Looking Beyond the Facade | Culture| Arts, music and lifestyle reporting from Germany | DW | 07.02.2003
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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. On Wednesday he receives an award for his work.


An Irish architect hopes to bring back life to forgotten ground in Eastern Germany

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 BMX-bikers.

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.

Plattenbauten aus Dresden

Werner Ehrlich and Ruairi O'Brian in Dresden.

They are, one could almost say, his pride and joy. O’Brien (right) and his friend, Werner Ehrlich (left), 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

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

Plattenbau in Ostdeutschland

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 fabricated at the factory were made out of rubble from what was left of Dresden after the bombing. Ehrlich’s four walls may not be as historic, but they still mean more to him than the 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: 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 manage to 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 handed over the strip to them after some weeks of persuasion, and left it to them "to make something out of it" - at least until it fell into the hands of an investor.

"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, presented in a large triangle box made of wood. Next come the panels from one of the most typical editions of former East German prefab building, 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.

Just 50 wide and 100 meters long, the museum has only the fraction of the size of a "regular" museum found in most cities today. But this does not mean it that it has less to offer. O'Brien calls his small, but special museums, "micromuseums": He has built, and is working on four of these small worlds, one of which is the Erich Kästner Museum in Dresden. Here, vivitors need to pull the museum, which is like a large cupboard open, and can pull out various drawers which hold the exhibits. In the centre of the museum there is a computer, with which the visitor can inform himself on German author Erich Kästner via audios and videos.

With his micromuseums, for which the architect will receive a prize from the Federal Culture Foundation on Wednesday, O'Brien hopes both to include the visitor in the exhibition, but also to link to various aspects of the main theme, as in the case of the Plattenbau Museum. Here, there will be information boards to supplement the exhibits, and visitors will be invited to contemplate what they read in the tiny park, the "Secret Garden".

Plattenbau blues

His friend Werner Ehrlich has spent many afternoons lingering on the former factory's grounds."Each part of the museum was made in Johannstadt", Ehrlich explains. With the museums, and the original exhibits, he hopes to bring back a sense of identity, lost with the fall of the wall and the closure of the factory. But he particularly wants to commerorate the many people who worked at 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 Chancellor Helmut Kohl’s back then 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 many subjects closely linked to the Platte: industrial housing production, life in modules and, in the case of the Plattenbau museum, dealing with derelict land and 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, to vandalism, and eventually to 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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  • Date 07.02.2003
  • Author Louise Brown
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  • Date 07.02.2003
  • Author Louise Brown
  • Print Print this page
  • Permalink http://p.dw.com/p/3Efh