The Invented City

When I speak of “invention” in the case of Karlsruhe, it automatically implies that other cities were not invented. In fact, Karlsruhe is a baroque planned city, one of the last of its kind. The medieval, naturally grown city was and is often played off against the rationally planned cities of modernity. One objection to this, for example, is that even in the Middle Ages, urban planning measures are verifiable. In the end, it was only urban fortifications that provided a form that needed to be reacted to.

Nevertheless, the founding act of Karlsruhe represents a special case. Here a prince decided to build a city out of nothing at the place he had chosen. My thesis is that much of what modern urban planning will ultimately be characterised by is tested in Karlsruhe. On the occasion of this year’s 300th anniversary of the city’s birth, I will dedicate this article to some of Karlsruhe’s characteristic urban planning aspects. In this context, I would like to speak of a model case of urban modernism.

Landscape Architecture

Legend has it that the star-shaped layout of his new city appeared in the dream of Margrave Karl Wilhelm. He received the vision while resting on a hunting trip in the Hardtwald. The story from the 19th century is based on the inventory of medieval hagiographies.

Founding myths fill empty spaces. For Karlsruhe, their help in times of national identity search compensates for the city’s too short history. The Middle Ages, considered the epitome of German tradition, never took place in Karlsruhe itself.

In addition, the city founder once planned largely behind closed doors. This was in order not to expose himself to the insignificant risk of failure and possible embarrassment. Karl Wilhelm may have had the problems before his eyes: In nearby Ludwigsburg, for example, where the city’s development was so sluggish that the residence had to be relocated several times. In the case of Karlsruhe, too, the margraviate was to have to struggle for the settlement – especially of liquid residents – in the first century of its existence.

The baroque hunting area

The setting for the count’s dream was a hunting area created by him in the area of today’s city centre. With 32 avenues cut into the forest in a star shape, the area was initially developed for par force hunting. This was the trend sport of the baroque aristocracy, in which game was hunted and rounded up in sectors. In order to be able to practise this kind of courtly hunting on horseback, it was necessary to have as long and as flat a route as possible, as well as a clearly arranged network of paths. Johan Täntzer’s first hunting book written in German language contains the illustration of a so-called hunting star. The representation alternates between map and picture. In top view it shows the 24-pointed star, which is embedded like an emblem in perspective seeming landscape compartments. A fixed component of the hunting star is a centrally located building unit with tower, which serves on the one hand as a viewing platform and on the other hand as the most important point of orientation for the hunters.

The references to baroque garden architecture, which operated with viewing axes and vantage points aligned to points de vues, are clear. To this day, the castle tower refers to the original hunting grounds. For a long time it was treated as such a solitary tower, as can be seen from an engraving from 1739 (Fig. 2), and was only later connected to the three-winged castle complex by the construction of the garden hall.

In 1718, three years after the foundation stone of the tower was laid, the court moved from Durlach to Karlsruhe, into a castle built only partially of stone, which had to be completely renovated as early as 1750 due to building defects. It was an almost ephemeral architecture. Failure was therefore taken into account. If necessary, the Residenzstadt project could have been abandoned altogether or left at the hunting lodge.

The Durlachers had forfeited their prince’s favor by torpedoing his large-scale construction projects through unwillingness to pay. The privilege letter of 1715 granted, among other things, freedom of religion and the abolition of serfdom. On this basis Wilhelm searched for new subjects.

The symbolism of the new city

Landscape architecture in the broadest sense can be described as the first level of the Karlsruhe town plan. Heinrich von Kleist’s description “as a star clear and full of light like a rule and when one enters it is as if an ordered mind speaks to us” directs the eye to the enlightening impetus of absolutist planning.

Symbolism provokes various controversial theses. Beat Wyss, for example, even wants to recognize a reference to the freemasonry of the margraves of Baden in circles and triangles.

Even if the ground plan of the city can be explained by the hunting star, the Baroque is characterised by thinking in analogies and reference contexts. For this reason, it will also be necessary to ask in the future to what extent existing concepts of use, urban planning and symbolic statements have been intelligently amalgamated in Karlsruhe.

The southern spandrel of the hunting star was subsequently planned as a baroque city. Since the radial axes open up within this circle segment, the city marketing today advertises with the name Fan City. The circle opposite the castle was reserved for administrative buildings of the court, followed by the town. The architectural hierarchy, with which the circle buildings and the private houses were clearly distinguished from the palace, deserves special mention. The builders also had to adhere to the design templates, so that the streets were given uniform facades.

As a baroque ideal city, Karlsruhe can be described in the same breath as utopian city projects since antiquity and realized modern planning sites. I will refrain from such an enumeration (a short overview can be found here) and instead limit myself to Ebenezer Howard’s concept of the “Garden City”.

The comparison with two projects of the 20th century shows that Karlsruhe has remained an experimental field for new urban planning concepts. Karl Wilhelm’s absolutist dream was thus continued several times under different circumstances.

The Karlsruhe Garden City

Howard devised a circle-shaped complex of factories, settlements, agricultural land and grassland as an alternative to the modern metropolis and the mass rental house (Fig. 3). Instead of a single large city, this would have resulted in an urban network consisting of smaller units. The vision is not only meant to be romantic for agriculture, but also integrates modern technological aspects. Accordingly, the individual areas would have been interconnected by express trains. Howard’s idea led to an international garden city movement.

By 1900, Karlsruhe had exceeded the 100,000-inhabitant mark and had thus become a major city. There was a lack of living space. The existing old buildings were not tailored to the changed living and working conditions caused by industrialisation. In 1907 the first German initiative for the construction of a garden city was formed in Karlsruhe. It was not until 1911, two years after Hellerau, that construction could actually begin. The garden city in Rüppur, south of the city centre, functions as a terraced house settlement.

Bends in the course of the road should prevent the impression of monotony (Fig. 4). This revises the functional urban design as it was developed in modern times and especially in classicism and historicism. Camillo Sitte had prominently formulated corresponding principles. He developed these on the basis of his studies of historically grown cities.

The houses in Rüppur are surrounded by decorative front gardens on the street side and garden plots adjoining the rear fronts. According to the garden city idea, the residents were to be encouraged to garden in this way. On the one hand this served the purpose of self-sufficiency, on the other hand acute problems such as alcoholism were to be combated. The residents were to develop mentally and physically through adequate ventilation and tanning. In addition to the creation of affordable living space, the garden city movement also included a much more comprehensive social and life reform concept than just an architectural concept.


Reflections of the garden city idea can also be found in the New Building of the 1920s. Under the slogan “Hygiene”, the protagonists demanded air and sun for the residents. Once again, an architectural idea forced a health-conscious human image.

An important monument of the New Building is the Dammerstock settlement, also in Karlsruhe (Fig. 5). The First World War had aggravated the already existing housing shortage, by 1930 Karlsruhe had 156,000 inhabitants to accommodate.

In 1929 an exhibition entitled “die gebrauchswohnung” took place, which presented various types of living space for small families. Consistently built as a settlement in strictly gridded rows according to a master plan by Otto Haesler, the buildings receive the morning and evening sun.

The 1920s were also a time of cultural battles, so it is no wonder that the Dammerstock settlement was exposed to a great deal of ridicule. The once progressively oriented Gartenstadt society then organised a counter-exhibition to the competing project to the northwest. During National Socialism, efforts were made to neutralize the flat roof aesthetics of the Dammerstock housing estate by means of buildings with “Nordic” saddle roofs.

Vision versus reality

All three Planstadt ideas had to struggle with problems concerning their implementation. In the Dammerstock housing estate, the idea of offering cheap living space for the ‘small people’ failed because comparatively high rents had to be set for refinancing.

In the Gartenstadt housing estate, too, the provision of affordable housing was only partially successful. The future tenants were financially involved in the construction costs. There are no community facilities in the housing estate, the only place being Ostendorfplatz (Fig. 6), which is named after the architect in charge today and which refers in its layout to the baroque network – and thus to the absolutist nucleus of Karlsruhe.

Also the settlement of “capitalists”, for whom Margrave Karl Wilhelm hoped urgently, was rather sluggish in the 18th century. The building site and materials were provided to the builders according to a letter of privilege, in which they undertook to build a multi-storey house.