Looking Beyond the Facade | Culture| Arts, music and lifestyle reporting from Germany | DW | 06.05.2002
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Looking Beyond the Facade

Irish architect Ruairi O'Brien has designed a museum for the Platte, those East German pre-fabricated apartment blocks which were the hallmark of socialist living.


Ruairi O'Brien (right) and Werner Ehrlich (left) are planning to honour the "Plattenbau" in Dresden in a new museum

It is no place for a museum. This desolate, dusty spot on the outskirts of Dresden, frequented by the odd fox from a neighbouring cemetery is a popular training ground for teenage mountainbikers.

For Ruairi O’Brien, it is a historical site, one to be remembered.

Ruairi O’Brien stands among heaps of sand and concrete rubble on what was once a housing factory and speaks of "making history alive again". Any remnants of history, of the factory which churned out panel after panel essential for those pre-fabricated apartment blocks so typical for the former GDR, have long disappeared.

What is left is a collection of concrete boulders resting at O’Brien’s feet.

They are, one could almost say, his pride and joy. O’Brien and his friend, Werner Ehrlich, spent numerous mornings during the factory’s demolition on the building site, and managed to save several examples of concrete panels and steel girders from the excavator’s fangs.

"With these fragments, you can recount history", O’Brien says, eager to tell their tale.

State symbol

Plattenbau in Ostdeutschland

Plattenbau in East Germany. The unbroken row of windows and symetric structure are characteristic of the socialist architecture.

World War Two left 18.4 million East Germans in need of an apartment. After the founding of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) as it was officially called, the government launched a housing campaign for the mass production of millions of new apartments. The Plattenbau, short Platte, soon became an, albeit unintentional, symbol of the former GDR.

Werner Ehrlich was one of the "lucky ones" to move into a new, modern apartment in the Dresden district of Johannstadt, an apartment block built with panels from the local factory.

The first panels were made out of rubble from what was left of Dresden after the bombing. Ehrlich’s four walls may not have been as historic. But they still mean more to him than his apartment's breathtaking view over Dresden and full central heating which he had not experienced in his previous home.

"The Platte stands for the birth of the city," he says. And without the factory, Johannstadt, as it is today, would never have been born.

Due to poor sight, Ehrlich had to give up his job as a clerk years ago. Instead, he took on a job for the town’s culture council, dedicating himself to Johannstadt’s culture and history.

Ehrlich wanted to rescue the factory, and turn it into artists’ studios or a youth centre. He couldn’t rescue the building. But together with O’Brien, he did save at least parts of the factory. These remnants are due to be be displayed in their open air museum, later this year.

Collage of fragments

O’Brien strides down a small strip of the parched landscape which was once the factory. The city of Dresden "gave" them the strip after some weeks of persuasion, and left it to them "to make something out of it".

"Here", he says, pointing to a tiny guard's hut, where watchmen once waved trucks in or out of the factory, "will be the entrance".

The first exhibits, a heap of grey-brown mottled concrete boulders - examples of the first panels made at the factory - are to follow. Next come the panels from one of the most typical editions of the prefab house, and so on. A few straggly bushes growing among a leftover gravel pit struggling for light will become a place to linger. And the former chimney, now a heap of red brick rubble, will be turned into a path.

Plattenbauten in Dresden

Youth on the former site of the Platte factory in Johannstal in Dresden.

Plattenbau blues

"Each part of the museum was made in Johannstadt", Ehrlich explains. He hopes to bring back a sense of identity, lost with the fall of the wall and the closure of the factory.

300 people once worked at the factory in Johannstadt, its closure in 1990 was a blow to the area. For eleven years the factory was left to decay. The roof leaked, brambles grew over concrete, graffiti covered walls. The only visitor was the occasional fox.

Not everyone is happy to see parts of the factory erected again. "Away with the dirt" was the motto of a local initiative whose members were fed up with the sight of the factory decaying with time. The initiative fought for years for its destruction. Their prayers were eventually answered – despite an eleven year delay.

During its solitary existence, a friend of Ehrlich documented the factory on film. When he hung up the photos on the site’s fence, as a reminder of what once stood there, people tore the photos down, wanting to forget what once stood on this dusty spot.

Ehrlich says the city missed a chance when they demolished the factory. He says it was something to remember Johannstadt for. But with an east German unemployment rate of 18.8 percent, Johannstadt’s citizens prefer not to be reminded of the times when jobs were abundant - and when the machines purred in the housing factory.

Ehrlich takes it all with humour. "Imagine – when the wall came down, they didn’t even tell them to stop!". But behind the laughter, Ehrlich very well knows and takes to heart the concern of those waiting in avail for for Chancellor Helmut Kohl’s promised "blooming lands".

Turning their backs

O'Brien has often walked the dusty grounds with Ehrlich, discussing his concept for the open air museum.

The born Irishman, whose first job on arrival to the city was to turn a multi-storey apartment block into an operating theatre, has a penchant for Plattenbauten. He says his fascination lies in the number of matters closely linked to the Platte - the former GDR’s industrial housing production, life in modules and, in the case of the Plattenbau museum, the recycling of history.

But, he adds, it is also a question of the future of the Plattenbau.

The population in eastern Germany is turning its backs on those high-rise apartment blocks which were once the hallmark of their former country. One million apartments now stand vacant in what was once a socialist society. After the fall of the Wall, more than a million easterners migrated to the West in search of jobs. And economically successful eastern Germans headed for the countryside outside the city.

In an effort to prevent more vacancies, housing companies have attempted to renovate and modernise prefabricated apartments all over the country. But thousands of apartments have been left to rot, vandalism, and eventually demolition.

The museum does not belittle the situation of the Plattenbau. Nor does it follow Berlin's recent Plattenbau trend, when the capital’s creative youngsters declared prefab housing trendy and lifestylish. It is a reminder of the history and identity of life in the former GDR.

Ehrlich points a finger to a collection of bits of facade, in various colours, lying to one side of the former factory grounds. "Difficult to believe, but our Platte was so colourful", he says with a laugh.

There is a sense of optimism, and pride in his voice.

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