Renaissance of the Prefabricated Building Ugly but Useful

A prefabricated building in Berlin-Lichtenberg that used to house the offices of the Reichsbahn (East German Railways) - now renovated and converted into an apartment block.
A prefabricated building in Berlin-Lichtenberg that used to house the offices of the Reichsbahn (East German Railways) - now renovated and converted into an apartment block. | Photo (detail): © GPU

For so long the grey apartment blocks from the old GDR were berated as eyesores. Today, however, the prefabricated building is celebrating its comeback as a bastion of inexpensive housing – thanks not least to the business savvy of certain entrepreneurs in the real estate sector.

It would be over the top to call a prefabricated building beautiful, but that was never the intention behind it: The Platte, as the Germans nickname it, was at first was merely functional. Then it became an expression of political conviction – the symbol of a system whose demise it witnessed. Over the past few years it has been derided, vilified and ridiculed. Again and again people wanted nothing more than to see the back of it. Nevertheless the prefabricated building survived, in Berlin, in Leipzig, in cities like Potsdam and Erfurt, as highly visible remnant from the days of German socialism.

These grey apartment blocks were mostly built in the 1970s due to the housing shortage in the GDR, to provide homes for as many people as possible as quickly as possible. At times entire urban districts came into being in the form of prefabricated blocks, housing around 100,000 people. They rose to become the epitome of the socialist all-men-are-equal ideology. Today these anonymous concrete fortresses seem disconcerting. They are often unoccupied and berated as eyesores. If an investor does come along, he usually demolishes the building, in order to build more upmarket, new property. The real-estate market in the big cities has picked up strongly, but people are not interested in these cold cubes of concrete from the old GDR. They want nicely appointed apartments with parquet flooring, balconies and high ceilings.

Discount on real estate

At least that is what those who can afford it want. Those who cannot afford it feel they are being more and more marginalised. More and more people are moving into the big cities, above all into inner-city districts. The wheel of gentrification keeps on turning, living space is becoming scarce. It is getting more expensive all the time. For Lutz Lakomski this is where the Platte comes into play. Lakomski is the managing director of a project development company called GPU. In collaboration with his partner, Arndt Ulrich, he has been investing for years in things nobody is interested in. For example, the two of them buy prefabricated buildings in Berlin that are only fit for demolition, they renovate them and inside they create tiny apartments. They then re-let them at an affordable price.

The one big advantage with the prefabricated Platte to create inexpensive housing is that it is already there. That saves time, bureaucracy and money, even their energy-oriented modernisation is relatively inexpensive. The target groups are students, trainees, pensioners – the people who lose out on gentrification. “We are addressing tenants who earn between 800 and 1000 euros a month,” says Lakomski. These are the people who are often neglected on the housing market. “Everybody is into building something nice and realising their inner selves. That does not come cheap. There are, however, a lot of people who do not earn so much and they should not be ignored, either.” As an entrepreneur he has a down-to-earth approach – if there is a demand, then he will provide a supply.

Inexpensive housing

In a certain way the prefabricated building is returning to its original purpose. No way was it solely a socialist idea spawned by the GDR regime, prefabricated housing actually started its triumphant advance in Germany during the Weimar Republic. Back then the state was looking for ways to create inexpensive housing. A rationalised approach to constructing housing for the masses was a counter-project to the artistically motivated architecture of the time and aimed at providing adequate housing for people from the socially deprived sections of society.

The principle has now finally gained a foothold on the privately financed housing market. In Berlin-Lichtenberg, in an office block that used to house the Stasi (the GDR’s secret police) Lakomski and Ulrich have installed small apartments and a day-care centre for children. A nine-storey, brute of an apartment block on Frankfurter Allee has in the meantime been painted in bright colours. Most of its apartments have an area of 25 to 35 square metres, the cheapest costing 299 euros including heating. Their best trump card, however, is not so much the price per square metre, but their size. In a city that attracts more and more young people every day, but also in a city in which more and more people live alone, inexpensive apartments for singles are a rare commodity.

Other entrepreneurs have also re-discovered the Platte. Investors recently acquired, for example, a former hostel for GDR contract workers on Wartenberger Strasse, with the aim of renovating it. There is talk here of it housing 625 apartments.

Concentration instead of beauty

Yes, the Platte is enjoying a small renaissance, yet at the same time there has been a further change in its significance. It might well have been stigmatised as a symbol of a misguided approach to social equality in the years after the Berlin Wall came down, today – as British architect David Chipperfied sees it – it is a sign of social heterogeneity. In an interview with the German newspaper, Die Welt, he said that these concrete blocks may well be ugly, but they are useful – because they ensure a social blending of the city’s population. He went on to say that it was difficult to imagine ways in which a Platte could be gentrified. Their appearance and historical stigma, he believes, are the two things that make them unsuitable for conversion into luxury apartments.

What Chipperfield might well observe from a sociological standpoint, is viewed more pragmatically by entrepreneurs. The influx of people moving to the cities is going to become more and more drastic. Child day-care centres have already been set up in a Platte, this would also be an option for schools, says Lakomski. “Then there is also the ever-important question of how refugees are to be housed.” The company is also planning a new building that will be a 100 metres tall. In this case, too, it is not a matter of beauty, but of concentrating living space. What Lakomski has in mind is a kind of new Platte. One that is built to be functional – as it always was.