Currently, I am immersed in history ahead of making a new body of artwork called ‘Rough Sleeping’ – I am researching sleep poverty in contemporary British & European industrial society and its correlations with the Victorian era. The right to a good night’s sleep is often taken for granted but is rarely the case. This has led me to new terminologies and authors, added to my list is this is the German book “Schlafgaenger” by Dorothee Elmiger translated into English: ‘Shift Sleepers’ (Swiss List). Meaning ‘Hot-bedding’ this term that seems to originate from military language, meaning several people using the same bed in shifts. It was a common practice in 19th-century cities, including New York, Vienna and Berlin, where large numbers of people were moving to urban areas from the countryside or from abroad. German has a word for the people who lived this way, renting beds by the shift: Schlafgänger. When you first look at it, it seems to mean “sleep-walkers” but there is a different word for that. I haven’t found an equivalent term in English, but I have found reports that the practise still goes on in the US and the UK, especially among recent immigrants. Also common in Germany’s former industrial hub, the “Ruhrgebiet”. The coal miners and factory workers would practice the same to maximise income.
Mietskaserne, Berlin, 1875 over 2,000 people crammed into 300 tiny rooms at an average of six people per room
In Berlin the Mietskaserne seemed like a pragmatic solution to Berlin’s housing crisis, they quickly became notorious for their overcrowding and deplorable living conditions. For wealthy landowners, the housing shortage was an opportunity to build a fortune, and the Mietskaserne were designed simply to accommodate as many people as possible and to maximize rental profits. In Meyers Hof, one of the largest Mietskaserne built-in 1875 over 2,000 people crammed into 300 tiny rooms at an average of six people per room (Kuck 20). Typical Mietskaserne were designed around a central Hof or “courtyard”, which Hobrecht believed would become the centre of residential life in Berlin. Originally designed to accommodate horse-drawn water pumps in the event of a fire, the Höfe would later become crucial to life in the Mietskaserne. Each floor of the Mietskaserne typically had small communal bathrooms and heating was usually only available in the kitchen.
Typical Mietskaserne Layout
People of various economic backgrounds lived together in the Mietskaserne, with the wealthiest tenants on the lower floors and the poorest people living on the top floors and in the basement. Meyers Hof did not have any elevators, and therefore rooms on the lower floors were more desirable. The rent for these rooms could cost almost ten times as much as the rent for the cheapest rooms in the basement or top floors (Kuck 6). In this way, residents were vertically segregated based on their economic situation. In addition, many of the poorer tenants would sublet individual beds in their rooms. A sleeping place was often illegally shared by several people in shifts, so while family members were at work random people are known as Schlafgänger, or “night lodgers” would pay to sleep in their bed (Kuck 11).
By definition, Schlafgänger had no real homes and sometimes even slept in makeshift beds in hallways, or closets to avoid paying the cost of subletting an actual bed. The Schlafgänger showed the sheer magnitude of the Berlin housing crisis. This excessive overcrowding in the Mietskaserne was blamed for disease and led many residents to suicide. These appalling living conditions led to a public backlash against the Mietskaserne, and many were destroyed through bombings in World War II or through postwar reconstruction.
Critical Reconstruction asserted that the Mietskaserne were an important component of Berlin’s identity, and what was once seen as the blight of urban life in Berlin had become part of the plan to revamp the city’s image. As a result, Critical Reconstruction efforts in Berlin became incredibly aggressive. In the 1990s Berlin had over 300 major construction sites (with 50 in the neighbourhood of Mitte alone) and public and private development rose from under $5 billion to over $15 billion (Ward 286). Opponents of Critical Reconstruction argue that selective reconstruction denies Berlin’s intricate history and creates a biased perception of the past. They also point out that the Mietskaserne were horrible places to live, and that the architectural efforts of Critical Reconstruction are contrived.