On the 1st of March 1952, the UK handed Heligoland back to Germany. Some two thousand islanders, living in exile, could now hope to be allowed to return home. But the island had been completely destroyed. The landscape was dotted with craters, and there was no civilian life at all.
Historic Heligoland had developed slowly, over hundreds of years. Small fisherman’s cottages alternated with architecture from the late 19th century era of rapid expansion known as the Gründerzeit. In a bid to make a new start with no preconceptions, an architecture competition was arranged. But the character of historic Heligoland was to be retained in the new builds. Special provision was to be made for small single-family homes.
122 architecture firms took part in the competition. The judges were unable to decide on a winner, but some submissions, including those from the architectural offices of Georg Wellhausen and Wolfram Vogel, provided important designs for the reconstruction.
Construction finally started in the spring of 1953. The first trial buildings were on Bremerstrasse, in the lowlands, right at the base of the cliff. Eight two-storey single family dwellings with balconies and a distinctive, asymmetrical gable design were erected. They had a short, steep roof at the front and a long, slanted mono-pitch roof with skylights at the back. That ensured plenty of light in the homes and alleys, despite the high density of construction. Just a year later, the first islanders moved back into Bremerstrasse.
Asymmetrical roofs and high-density housing with narrow alleyways became key features of the new Heligoland and were repeated in other lowland and upland developments. But the tradition of the single family house with a possible room for rent was retained. The narrow alleyways had always been traditional on an island without cars. Projecting and receding facades and meandering paths create a sense of security; the wind is kept out, and the estates seem larger because there are no neat rows of streets.
Modern Scandinavian design was a key influence on the style of Heligoland’s reconstruction. The clear colours of the weather-boarding on the exterior walls are also inspired by Scandinavian originals. The artist Johannes Ufer selected a range of 14 colours for the island – pale colours for the uplands, and strong colours for the lowlands.
Developing the new Heligoland took a decade. In some cases, the returning islanders struggled with the changes. A sense of belonging is something that needs to grow, and that takes time. Today, people are rightly proud of the island’s uncluttered, welcoming look. In professional circles, the island’s architecture is seen as a synthesis of the arts that takes in shapes and colours. It’s a successful example of modernism that nevertheless incorporates an awareness of tradition.
All depictions: © Nordseemuseum Museum Helgoland