The Zeitguide to East German Architecture

One of the most enduring reminders of the German Democratic Republic (GDR), a.k.a. East Germany, is its distinctive architecture. Composed of notoriously unattractive materials—from thick concrete to flimsy cardboard—these monuments to the Communist aesthetic were designed to impress (at least from a distance) and still do.

From Prestige Projects to Plattenbauten

In the 1950s, after the GDR was founded, a construction boom transformed the country’s cities into modern metropolises. Buildings and squares inspired by the Stalinist (neoclassical) architectural style emerged from World War II rubble, symbolizing the country’s ‘brand-newness’ and emphasizing its sharp contrast with ‘old’ West Germany.  During this time, the Communist Party propaganda machine used construction (and labor) as a metaphor for the emergence of a new country with a radically new economic and social system. East German films of the time, including the excellent Spur der Steine (Traces of Stone, available on Netflix), emphasized these themes. Likewise public artwork including murals and statues in the preferred Eastern bloc style—Socialist Realist—glorified the common worker with bold images of triumphant farmers, factory workers, and builders. It is easy to imagine that these images of re-building and starting afresh must have been inspiring to everyday East Germans still living among World War II destruction.

One of the first GDR cities to get a facelift was East Berlin. The Communist party’s lead architect, Hermann Henselmann, transformed the east-west thoroughfare of Karl Marx Allee, which was soon renamed Stalinallee, into the Champs-Élysées of the East. Since this was the part of East Berlin that westerners—and tourists—would see, the East German government wanted to make it a shining example of the country’s modernity. Thousands of workers were hired to widen the avenue and then line it with creamy white, Stalinist apartment buildings—hewn in the so-called Wedding Cake style—as well as movie theaters, stores and restaurants. Fast-forward to today, and the avenue still exudes a decadent if decaying air.

But as East Germany’s economy slowed, so, too did its building boom. Low production costs trumped prestige projects and the era of Plattenbauten emerged. These pre-fabricated, cookie-cutter apartment buildings were cheap to produce and easy to assemble. Their primary purpose–most of which were apartment buildings built in the outskirts of historic city centers–was to replace buildings destroyed in the war and deliver the GDR promise of housing for all. Indeed, each high-rise had (and still has) the capacity to house hundreds of families in cramped quarters.

East German designers also provided a set of mass-produced furniture that made the best use of these cramped accommodations. One such piece of furniture was the Multifunktionstisch (multi-functional table), Mulfuti for short, a folding table that could be raised and folded to become a coffee table and a dining room table. (Visit the website of the popular film Sonnennalle and click on “Mufuti” in the top right corner to see the table.) Dishes, tea sets and other everyday products were likewise mass-produced. You can find these iconic, in-demand objects in eastern Germany’s flea markets.

Historic Preservation in the GDR

In addition to building new structures, GDR architects were also charged with the task of rebuilding and restoring historic landmarks throughout East Germany that had been damaged during World War II. In some cases, the GDR razed historic monuments to make room for new, modern buildings. For examples, dozens of churches fell victim to GDR bulldozers. (Ideology also played a part in their destruction.) The loss of Leipzig’s Universitätskirche (University Church) was a particularly painful episode that continues to inspire controversy among Leipzigers (see Dresden & Greater Saxony).  The government didn’t destroy historic structures, however. Officials, aware of the prestige–and tourism—tied to their historic cities, preserved dozens of landmarks, including baroque buildings in Dresden (see Dresden & Greater Saxony), neoclassical palaces in Weimar (See Frankfurt am Main, Hesse & Thuringia) and historic university buildings in Lutherstadt-Wittenberg, where religious leader Martin Luther lived (see Dresden & Greater Saxony).

The GDR government preserved Quendlinburg's halftimbers. Photo by Susan Buzzelli.

In many cases, mostly due to lack of funds, GDR architects left the historically-significant centers of smaller, less economically important towns alone. For this reason, Quedlinburg, a sleepy backwater on the Bode river, in the Harz Mountains (see Dresden & Greater Saxony) retained its priceless ensemble of untouched Fachwerkhäuser (half-timber houses), some of which were even restored during the GDR by Polish experts. There is only one GDR-era building in the historic center, and it was designed to blend in with its historic surroundings. Indeed, GDR architecture wasn’t all modern and there are dozens of GDR-era buildings that mimic historic styles to prove it. The port city of Rostock (see Baltic Sea Coast), where red brick East German buildings blend in with Steingotik (gothic red brick) gems is just one of many examples.

Traces of the East Today

East German architecture still defines eastern German cityscapes today. The easiest-to-find and most prevalent structures are the Plattenbauten that ring the historic centers of cities and towns like dominoes. Though many of these apartment buildings have been retrofitted with new facades to fit contemporary tastes, they continue to imbue the eastern half of the country with Communist architectural sensibilities. Wondering where else you can pick up traces of East German history? The following list points to the most prominent GDR architectural monuments–and products–throughout the country.

Alexanderturm & Alexanderplatz, Berlin

Almost as famous as the Brandenburg Gate, the soaring Fernsehturm (TV tower) that rises above massive Alexanderplatz is one of the only inner-city television towers in Europe. Designed to be an in-your-face demonstration of East German technology might, the tower projected state-run East German television stations into all of Berlin’s homes. Most East Berliners, however, preferred the television waves that they were able to pick up from the West. Other examples of GDR-era architecture rings and studs Alexanderplatz, including the World Time Clock, pictured above.

Rosa Luxembourg Theater, Berlin

The hulking, rotund theater in the heart of Berlin’s Mitte district, only steps away from Alexanderplatz, would have probably impressed the ancient Romans. Hewn from thick slabs of concrete, the massive theater announced to the world that the GDR had a vibrant cultural scene. Indeed, many of East Germany’s talented playwrights, including Heiner Müller and Völker Braun, debuted their widely-appreciated work at the still-running theater.

Trabants

One of the most famous East German designs is a tiny four-seater car with a two-stroke, two-cylinder engine that could hit a maximum speed of 60 miles per hour. Produced in a Zwickau factory, residents would wait up to 14 years for the opportunity to drive a flimsy plastic-lined Trabi. Today, you can take a Trabi Safari in Berlin or Dresden to experience, first hand, just how sub-par these iconic cars were.

Eisenhüttenstadt

Built from the ground up in the 1950s, this factory town was also designed to be a model workers’ community. A maze of Plattenbau apartment buildings–not to mention a massive, still-in-operation steel mill–the city is an open air display case of GDR architecture. With its steadily diminishing population, the city is closer to a museum than a living, breathing city.

Halle Neustadt

Like Eisenhüttenstadt, this massive, inner city jungle of high-rise Plattenbau apartment buildings along the western edge of Halle’s historic center was designed to serve as the ideal Communist community.  Buildings with between six and eleven floors–some without elevators–had close access to tram and S-bahn lines. Today, it is a graffiti-covered, half-abandoned testament of the impersonality of GDR architecture.

Ostprodukte

Spreewaldhof pickles, Persil laundry detergent, Rotkäppchen Sekt (sparkling wine) and a small handful of East German products have survived reunification. Accustomed to these everyday, household items, eastern German consumers ensured that they didn’t disappear into oblivion along with the Berlin Wall. You can find a wide variety of these products in the few remaining Ostprodukte (eastern product) shops, which are also referred to as Ossiladen (eastern shops). You can even order products online at Ostprodukte Versand.

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