I am a sucker for architect’s drawings and grand notions of urban design and these weaknesses go some ways to explaining my interest in the GDR. Here the Party leadership’s desire to create “socialist cities” for their subjects and the tabula rasa created by war-time destruction combined to ensure that the country saw more than its fair share of broad, sweeping plans intended to transform both its cityscapes and with them the social order of the Workers and Peasants State. I have several books of blueprints, models and artists renditions of new East German housing settlements with their symmetrical, pre-fab apartment slabs and smiling “socialist personalities” and I have to admit that I find the ordered rationality and modernist aesthetic of these designs very appealing.
But as was the case elsewhere in East Germany, the chasm between the Schein und Sein (the image and the reality) was particularly wide in relation to GDR city planning. Where the sketches of new districts often showed streetcar lines whizzing residents from their outskirt locations into the thick of things and featured a main square containing shops, services, a library, theatre or restaurant and featuring an attractive fountain or some other piece of public art, the reality was rarely so nice. With the Party committed to solving the housing question by 1990, construction crews were under pressure to deliver living space, not the amenities that would have made these neighbourhoods more liveable. While residents were usually pleased to move into the relative comfort offered by their new flats, they often expressed real dissatisfaction with their lengthy commutes into town (most new districts were built on the outskirts of cities), and the lack of green space (landscaping often fell into the category of “luxury”) and shopping options in these areas.
Halle-Neustadt – “Chemical Workers City”
One of the more ambitious of the new socialist settlement projects to be drawn up during the first half of the GDR’s existence was for Halle-Neustadt (New Town), a city to be built directly adjacent to the historical centre of Halle. Plans for the new city grew out of the Socialist Unity Party’s (SED) efforts to strengthen the GDR’s chemical sector and the “Chemical Workers City” was intended to provide living space for the families of workers employed in the nearby industrial centres of Buna Schkopau and Leuna. Richard Paulick (see earlier entry on Karl-Marx-Allee) was made chief planner for this “pet project” of Party leader Walter Ulbricht and construction of the city was begun in 1964.
New districts in the GDR were made up of Wohnkomplexe (Living Complexes) and these were numbered consecutively as they were constructed. By the late 1980s HaNeu (as in Hanoi), as it quickly became know in the East, had nine WKs which were home to over 90,000 people. In many ways, the city became the prototype for the large scale residential districts that went up throughout the country as part of the Party’s housing program that kicked off in the 1970s. While the first WK, built prior to the large scale housing program, featured considerable green space, later precincts were constructed to maximize living space at the cost of lawn or garden areas.
Impressions of HaNeu in 1973
The shortcomings of the new city were no secret and are outlined in a 1973 essay written by Richard Christ, an East German journalist, that is included his collection of travel writing about a number of GDR towns and cities (Reisebilder – Ansichtskarten aus der DDR). Christ wrote from what GDR officials would have called “a reliable standpoint” (meaning he could be trusted to spout the Party line), but he was a good, critical Marxist and his piece on HaNeu manages to convey a pretty accurate impression of its problems:
“While the architects made some effort to use a number of different building types here in order to avoid a monotony of the facades, it would appear that they have yet to discover the integrative and loosening effects of colour. There’s no doubt that the negative impression left by the preponderance of white-grey cement is reinforced by the moonscape between the buildings where there is still much planting to be done.
It is difficult to find one’s way in the new city. There are no street names, each block has been assigned a number as have the separate entranceways. Those who have a hard time remembering their own phone number will no doubt wander through this district for some time before the relevant three-digit number sticks. Remembering something like Tchaikovsky Street or Lessing Allee is decidedly easier.” (pg. 47)
A later passage on problems with some of Berlin’s new districts, Christ’s remarks could just as easily have been written about HaNeu:
“In these areas, cars and not trees are to be found outside the buildings, there are no lawns, no cinema, no public toilets . . . They feature bizarre building numbering . . . but no senior citizens, for these functional, beautiful apartments, which are typically built in inconvenient, unattractive locations, are the domain of the young and middle-aged” (pg. 169).
Street Names and Building Numbering in Halle-Neustadt
For some reason, the streets of Halle-Neustadt did not receive names. Rather, each building was assigned its own three-digit number. As Christ’s comments suggest, the result was a rather confusing orientation system that served more to confuse than assist. In a later passage of his book, he describes the conversation of a couple standing in front of a large map in WK IV as being like “a dialogue between two mathematics professors”, though he does try to soften his critique by asking readers to remember that the residents of HaNeu “have largely received training in the natural sciences and technologies and are therefore very comfortable working with figures” (pgs. 47-48).
Shaping the Public Space
Originally, each of HaNeu’s WKs was to be organized around a central street to include shops, restaurants and services and these plans only exacerbated the challenge of providing a true “city centre” to the town. This function was to be fulfilled by the Neustädter Passage (see above for photos), a two-tiered service tract constructed at the foot of five 18-story apartment blocks which have come to serve as the city’s landmarks. The Passage included a post office, a number of shops and services and a Poliklink, a medical centre integrating a number of health-related services under one roof. On the outskirts of the city, several large buildings went up to house various administrative bodies including one for the district offices of the Ministry for State Security (Stasi).
Of all the newly-built districts in the GDR, Halle-Neustadt probably had the greatest amount of art in its public space. These included fountains, sculpture, murals and tiled mosaics. Not surprisingly, much of this was ideologically-laden. The most imposing piece of such work in HaNeu which has managed to survive the GDR-era is a pair of murals by the Spanish artist Josep Renau installed on what was a student dorm between 1971 and 1974. Renau was a long time resident of the GDR and his two murals of painted ceramic tiles adorn a ten story pre-fab building which now houses various city services. You’ll find images from both of these works (“The Unity of the Working Class and the Founding of the GDR” and “The Powers of Nature and Technology Under Human Command” below.
Soviet Army in HaNeu
Another notable aspect of the new city was its immediate proximity to the barracks of a division of Soviet Army infantry soldiers (see map above). Apparently these soldiers were employed in the building of the town and a number of apartment blocks on its northern edge were reserved for their families. After the Soviet Army left Germany in the early 1990s, these apartments were left standing empty. In an interesting twist of fate, Halle-Neustadt is now home to a significant contingent of “Volksdeutsche“, former-citizens of the USSR with German ancestry, who were permitted to emigrate as part of the treaties governing German reunification.
Straight to Halle(-Neustadt) or Halle(-Neustadt) Ain’t a Bad Place to Be:
My Visit to HaNeu in 1999
I was eager to get to Halle-Neustadt after seeing its silhouette off in the distance from a nearby Autobahn on my first visit to the area in 1996. By the time I got there in 1999, HaNeu had fallen on tough times, but at least the streets now had names (honouring local notables, Albert Einstein and, surprisingly to me, Richard Paulick, the city’s chief planner). I travelled out on a fall day, coincidentally managing to time my visit with the first day that HaNeu’s new streetcar line was in operation. Trips out to the district were free, but my car was not full. Apparently you needed to offer Hallensers a greater incentive than a free return fare to make their way out to the Neustadt.
I recall my initial impression of the place was surprise at just how empty it seemed, and the numbers back me up: by 1999, more than 30,000 of HaNeu’s pre-1989 population of 93,000 had left. Since that date, another 15,000 have followed leaving the “Chemical Workers City” with fewer than 45,000 residents, many of whom are elderly and from the initial cohort that moved into the city in the late 60s and early 70s (the formerly “young and middle-aged” whom the East German journalist referred to in his 1973 essay).
As a reaction to this population decrease, the federal and Eastern state governments began a program of removing unneeded (read: empty and decaying) pre-fab blocks in the late 1990s. This work, along with renovations to the facades and interiors of most of the city’s buildings, has certainly improved the physical reality of HaNeu, but it has not addressed the wider issues (unemployment, poverty, aging population) which continue to make it a tough place to live. Indeed, I’d suggest that the whole program of “selective dismantling” serves as a useful metaphor to understand the general effects of the unification process on those who might rightly be characterized as its “losers” (the elderly, the long-term unemployed and their children).
Like many of these socialist era housing estates, HaNeu had a reputation for a neo-Nazi problem in 1999 and wandering through the city, I came across a fair bit of “duelling graffiti” from neo-Nazi and Antifascist groups. My favourite is found below.
Another arresting image that remains from my visit is the juxtaposition of the faux-Oriental entrance way to the Peking Duck, the area’s ubiquitous “Chinese” restaurant (no doubt run by former-GDR “guest workers” from Vietnam) with the functionalist, Bauhaus-inspired design of what was previously the Mitropa restaurant next to the commuter train station (see below).
My diary entry from this day reads as follows: “HaNeu must’ve been grim (the five skyscrapers off the Magistrale are dire), but in the WKs, there are trees and the place is actually quite nice.” Re-reading this, I was surprised to find that my impressions were generally positive, but by the time of my visit, I had traipsed through “socialist settlements” in a number of cities and it’s true that most of these were much worse than what I found in Halle. Indeed, by 1999, the passage of time had allowed trees to grow and a fair bit of renovation to have been concluded, meaning that in some areas of town, the scene I was confronted with bore only passing resemblance to what I would’ve found in GDR times. But there were other sites (like at the Neustädter Passage with its five towers) in this depopulated destination which served as screens onto which I could project my ideas of “everyday East German life” – a sort of alternative version of my beloved artist’s renderings.
- Richard Christ – Ansichtskarten aus der DDR (Berlin: Aufbau Verlag, 1973)
- Ralf Lange – Architektur und Städtebau der sechziger Jahre (Bonn, Deutsches Nationalkomitee für Denkmalschutz, 2003)
- Thomas Topfstedt – Städtebau in der DDR:1955-1971 (Leipzig: Seemann Verlag, 1988)
- Neue Wohnkomplexe in der DDR und der UdSSR (Berlin, Verlag für Bauwesen, 1987)
A great East German film which thematizes the challenges facing architects and planners in the GDR is “Die Architekten” (The Architects), a product of the GDR’s DEFA studio in the fateful year of 1989.