The Beginnings of Siemensstadt – Building for the Future

At the end of the 19th century, Siemens & Halske chose a patch of wilderness for its new production site. It also built up research installations, residential settlements and social and cultural facilities, thus creating a new urban district: Siemensstadt.
Industrialization and expansion

Berlin and its industry are growing

Berlin, 1897. The capital of the German Empire was home to some 1.8 million people. The economic panic of 1873 that had broken out with the new empire’s founding was a thing of the past; business was flourishing and industrialization was on the march. In a “first outward migration,” industry had already begun scanning the outskirts of town for new sites some 50 years ago away from the former “Fireland” along Chausseestrasse in what is now the Mitte district, and out toward favored areas like Moabit and Gesundbrunnen.
The Oranienburg zone is the site of Berlin’s ‘Fireland,’ a second Birmingham, the realm founded by Borsig and expanded by its competitors, where countless obelisks of industry impregnate the atmosphere with coal fumes, where the smell of soot and iron fills the nose and the pounding of machines and forging hammers fills the ears.
Robert Springer, 1876

Industry’s “second outward migration,” this time mainly in the direction of Tegel, Spandau and Oberschöneweide, was now in full swing, and the electrical business, which had been expanding for years, was caught up as well. Although smaller companies in the sector still settled in Berlin, the two biggest – Siemens & Halske (S&H) and Allgemeine Elektrizitäts-Gesellschaft (AEG) – were compelled to relocate some or all of their production to places outside the city.

A growing company: from Workshop to Global Player

The “Telegraphen-Bauanstalt von Siemens & Halske” began life as a small, ten-man operation in a little Berlin workshop in today’s Kreuzberg district. By the time the workshop relocated to Markgrafenstrasse five years later, S&H had 90 employees in Berlin. A systematic expansion of the production range and of products for the low-voltage sector, as well as the gradual addition of the heavy-voltage sector starting in the mid-1860s, swelled the workforce, and the space limitations made it necessary to acquire additional land – not just in the immediate neighborhood, but (marking the company’s first migration to the outskirts) also in the autonomous municipality of Charlottenburg.


Thirty years after the company was founded, S&H had a workforce of nearly 700 people in Berlin and Charlottenburg; within another six years the figure had grown to 900. “The Berlin plant is beyond full,” Werner von Siemens lamented in early February 1883. But a solution was already in sight – a continuation of the migration to Charlottenburg. The acquisition of a factory at Salzufer 11/12 made it possible to shift cable production from Berlin to the “Charlottenburger Werk” – the Charlottenburg Works – in 1884.


By the beginning of the 1890s, S&H had more than 3,000 employees in Berlin and Charlottenburg, and the numbers were still rising. The company’s continuing growth made the space situation at both locations extremely acute, so that the company began searching once again for an alternative location. After vehement debate, the decision-makers resolved on Nonnenwiesen, an area north of the Spree between Charlottenburg and Spandau. The first plot of land was bought on May 7, 1897, and the Kabelwerk – the “cable works” that would become the nucleus of Siemensstadt – went into operation two years later. At the start of this, the company’s own second migration to the outskirts, only a few hundred men and women were working at the new site; thirty years later, when the expansion of Siemensstadt was nearly complete, more than 65,000 people were employed here. 

A wilderness is being developed: the “Nonnenwiesen”

From 1897 to 1900, S&H initially bought twelve lots with a total area of 21 hectares between the Nonnendamm in the north – the “Nuns’ Meadows” whose name recalls the district’s former owners – the Spree in the south, what would eventually become Reisstrasse in the east, and the southern part of the Rohrdamm in the west. From 1905 to 1923 alone, further purchases brought the total area to 212.22 hectares. Geographically, the area could be divided into three sectors: the Spreegelände along the river, Nonnendammallee, and Gartenfeld. 


Initially, the new site on the Nonnenwiesen was anything but promising; the terrain was virtually wasteland.


The early phase of construction in the Spreegelände was the era of the founding of Siemens-Schuckertwerke GmbH (SSW), which bundled all parts of the firm’s heavy-current business, while S&H operated in the low-voltage business. As part of that process, SSW took over the Kabelwerk along the Spree, the Charlottenburger Werk, and the transportation department still situated at the plant in central Berlin, together with their technical offices. As the 1910s went on, the various S&H and SSW departments at the Berlin and Charlottenburg plants largely completed their relocation to the new site.

In terms of transportation, it was utterly remote; the nearest settlements were some three-quarters of an hour away by foot. It took a certain degree of determination for corporate management to buy land in this wilderness, for everything seemed to be against it, and only one point in favor: there was room at last. But the chronic state of congestion had worn the Directors down to the point where the advantage of freedom of expansion had come to rank above everything else.
Georg Siemens, 1947
The site gets a name

From Nonnenwiesen to Siemensstadt

Internal corporate documents were already calling the area Siemensstadt in the early 1910s. The name even cropped up occasionally in the press. For example, the Spandauer Zeitung of November 18, 1912, included a report on the new district, which at the time was still generally known as “Nonnendamm.”
The name Siemensstadt does not yet seem to have attracted enough adherents even in Nonnendamm itself. That is all the more surprising because the authorities are unlikely to raise any difficulties … about this name in particular. ‘Siemensstadt’ is no doubt also the right term […] .
Spandauer Zeitung, 1912

Barely a year later, on September 4, 1913, Spandau’s district parliament unanimously approved the renaming of “Nonnendamm” as “Siemensstadt,” and the new name became official on January 1, 1914. 

From production site to an entire district

Research and training

Focus on the future

Provision has been made for a further expansion of our laboratories, inasmuch as there is the possibility of expanding the structure by 100% on the land that is available so far.
Hans Gerdien, 1926

Research for progress – that has been the motto of S&H and SSW engineers from the very beginnings. Siemensstadt had two research laboratories. Between 1906 and 1906, the “Chemical-Physical Laboratory” was built in the Nonnendammallee area; it went down in Siemens history as the “Charlotte.” In 1914, construction work began on a central research laboratory in the Spreegelände, and from 1924 onward this was known as the “Research Laboratory of Siemens & Halske AG and Siemens-Schuckertwerke GmbH.” 

To train its own next generation of skilled workers, S&H started in the early 1890s by concentrating on teaching practical skills in educational workshops. Then in 1906 a combination of theoretical and practical training began in the Nonnendamm part of the site, when an in-plant school, a Werkberufsschule, was founded. Today this is one of the oldest educational facilities of its kind in Germany.


The residential city: space for workers and employees

When the Westend cable plant went into operation, it raised the question of whether S&H should also get involved in building housing for its employees. At first, the company itself did not act as a developer, but provided financial support for the construction of residential space. The first apartment houses – commissioned by Siemens but built by a real estate company, the Märkische Bodengesellschaft – were ready for occupancy in 1905, and became the core of the “Nonnendamm Estate.” The severe housing shortage after World War I led S&H and SSW in 1919 to found a new company, Wohnungsgesellschaft Siemensstadt GmbH – renamed Siemens Wohnungsgesellschaft in 1922 – which then acquired 200,000 square meters of land where, in the same year it was renamed, it would start to build housing. The project advanced in four stages, to designs by Hans Hertlein, and ultimately resulted in more than 500 two, three and four-room apartments. This was the “Siemensstadt Estate.” The “Heimat Estate” would follow in the 1930s, with more than 1,000 apartments for rent. 


A classic example of the direction being taken by the “Neues Bauen,” or New Architecture movement, was the “Ring Estate” or “Greater Siemensstadt Estate,” with almost 1,400 apartments designed by a roster of architects that included Walter Gropius, Otto Bartning and Hugo Häring. By the end of the 1930s, the residential settlement had a population of 13,000. 

A living fabric […] was to arise, aiming for an informal interplay of streets lined by taller, three-story apartment buildings, and streets with buildings of just one or two stories, some of them with a cozy quality more like a village
Hans Hertlein

Infrastructure: much needed transport links

When S&H began operations at its Kabelwerk cable plant in the Spreegelände in 1899, the number of employees quickly increased to more than 1,200. For nine years, anyone commuting to work here had to either endure a rugged hike from a distant cross-city or suburban railroad station, or else come by water. By the time the first Wernerwerk plant opened in this Spreeside area in the spring of 1905, 5,200 people were already working at the future Siemensstadt, and one year later the statistics show 7,823 employees. The figure had risen to 10,081 by April 1907, and another year later the figure was around 15,000. There was no improvement in the transportation connections until October 1908, when the Nonnendammbahn tram line opened. But this line, initially operated by S&H, did not attract a large ridership until it was extended to Spandauer Altstadt in 1909.
Mornings and evenings, rider volume on the Nonnendammbahn is very heavy, so that quite often trams with three cars are needed to handle the crush of passengers, and the cars are frequently filled to the last space
Anzeiger für das Havelland, 1910

The Nonnendammbahn was not the only tram line running through Siemensstadt in the 1910s and 1920s. Nevertheless, available capacity fell far short of needs during rush hours, so that conditions on the tram cars became downright chaotic. The pressure of the commute did not begin to ease significantly until the Siemensbahn opened.  


Quotations from contemporaries: The fascination of the electropolis in the countryside

In his book Berlin. Schicksal einer Weltstadt (Berlin. Fate of a World City), journalist and author Walther Kiaulehn describes the evolution of Berlin between 1871 and 1933. While he primarily draws on Borsig and AEG to illustrate industrialization, he also mentions Siemens, whose founder he greatly admired. “It was known that some gentlemen named von Siemens still existed, but that changed nothing about the fact that as physical, tangible human beings they were no longer visible, hidden behind the massive factories in their own ‘Siemensstadt.’ … There was no going back from the Berlin of 1925 to the ‘Athens along the Spree’ of 1830.”


When author Franz Hessel strolled through Berlin in the late 1920s, he also passed through the northwestern part of town, and on a sortie into the Rehberge park, he noted the smokestacks of Siemensstadt. That stroll was followed by a ride on the tram, which certainly had its impressive aspects: “And then I rode home through Siemensstadt, past the towers: the Blockwerk plant, Schalthaus High Rise and Wernerwerk with the clock tower, its face beaming the hour far and wide.”  

Architectural significance

An influential formal language: Siemens architecture defines a style

It was Karl Janisch who first gave Siemensstadt its unmistakable look until World War I. In factory structures like the Westend Kabelwerk, the Wernerwerk I and the Dynamowerk, this civil engineer built plants that made effective, efficient production possible. The individual buildings could be used flexibly, depending on needs, and could be expanded without difficulty. Here the Siemens architect built on information he had gathered during international study trips. In the USA, for example, he assiduously analyzed production engineering procedures, which he then incorporated into his concept for functional, socially responsible plants that could be expanded for decades. Janisch was also responsible for constructing the Chemical-Physical Laboratory and the Administration Building at Nonnendamm and Rohrdamm. His successor Hans Hertlein expanded the Wernerwerk II during the 1920s, and built the Schaltwerk High Rise – the first high-rise factory in Europe.
Karl Janisch
Karl Janisch

A far-sighted planner – A look at Karl Janisch’s work

Engineer and government architect Karl Janisch built numerous factory facilities for Siemens in the Spreegelände, Nonnendammallee and Gartenfeld areas. His pragmatic architectural style, oriented to the needs of rational production, is lastingly reflected in his industrial buildings, which are still well preserved today. 

Hans Hertlein
Hans Hertlein

The “Siemens Architect” – Hans Hertlein, a creator of lasting value

Hans Hertlein joined the Siemens construction department as an architect in 1912, and soon developed his own characteristic Modern style that still helps define the company’s image and impact today – and not just in Berlin. For Siemensstadt he designed factory and administration buildings, but also residential estates and buildings for social facilities.

More about Hans Hertlein
Social significance

A city within the city

Siemensstadt is an urban development phenomenon. During the “second outward migration” it was not uncommon, both in Germany and elsewhere, for companies to build not just large-scale industrial complexes, but also residential settlements ¬– “modern” in the terms of their own era’s understanding – for their employees. What was exceptional about Siemensstadt was that a complete city was built within only a few years on a site that was originally entirely undeveloped land.
One might say, without exaggeration, that a city like this one, built so exclusively by the work of an industrial company, a workplace for such a massive number of people in such a compact area that nevertheless combines work space, living space and nature harmoniously together, is something special and unique in Germany and indeed in the whole world.
Carl Friedrich von Siemens, 1930 

From "Siemensstadt 1.0" to "Siemensstadt 2.0"

On an area of 70 hectares with buildings that in some cases are protected as historical monuments, Siemens AG is planning its biggest single investment in Berlin, at 600 million euros. Using part of the “old Siemensstadt” site, it aims to build a “new Siemensstadt,” with space for work, research and living. The goal, among other aspirations, is to transform this vast industrial area into an up-to-date, multi-use urban district of the future.