middle and working classes, whose members were eager to leave old neighborhoods and cramped residential buildings in the city in favor of suburban “garden cities.”

Sommerfeld was among the first to follow the lead of Walter Gropius, the founder of the Bauhaus movement, who, together with architect Adolf Meyer, designed Sommerfeld’s own villa, at Limonenstrasse 30, in Berlin, in the early 1920s. Bauhaus, which was active from 1919 to 1933, was based on the premise that art should be used to serve society, and that there should be no distinction between form and function. The Bauhaus aesthetic was incorporated into arts of every kind, including, eventually, architecture. An entire group of architects who followed this school of thought turned away from fanciful experimentation toward more rational, functional and even sometimes standardized building.

Likewise, in his own projects, Sommerfeld adapted the modernist Bauhaus design style and method of construction for modern, comfortable housing intended for the general public. At one point, he apparently bought an old battleship made of teak, which was cut down to size in his sawmill for use in construction of a villa for Gropius. For his part, Gropius wrote an article praising wood as “the material of today,” since it was in ample supply and was well suited to embodying Bauhaus’ goal of functionality.

Road to fame

From 1920 to 1933, Sommerfeld developed a successful business model for development and construction of residential areas, and became one of the greatest builders of Berlin. His companies would buy forest land and other open areas 10 to 20 kilometers away from the city center, mainly in the southwest, get the land rezoned for construction, and parcel it into plots for residences, public areas and transportation facilities. Once authorization was obtained, the many architects Sommerfeld employed produced plans for rapid, inexpensive modern building systems in the Bauhaus spirit.

Sommerfeld hired young architects who were just embarking on the road to fame, such as Erich Mendelsohn. They came up with ideas for different housing models based on the buyers’ needs, or in some cases on standardized models. By adhering to the so-called garden city principles – and not packing every inch of available land with dense construction – these planners were able to create high-quality homes at reasonable prices.

The great success of the Zehlendorf Nord neighborhood planned by Sommerfeld helped solidify his reputation, and many architects and contractors sought to work with or for him.

Meanwhile, Berlin’s suburban rail line was improved and extended to meet the transportation needs of the residents of the new neighborhoods in which Sommerfeld worked. He himself promoted expansion of the lines to the southwest, and was also involved in the innovative construction of stations such as the Botanical Garden stop on the main route from Potsdam to Berlin.

Sommerfeld was ahead of his time in conceiving what Israelis refer to today as “build-your-own-home” projects: His companies supplied land, infrastructure and models of homes adapted to the tastes and pocketbooks of different buyers. In many cases, they also carried out the construction itself.

It was Sommerfeld who built the Berlin Sportpalast in 1925, to a design by Oskar Kaufmann. (Kaufmann later immigrated to Palestine, where he designed, among other buildings, Habima Theater in Tel Aviv and Ora Cinema in Haifa.)

Sommerfeld’s wealth infuriated the Nazis, and as the party rose to power it began to curb his activities. Building permits were revoked, workers were organized to stage protest demonstrations at his construction sites, and swastikas and other nationalist symbols were painted on his home.

On March 31, 1933, a group of Nazis attacked his house. Sommerfeld lost no time, and within days he and his family had fled to Switzerland. He left behind all his property, companies and holdings, as well as entire neighborhoods that were in the process of being built and large-scale projects in the planning stage. From Switzerland, he made his way to France, where he lived in a center that was preparing Jewish emigrants for life in Palestine, and for work as pioneers and manual laborers.

In 1935, Sommerfeld submitted a claim to German authorities for the return of his property and its lawful registration for future purposes, before leaving for Palestine that year. Relatives of his were already living in the country and making their mark professionally.

‘You need many connections here’

For three years, Sommerfeld tried to make a go of it in Palestine, but no one in the local Jewish community had even heard of the “builder of Berlin.” In a letter to Gropius at the end of 1936, he complained that “in this country I have to make my way alone over a tortuous road in order to make a living, because to earn your bread here you need many connections and have to devote much time in preparing things over a long period of time – if you do not wish to forgo your principles.”

Sommerfeld was unable to gain a foothold in the local construction industry in his Palestine, and his revolutionary rapid-construction initiatives were rejected out of hand. A pioneering project bearing his name, for construction of a garden city on Mount Carmel also failed, owing to differences with Erich Mendelsohn, who was also involved. The project was eventually abandoned and the land was placed in the hands of Ahuza, a company run by Romanian Jews who went on to build the Haifa neighborhood that bears the company’s name to this day.

At the same time, his brother-in-law, Joseph Loewy, was involved in founding Nahariya, where Sonnenfeld’s brothers, Max and Ludwig, also settled and ran plumbing businesses. The latter two, who had managed subsidiaries of their brother’s company near Berlin, had left Germany together with him in 1933. Loewy, who had been an executive at Sommerfeld’s company in Berlin, was married to their sister, Klara. In addition to his work in Nahariya, Loewy became a well-known real estate figure in Haifa and the Mount Carmel area.

In 1938, Sommerfeld moved to England, where he received British citizenship and changed his name to “Andrew Sommerfeld.”

In 1948, the process of restituting the property in Berlin that had been seized and nationalized by the Nazis began. Sommerfeld returned to the city to oversee the complicated legal proceedings. At their conclusion, most of the plundered properties were returned to him, including the residences, offices and, above all, the built-up land which he had owned until 1933. He established new offices near the Botanical Gardens rail station, and in 1952 joined the massive effort to rebuild Berlin from the ruins. More than half a million buildings in the city had been damaged or destroyed.

In 1966, two years after Sommerfeld’s death, the Berlin municipality named a street after him in Wannsee, south of the main road to Potsdam: Sommerfieldring.

Note: The author wishes to thank Prof. David Mazursky, of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, for his assistance in the preparation of this article.

Andrew Sommerfeld and Karl-Heinz Peters.
Sommerfeld's villa, designed by Walter Gropius and Adolf Meyer, in the early 1920s.



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