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East German Architecture's Second Chance

Jane PaulickSeptember 14, 2004

A new exhibition in Leipzig reveals that East German architecture has a lot more to offer than urban eyesores. So why does it have such a bad reputation?

The Palace of the Republic is fighting off the wrecking ballImage: Bilderbox

“So if your body were Berlin, which part would YOU get rid of,” performance artists from the Gob Squad theater group asked the crowd on the recent opening night of the Volkspalast festival in Berlin’s Palace of the Republic, which is welcoming the public until it closes for the last time in November.

The Gob Squad’s badgering of visitors highlighted the building’s sorry plight. An in-your-face example of everything that was wrong with East German urban planning, it's fatally out of fashion -- and it has to go.

At least, according to the Bundestag.

Resisting the inevitable?

But it’s not going quietly. Plenty of people would like it to remain, at least until Berlin is better able to foot the bill for its demolition.

Given the city’s €50 billion ($61.2 billion) debt, it seems like a sensible solution.

“Right now, the idea of rebuilding the palace is completely inappropriate,” said Dagmar Richter, a German-American architecture professor and critic.

Ron Bloch, a spokesman for Volkspalast festival, agreed.

“In these times of Hartz IV (controversial social welfare reforms,) the government has more urgent things to worry about than tearing down an intact building at a cost of up to €60 million,” he observed wryly.

So why exactly did the Bundestag vote to tear down the Palace of the Republic and erect a copy of a Baroque Hohenzollern palace in its place?

Ideological baggage

Crucially, the building is not just aesthetically out of fashion, it’s politically passé, too.

In few other cities does urban planning carry the same sort of baggage it does in Berlin. What with the German capital’s unusually turbulent past, architecture has a political dimension which ensures it’s regularly propelled into mainstream debate.

“Given the many turning points in German history --1918, 1933, 1945 and 1989 -- architecture in Germany has, without a doubt, been considerably more politicized than in other countries,” said Hartmut Frank, an architect.

Cover -Two German Architectures - Ausstellung

Together with Simone Hain, formerly of East Germany’s prestigious Bauakademie, Frank has curated an exhibition with the title Two German Architectures which opens in Leipzig this week. Organized by Germany's Institute for Foreign Relations, or Ifa, it illustrates that ultimately, East and West German architecture had more in common than might have been expected.

As Andreas Ruby wrote in the German weekly Die Zeit, many buildings that typify East German architecture would be considered “characteristic and quality examples of European architecture of the post-war decades if they’d been built, say, in Cologne.” The trouble is that “their historical complicity with the political system of the GDR makes them architectura non grata,” he added.

“Architects in the Weimar Republic, the Third Reich, and both halves of Germany in the post-war years were forced to throw their own convictions overboard and accept the prevailing ethos,” Frank said. “This meant their decisions were often as much political as architectural.”

“Our exhibition attempts to answer the question: is architecture autonomous?” he continued. “We wanted to explore to what extent architecture is independent from political systems.”

Berlin as an architectural battleground

It seems the answer is: not very. In recent years, Berlin has been a battleground for conflicting architectural visions reflecting political agendas.

New German Architecture, 1980–1990, another Ifa exhibition now on an international tour, demonstrates that East German architects were given short shrift after the Wall fell, Frank told DW-WORLD.

“They were more or less obliged to clear the field,” he said. “They were barely involved at all in the building boom that occurred after re-unification, and the high-profile commissions went to West German architects.”

Systematic erasure

Even so, it hasn’t been easy laying to rest the ghost of the German Democratic Republic when the city bears so much concrete testimony to this most recent chapter in Germany’s troubled history.

According to Dagmar Richter, today’s architectural decisions are motivated first and foremost by a need actively to erase traces of East Germany. Since 1989, urban planners have been acutely aware that banishing the city’s communist legacy is a matter of both psychological and physical transformation.

The process began in the early 1990s when statues of communist heroes were unceremoniously removed and many of East Berlin’s streets rechristened. Monuments to Lenin were dismantled, Marx-Engels-Platz became Hackescher Markt -- and the oppressive era of socialist dictatorship became an increasingly distant memory.

Abriß von Plattenbauten
Image: AP

“Architecture here is much more about politics than aesthetics,” she said, explaining the drab, minimalist look of many 1950s East German buildings. “That always meant architecture had less of an opportunity to be expressive than in a highly consumerist society like the US.”

Richter also pointed out that Germany was and still is scarred by the overtly monumental vision of Nazi architect Albert Speer and has shyed away from bombastic building ever since.

“What we have instead is architecture that has more of a political role in the urban fabric,” she said, adding that it’s a sign of the times that the architects currently involved in redesigning the city -- such as Helmut Jahn and Hans Kollhoff, the man behind the plans for the new Alexanderplatz in central Berlin -- are famously conservative, “corporate” architects.

Retro classics worth preserving

But as Berliners witness the bricks and mortar traces of the Soviet era slowly disappear, many have reclaimed aspects of East German architecture and design as retro classics eminently worth preserving.

Two German Architectures - Ausstellung

Fifteen years after the fall of the wall, it’s more than okay to have a sentimental attachment to East Germany -- it’s positively fashionable. The party crowd is flocking to the capital’s hip havens of sputnik chic, with 1960s-built venues such as Cafe Moskau and Kino Kosmos enjoying unprecedented popularity.

Not even its new-found fans would describe it as beautiful -- but if it gets a stay of execution, perhaps the day will come when even the Palace of the Republic is considered fashionable.

Two German Architectures runs from Sept. 15 – Oct. 31 in the Städtisches Kaufhaus in Leipzig.