East German Landmark Buildings New Use, New Life

Many landmark buildings in eastern Germany are standing empty and dilapidated due to a lack of funds for renovation and concepts for putting them to contemporary use. In some places innovative concepts are awakening them to new life.

Akropolis Rüdersdorf Akropolis Rüdersdorf The architectural legacy of the GDR has not (yet) taken its deserved place in the values of the public – although many an architecture collective of the “workers’ and farmers’ state” created noteworthy urban spaces and outstanding individual buildings. Preservation of these buildings is important not only on account of their significance to the history of architecture. They are also identity-forming witnesses to East Germany’s social environment. Examples from Eisenhüttenstadt, Rüdersdorf and Chemnitz.

The courage to take risks: the “Aktivist” in Eisenhüttenstadt

Aktivist in Eisenhüttenstadt Aktivist in Eisenhüttenstadt | Photo: Ralf Löhder In 1954 the large restaurant “Aktivist” was opened in Eisenhüttenstadt, called Stalinstadt at the time. A dance café, pub and restaurant in wood-panelled halls with stucco and chandeliers provided seating for more than 600 guests. One of the best addresses for going out in the first socialist planned city, the restaurant, built with high-quality workmanship, turned out to be oversized following reunification in 1991. Like so many buildings in eastern Germany, the “Aktivist” lost its purpose as well, was closed and stood vacant for almost twenty years, until the Eisenhüttenstadt Housing Construction Cooperative EWG came up with a new idea and the courage to take risks for the revival of this landmark.

The Cooperative invested about five million Euros in renovation and remodelling, and relocated the company’s own headquarters from a new building on the margins of the shrinking city to the centrally-located “Aktivist.” The former dance halls now houses offices separated by glass partitions. The heritage conservancy agency approved a modern insulation for the facade and a glass pavilion as addition that serves as a meeting room. And with the beer hall, which is run by a leaseholder, the “Aktivist” once again has a tavern.

Company headquarters in a large restaurant

“It was a long way from the idea to its implementation,” says Verena Rühr-Bach, chairwoman of the Eisenhüttenstadt Housing Construction Cooperative, whose dedication was honoured with the 2011 German Landmark Preservation Prize. “Communication with our members played an important role; for instance, we presented our plans in an exhibition. The huge and very positive response gave us confidence.” Today it’s clear: it was the right decision, since a building such as the “Akki” (as the people of Eisenhüttenstadt call it) forms identity. Verena Rühr-Bach: “In the past we had to describe our address to visitors very carefully. Today people find us with no difficulty, because everybody knows the ‘Akki’.”

Die „The Rüdersdorf “Acropolis”

Akropolis Rüdersdorf, historical view Akropolis Rüdersdorf, historical view | Photo: Cultural House in Rüdersdorf GmbH The landmarked cultural house “Martin Andersen Nexö“ in Rüdersdorf outside Berlin also demonstrates that buildings are witnesses to history in stone that form regional identity. The monumental building, visible from far away - and called the Acropolis on account of its temple-like front – was opened in 1956 as the clubhouse of the Rüdersdorf cement workers. An ostentatious vestibule, a large hall with 550 seats and including a theatrical stage and orchestra podium, clubrooms and a small hall with 100 seats: the rooms with largely original interior decoration today still serve in their original functions. Concerts, balls, readings and exhibitions are held in the Acropolis. Clubs and associations use the smaller rooms, a friends’ association attends to the exact restoration of the interior decoration with lighting and colour schemes. “Here in the area, the house is still the most important cultural and communications venue”, says Marina Krüger of the Rüdersdorfer Kultur GmbH, an association of the municipality of Rüdersdorf that manages the cultural house. Only the dimensions of the monumental building are a problem, in view of the drastically sunken number of inhabitants. Marina Krüger: “In the past the cement plant in Rüdersdorf had 3000 employees, today there are 300.”

An uncertain future

Unlike the Rüdersdorf “Acropolis,” the spectacular “Miners’ Cultural Palace” in Rabenstein outside Chemnitz, opened in 1951, has been vacant for years. The imposing neoclassical building with a six-column portico, theatre, dance hall, clubrooms, restaurant and library, embedded in a spacious park landscape, was the GDR’s first “Kulturpalast.” The Wismut AG, which prospected for weapons-grade uranium in the nearby Ore Mountains, built it in Soviet style, but parted with the expensive facility as early as 1967. First GDR television moved in. After reunification, the Mitteldeutsche Rundfunk took over the building, but the cultural landmark has stood empty since MDR moved out in 2000, and is deteriorating. The current owner wishes to build privately-owned homes on the site and has therefore applied for permission to tear down the Cultural Palace, which the City of Chemnitz rejected. The owner now intends to bring legal action before the administrative court. The example of Rabenstein highlights what is important for landmark preservation: convincing new concepts and investors who have a feeling for historically significant real estate and its potential.

For some, authentic witnesses to everyday culture in East Germany, for others ideologically tainted relics of the SED regime: the integration of GDR architecture in the architectural legacy of the post-war era migrates between the poles of this tension field. But with increasing temporal distance, perspectives on the architectural and urban-development qualities of these buildings are becoming more objective and clearer.