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Berlin and her Hofs

Berlin and her Hofs

Berlin has much love for its two kinds of Hofs, the first being David Hasselhof the second its architecturally unique barracks-style housing or as the Germans call it, “Hoefe” (courtyards).  The former is the world famous Knightrider and Baywatch star who feels slighted by the Germans for not giving him more credit for his role in bringing the wall down with his pop music.  In the months leading up to the fall of the wall in 1989 he did a remake of a 70’s German pop song and turned it into “I’ve been looking for freedom” which became a huge hit in Eastern Europe.   In his eyes this helped bring the east and west together and at the very least he deserves to have his portrait hanging at the Museum at Checkpoint Charlie. As much as The Hof (as he likes to refer to himself) is revered in Germany in this post I would prefer to focus on the lesser known of the two Hofs.

Berlin’s courtyard scene dates back to the late 1800’s and was a result of the industrial revolution population boom in the new German capital.  Berlin started life as a provincial backwater but eventually grew to become one of the largest cities in Europe by the early 20th century.   As recently as the 1830’s however the population was only around 250,000.  After the Franco-Prussian was of 1870-1871 and the unification of Germany many people began flocking to the capital and its population increased to over 800,000.  In order to handle this massive influx of inhabitants the city planners had to come up with a cheap, quick and aesthetically pleasing solution. Enter the Hof, or courtyard.

Due to Prussian city planning regulations buildings in Berlin were not allowed to be built higher than palaces or church steeples so whereas in other cities skyscrapers were the housing solution to growing populations in Berlin this was not an option.  So instead of building up they built back expanding the buildings by adding on series of courtyards until by the 1930’s Berlin was considered the world’s largest tenement city with over 4 million inhabitants. Back then courtyards were considered dirty places, where the sun didn’t shine and the poor lived their squalid lives away from the prying eyes of passersby.

Today however Berlin’s Hof (or Hofe, plural for Hof in German) have become an integral part of the charm of life in the capital.  Some of the new apartment complexes in the nicest residential areas are even using the name as a badge of pride, as in the newly constructed Chorinerhofe. In my current apartment where I have been over 6 years I am in what is known as the hinter hof (back courtyard) where from my balcony I look out into a jumble of courtyards where four separate buildings come together.  As far as residential life goes courtyards are a great place to sit and have a chat with neighbors, lock up your bike and occasionally throw hof parties with friends.  Due to the close proximity with neighbors in the narrow back courtyards and the curious habit of Germans not to use curtains some people get to know each other much more intimately then either would prefer.  Many of the courtyards however are commercial establishments.  The most famous of these is the Hackesche Hofe next to Hackesche Markt train station in the former Jewish Quarter.

The Hackesche Hofe was named after Graf von Hacke when it was a market square during the reign of Friedrich the Great. Now it is one of the hippest cultural and shopping hubs in the city.  It is located on the corner of Oranienburger Str which has become a famous nightlife and red light district and Rosenthaler Str which is the new fashion center of Berlin.  The Hackesche Hofe is built in Jungendstil architectural style and is comprised of 8 courtyards with restaurants, bars, clubs, pool halls, designer shops, art galleries and cabaret theaters. Down the road a ways on Oranienburgerstr the intrepid tourist may also discover the Kunst Hof (Art courtyard) and the Heckmann Hofe, both well worth a visit.  Some other courtyards which should not be missed are the Sophien Gips Hofe located behind the Sophien Kirche, where the Barcomi’s Deli is a lesser known culinary treat.

Next to the Hackescher Hofe is the Otto WeidtBlindenwerkstadt which is a museum dedicated to the man who risked his life to hide his blind and deaf Jewish employees from the Nazis.  This courtyard is un-renovated giving the visitor an increasingly rare glimpse into the condition of cold war East Berlin.  There is also a very hip bar in the back courtyard called Eschloraque which is not found by most tourists.  All the courtyards I mentioned above are located within walking distance of one another but that is not to say that is the only area in Berlin where courtyard hopping is a perfectly acceptable way to discover the city.  In many cities however it would be irresponsible to suggest wandering into any open doorways leading into dark alleyways but in Berlin you will be pleasantly surprised to find what awaits behind the façade. So as Mark Twain once said, “Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.