Hobrecht, Urban Planning, and Defeating Epidemics in 19th-Century Berlin with Jan Otakar Fischer

Hobrecht, Urban Planning, and Defeating Epidemics in 19th-Century Berlin with Jan Otakar Fischer


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The Industrial Revolution had a catalytic effect on Berlin in the late nineteenth century. Tens of thousands of people moved to the city to work in the new factories created by companies like AEG, Siemens, and Borsig. Between 1860 and 1925 the city’s population grew from 500,000 to four million. The resulting crowding and miserable hygiene encouraged the spread of infectious disease—especially cholera—and new strategies of urban planning and engineering were required to combat it. This seminar focuses on the pioneering engineers and public advocates who fought infectious diseases during the Industrial Revolution in Germany’s capital. We’ll highlight two historical figures as we learn how their efforts helped create a modern city and learn about the legacy in Berlin today.

This first character we will discuss is James Hobrecht, the engineer and creator of the famous Hobrecht Plan for the urban expansion of Berlin in 1862 and of the Radialsystem sewage network. Next up is Rudolf Virchow, the physician, pathologist, and politician, who was instrumental in making the improvement of working and living conditions of industrialized workers and their families a political priority in Germany. These two visionaries and contemporaries, working in common cause, profoundly influenced the public health planning of cities in Germany and Europe, and even those further abroad, including Tokyo, Moscow, and Cairo.

With Berlin at the center of our discussion, we will look at institutions (such as the famous Charité Hospital) and medical researchers (like Robert Koch, Paul Ehrlich, and Emil von Behring) both of which advanced medical science leaps and bounds. From pioneering tests and treatments for feared pathogens to establishing the germ theory of disease to a better understanding of how infection spread, the role of these figures was critical. After Hobrecht and Virchow inaugurated their sewer and water system in 1876, Berlin never again suffered from major outbreaks of the water-borne infectious diseases associated with poverty.

Hobrecht’s legacy is still visible everywhere in Berlin: in the Mietskaserne (working-class housing tenement) neighborhoods of Berlin (Kreuzberg; Prenzlauer Berg; Pankow; etc.) that are now highly desirable and trendy, as well as in countless examples of public infrastructure. Arguably, no single person did more to determine the physical layout of modern Berlin. Despite the destruction, dictatorship, and division that followed in the twentieth century, the city’s topography remains distinctly Hobrechtian today. In many ways, this fact has made the current Covid-19 pandemic more endurable because Berlin’s comfortable nineteenth-century density, abundant public green space, ubiquitous balconies, decentralized urban structure, and efficient transport and water systems still create conditions well-suited for urban dwellers to ride out unexpected threats to public health.

Led by an expert on urban history and design, Jan Otakar Fischer, this interactive seminar will illustrate the modern struggle to make cities safe and humane. Designed to inform curiosity as well as future travels, participants will come away with an increased appreciation for how the public health infrastructure of the Industrial Revolution shaped the cities we live in today.

Jan Otakar Fischer grew up in New York City, graduated from Williams College in 1985 with Honors in the History of Ideas, and received his Master’s in Architecture from the Harvard University Graduate School of Design in 1990. He has worked as an architect and academic in Berlin since 1994. Jan has been a regular contributor to a wide range of publications, including The New York Times, the Harvard Design Magazine, the International Herald Tribune, the Architectural Record, and Places magazine, writing chiefly about European architecture and urbanism. He has taught urban studies, history, sustainability, and visual culture at the IES Berlin Metropolitan Studies Program for over a decade, and has served as an invited guest critic or lecturer at several universities. From 2010-2018 he was the co-founder and Academic Director of the Northeastern University School of Architecture Berlin Program, for which he also taught architectural history and sustainable practices.

This conversation is suitable for all ages

90 minutes, including a 30 minute Q&A.

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