Demolish or Preserve: Eastern Modernist Architecture
The argument about what to do with buildings left behind by East Germany has been dominated in recent years by two opposing stances. While some regarded the socialist edifices of the 1960s and 1970s as nothing but ugly relics of the Socialist Unity Party (SED) dictatorship, others defended them, claiming that they bore witness to the East German way of life and gave rise to a sense of identity. Two decades after reunification, the debate is now becoming more objective and discriminating.
No building has been the subject of more bitter dispute after the political turnaround in Germany than the now demolished Palace of the Republic on Schlossplatz in Berlin. Completed in 1976, the multifunctional building housed the People’s Chamber – the East German parliament – and was where the ruling party, the SED, staged its conferences, though it also served as a cultural venue. Concerts, shows, theatre, restaurants, cafés and a bowling alley made the palace the most visited building in the centre of East Berlin. So is it a symbol of the SED dictatorship, or an open “house of the people” offering culture, leisure and relaxation? The highly ideological debate about whether to demolish or preserve the Palace of the Republic was all about different interpretations of the past and future perspectives. Something that was nearly forgotten in all this dispute was the fact that the first and last freely elected parliament of the GDR decided – in the Palace of the Republic in 1990 – in favour of unifying the two German states. Over a two-year period from 2006 to 2008, the building was torn down in accordance with a decision taken by the German Bundestag (Germany’s parliament). A reconstruction of Berlin’s baroque City Palace is now to take its place on Schlossplatz. (The commencement of building work was postponed until 2014 for financial reasons.)
Interpretations of the past and future perspectives
The history of the Cultural Palace in Dresden, East Germany’s one-time largest multifunctional building which opened in 1969, has followed a somewhat different course. A few years ago, people were still discussing whether this low cuboid building made of concrete, steel and glass should be (partially) demolished. Since 2008, the edifice – the only post-war modern building of its kind in Dresden – is protected by a preservation order, including its monumental mural on the western facade entitled “The path of the red flag”. The function hall in the Cultural Palace is soon to be modernized and converted, though the building’s external appearance and foyer areas will remain unchanged.
When it comes to the question of which East German modernist buildings warrant protection as historical monuments, much the same criteria can be applied as for buildings of other eras, says Andrea Pufke, director of the German National Committee for the Preservation of Historical Monuments. “The experts must check in each individual case whether the building is of outstanding architectural value or whether, as a particular historical-political witness, it reflects a part – even if it is an unpleasant part – of our history.” It becomes easier to make this assessment as the years go by, in other words as memories of the former lives in these buildings (as Pierre Nora put it) no longer “smoke”, but have cooled down.
GDR-specific building style
The former SED district party school in Erfurt, for instance, is now a listed cultural monument, being an example of a style of building specific to East Germany that was not to be found in West Germany. A striking blue cube above the main entrance dominates the school complex with its boarding school tract, which was built in 1972; the way the individual buildings are laid out around the interior courtyard gives an impression of an enclosed, cloister-like space.
Built in 1967-1969, the Hotel Panorama in Oberhof, a winter sports resort in the state of Thuringia which Walter Ulbricht wanted to become the “socialist Saint Moritz”, is also a listed building. The architectural form of the building, which is still used as a hotel today, is reminiscent of two huge ski jumps. The Hotel Panorama thus marked the emergence of the “graphic architecture” of the late 1960s in East Germany. Another example of this type of “readable” architecture is the City high-rise in Leipzig which was erected in 1968–1972 and was originally used by the University of Leipzig. Because its three long sides curve slightly inwards, the 142-metre-high building looks from the street like an open book made of stone. The high-rise, which has now been fully modernized, is owned by a US investment bank, with German regional broadcaster Mitteldeutscher Rundfunk (MDR) among its tenants.
At 365 metres, the Berlin television tower, which was opened in 1969, is not only the highest building in the German capital, but also an icon of eastern modernist architecture. Even today, this slim tower crowned by its unmistakable silver ball is testimony to East Germany’s enthusiasm for technology and space travel.
The architects’ collectives of East Germany created not only individual buildings with unique forms, but also entire urban spaces with (eastern) modernist qualities. One typical example of the open architectural structure featuring shops, hotels and apartments along a broad “socialist” boulevard is the Strasse der Nationen in Chemnitz. Prager Strasse in Dresden is another urban space built according to these principles. From 1963 to 1970, the street, which had been destroyed during the war, was rebuilt as a model East German city quarter: a pedestrianized area with hotels, shops, fountains, raised flower beds, circular cinema and restaurants. This building project was also coupled to the socialist concept of society, yet the planners drew inspiration from their western role models. The Lijnbaan in Rotterdam, Europe’s first pedestrian precinct that was completed in the early 1950s, particularly influenced the new design of Prager Strasse. One key difference as compared to the Dutch role model was the fact that the Dresden planners also included apartments in this part of the inner city that was closed to traffic.
Revealing cultural monument
One cultural monument that is particularly revealing in this context is Berlin’s Karl-Marx-Allee. Anyone who strolls along the first section of the boulevard, which was built in 1952–56, will see the phase of “national building” that preceded the East German modern style: the “gingerbread style” of the workers’ palaces whose architectural arrangement and ornamental details followed classicist designs. The second stretch of the boulevard (1959–65), by contrast, is characterized by open spaces, prefabricated apartment blocks and commercial and cultural buildings in the simple but elegant steel and glass style of the modern age. The Kino International cinema went up in 1961–63: with its large glass facade, this former East German premiere cinema is the most striking building in this section of Karl-Marx-Allee. Café Moskau, built around the same time, is to be found just across the street: formerly a restaurant specialized in Russian cuisine, the building is now an event and congress centre. From the outside, the two-storey building with its high, undivided glass windows has hardly changed at all. Original features such as the socialist wall mosaic and the word “MOCKBA” on the roof have been preserved.
It is not so much the established body of historical preservationists but a younger generation of photographers, architects, film-makers, designers and artists who value the rough charm of eastern modernist concept buildings. By staging events and exhibitions and finding novel and interim uses for the buildings, these creative types help people to rediscover the aesthetic and functional qualities of East German modernism.
When it was announced in January 2010 that the “Mensa im Park” refectory, which was opened at the Bauhaus University in Weimar in 1982, was to be demolished, students set up a blog and discussion platform called mensadebatte.de. The initiators believed the Weimar refectory to be an important example of late GDR modernism. They have achieved their goal of provoking a critical debate of the canteen’s positive features in terms of form and function, and the Thuringia State Office for the Preservation of Historical Monuments and Archaeology is now assessing whether the building warrants protection as a historical monument.
For further information, contact architectural historian and historical preservationist Dr.-Ing. Mark Escherich (firstname.lastname@example.org).
is a freelance journalist based in Berlin.
Translation: Chris Cave
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Online-Redaktion
Any questions about this article?
Please write to us!