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Germany's postwar buildings: eyesores or worthy of protection?

Many Germans would love to see postwar buildings razed to the ground, but some preservationists say that would be a big mistake. So what should be done with the aging structures that millions of people call home?

a 1963 tower, Berlin

This 1963 tower is unique for its sliding windows

When the smoke cleared after World War II, many of Germany's cities lay in rubble. A third of Berlin and over 60 percent of Cologne were destroyed - just to mention two.

Most constructions built during West Germany's 1950s Wirtschaftswunder, or Economic Miracle, had to be thrown up quickly and cheaply to accommodate the housing needs of millions. As a result, many German cities today are a conglomeration of pre-war structures, known as Altbau or "old construction," and these postwar buildings ( Neubau, or"new construction").

While most people "ooh" and "aah" when they see the ornate stonemasonry and plaster moldings of Wilhelminian and art nouveau facades, they not only fail to gape openmouthed at postwar buildings - they actively shun them. At best, they see the newly built structures as eyesores; at worst, a crime against aesthetics.

Wilhelminian building in frankfurt

Will modern high-rises be more popular than ornate prewars some day?

The believer

Not everyone cringes at Germany's postwar buildings, however.

Berlin architectural historian Roman Hillmann argues that the real crime would be to tear these buildings down. He told Deutsche Welle he believes that the buildings will soon be recognized as architectural treasures - in 20 years at the latest. His mission: to see some of Berlin's "Neubau" become legally-protected cultural heritage sites, which would stop them from being torn down.

One such building is a grey, ten-story high-rise on West Berlin‘s famed Kurfuerstendamm shopping street that was built in 1963 - a building he recently called "gorgeous."

"But it doesn‘t matter whether or not I like it," Hillmann said. "The real question is: Is it worth being named a historic building?"

This question makes the high-rise more interesting for Hillmann than the prime example of 19th century Wilhelminian architecture right next to it. While the high-rise won't be torn down, it is slated to be renovated into 11,400 square meters of office space and several storefronts by the fall of 2011. Hillmann is worried about the structure's historic integrity.

"This is a truly unusual facade. It is completely rare in Germany: there are sliding windows," he pointed out, adding that these will probably be the first to go.

"It is one of the big problems that is often fought over: 'Why do we have to keep these old windows?' Of course we have to keep the old windows, because their profile is unbelievably thin. They're a wonder to behold. People don't build like that anymore, firstly, and secondly, they are of historical value, technically speaking. They tell us how things were made back then."

The businessmen

There's no risk of these buildings disappearing, according to Marco Mendler, who represents the nationwide real estate firm Alt und Kelber. Mendler estimated that approximately half the German population lives in 1950s or 60s-style post-war buildings.

a renovated commercial building, Berlin

Some renovations have been successful, preservationists say

Like most of his clients, Mendler prefers the look of pre-war construction. But, he says, those buildings are expensive, and there just is not enough of them to go around. While Mendler believes in razing post-war constructions that are surrounded by old buildings, he says it doesn't make sense to tear down post-war architecture in newer neighborhoods where there has never been anything else.

And he is certainly not in favor of declaring the buildings heritage sites.

"Postwar buildings are really more about function," Mendler said. "If you place them under cultural heritage protection, they lose that functionality because you're then quite limited in the improvements you can make. You can't improve stairwell lighting, for instance, or widen doorways."

Actually, he said, it is the very fact that most postwar construction isn't protected by any heritage laws that will ensure its survival.

"If the insides of the buildings have been modernized, you can still get people interested," explained Cologne real estate agent Achim Koechner. If that isn't the case, though, "I almost have no chance," he said.

Here, taste and consideration for market value win out over the unique architectural heritage of Germany's rebuilt cities.

What disharmony?

Architecture historian Hillmann rejects claims that postwar architecture has ruined the unified look of many cities. On the contrary, he argues that the bombing of Germany's crowded old cities allowed architects to create more open spaces.

Hillmann worries that new renovations of these buildings will once again crowd Berlin's streets. He sees the battle between preservationists and developers as a tussle between short-term economic interests and long-term cultural responsibility.

a postwar tower, Berlin

The idea of what makes a beautiful building changes from decade to decade

"If someone invests money somewhere, as a rule their actions are welcome," Hillmann said. "But when someone says, 'we have a cultural responsibility,' well, the answer is usually: 'OK, but not now. Later.'"

Still, Hillmann maintains hope for the future of these underappreciated structures.

"Aesthetics change over time, and I can safely predict that in 20 years this building will be considered an architectural gem. Tastes are changing."

Authors: Nadine Wojcik/ David Levitz
Editor: Jennifer Abramsohn

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