Halle-Neustadt: Where the Streets Had No Name

Halle-Neustadt from a series of stamps marking the GDR's 20th anniversary and depicting urban development undertaking since WWII.

Halle-Neustadt from a series of stamps marking the GDR’s 20th anniversary and depicting urban development undertaken since WWII.

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.

Artist's rendering of a GDR housing project - note the ghostly inhabitants

Artist’s rendering of a GDR housing project – note the “ghostly” inhabitants

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 (Hah-noi, 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
Excerpt of 1986 GDR map of Halle and Halle-Neustadt (VEB Tourist Verlag) from my collection. Note the numbered buildings and lack of street names.

Excerpt of 1986 GDR map of Halle and Halle-Neustadt (VEB Tourist Verlag) from my collection. Note the numbered buildings and lack of street names.

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).

Josep Renau's painted tile murals from 1971-1974 on what is now a city administration building (author's photo)

Josep Renau’s painted tile murals from 1971-1974 on what is now a city administration building (author’s photo)

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

Red Army barracks stationed just to the north of HaNeu

Off the map: Red Army barracks stationed just to the north of 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.

A Lenin monument given to the people of HaNeu by the Red Army (author's photo)

A Lenin monument given to the residents of Halle-Neustadt by the Red Army garrison stationed nearby (author’s photo)

Straight to Halle(-Neustadt) or Halle(-Neustadt) Ain’t a Bad Place to Be:
My Visit to HaNeu in 1999
H & M ad featuring the only human in sight (author's photo)

H & M ad featuring the only human in sight (author’s photo)

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.

"Stop animal testings - there are plenty of Nazis" - the "N" logo is used by the squatter scene (author's photo)

“Stop animal testings – there are plenty of Nazis” – the “N” logo is used by the squatter scene (author’s photo)

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).

HaNeu's Chinese restaurant, the Peking Duck (author's photo)

HaNeu’s Chinese restaurant, the Peking Duck (author’s photo)

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.

LITERATURE

  • 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.

Postcard presenting "Neuhaus", an art exhibit held in HaNeu in 2003.

Postcard presenting “Neuhaus”, an art exhibit held in HaNeu in 2003.

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14 comments
  1. Thanks John Paul for a fascinating post. In Erfurt, where the state has pumped in massive amounts of money for refurbishment, apartment complexes from this period dominate the cityscape, complete with idealised wall paintings of workers. The University of Erfurt boasts — I’ve been told — the first GDR highrise, now the university administration building. The building, as the university, includes depictions on its facade of children active in sports and students busy at school and research. As one moves towards the outskirts of the city, similar complexes dominate neighbourhoods. I’ve been told that although these buildings are ugly, they were places of lively community life and cooperation, a loss former East Germans who have spoken to me describe as one of the great costs of the advent of capital. In 1989 the state revealed its plans to build an Autobahn through the centre of the old city, which would have required the destruction of the historic centre. Fachwerk houses were left in disrepair because of their bourgeois associations. The idea was to leave them so that they would be beyond repair and required bulldozing to make way for new plans. Since Erfurt escaped relatively unscathed by allied bombing in WW II, an historic centre like that of the capital of Thuringia required a different kind of solution: in this case a policy of architectural attrition. HOwever, the residents of Erfurt in Winter 1989 formed a human chain around the city to express their protest against the state for its plans to destroy their Medieval city. This remains a moment of civic pride for Erfurtians.

    • Thanks for this Harry. Yes, the remnants of the GDR state’s attempts to mark the public space will be with us for some time. I have a few photos of the murals and mosaics which were the favoured method of “beautifying” the prefab buildings and plan to get to them in a later post. Your points about how the Party often pushed their planning goals using neglect is a good one; this practice of denying pre-WWII buildings any maintenance in order to hasten their decay (love your term ‘architectural attrition’) was carried out throughout the country and was one of the complaints voiced during the protests of 1989. Indeed, in the revolution’s epicentre, Leipzig, the physical decline of the city was particularly pronounced and this was a major factor contributing to dissatisfaction with the regime. In September 1989, the West German TV news magazine Kontraste broadcast a story called “Frustration and Decay in Leipzig” which focused on the crumbling of the cityscape due to neglect and environmental problems. This broadcast has subsequently been credited with having helped bring GDR citizens out to the then nascent Monday demonstrations that began that same month. This video, and a short background essay, are found on the Federal Office for Political Education’s website at: http://www.bpb.de/geschichte/deutsche-geschichte/kontraste/42448/frust-und-verfall-in-leipzig
      Even if you don’t speak German, it’s worth spending the 10 minutes to look at the pictures to get a sense of the living conditions in LPZ at the time of fall of the Wall.

  2. Dan said:

    Great essay John Paul. The socialist building initiatives are a fascinating history, especially in Germany where so much was required given that housing was in such short supply. The numberings of streets and buildings likely fits into socialist desires for modernity and clean breaks with the past. Naming streets could be politically controversial (many of the usual German heroes were tainted) and looked like a real atavism. Numbers for districts, streets, buildings and apartments thus looked progressive and properly socialist. Though knowing that one lived in 3: 34: 2: 406 was often helpful for finding it on the grid pattern. This was not however uniformly applied. The Czechs sometimes named their new developments and their streets after their fraternal socialist comrades. My family was based on Frunze Street for instance, named after the Russian Minister of Defence and military academy. On that note, a change is necessary in that the Red Army ceases to exist in 1946 and becomes the “Soviet Army”.

    • Hi Dan. Thanks for this input. The numbering system for HaNeu appears to have been based on a modified version of the grid reference system, though I was never able to penetrate exactly how it worked. Probably due to deficiencies in my natural science and technology training.
      Thanks for clueing me in on the proper terminology for the Soviet Army! I’ll make that change right away!
      jpk

  3. Doug Shearer said:

    Excellent piece John Paul. So interesting to see that despite the different political systems, utopian planning excess in east snd west shared a lot of similarities.

    • Doug Shearer said:

      Also…a minor point…those ghostly people in the architectural rendering showed up in the west too…including in my student work at Arch. school in the late 80’s! A convention that has since passed.

      • How disappointing that the “ghost people” were not exclusive to the Eastern Bloc! I wonder what the inspiration for that was? Any idea?

  4. Goya Ngan said:

    Hi John Paul. Thanks for this in-depth post about Halle-Neustadt. Luckily Doug Shearer posted it on fb or I would never have seen it. Seems like a long time ago now, but I lived in Halle from 1999 to 2003 after which I moved to Saskatoon (and I understand you know that obscure city too). As a landscape architect, I had the opportunity to participate in a design charette in Halle-Neustadt to come up with some ideas of what to do with these plattenbauten. There was a group of local designers and a visiting group from New York. One of the local fellows called HaNeu a ‘shrinking’ city, while the New Yorkers argued that they needed to find a more positive term. They couldn’t agree on what to call this phenomenon. Just a little memory that sticks with me.
    Actually, Neustadt seemed to be adjusting much better than Silbehoehe to the south of Halle, where buildings were being demolished just before I left. And as for the neo-nazis, i hope things have improved – there were several rallies – luckily anti-fascists usually outnumbered the neo-nazis.

    • Thanks for this contribution, Goya. It is greatly appreciated! Interesting to learn of your work in HaNeu; the refurbishing of the Plattenbauten (as the prefab apartments are known in German) has generated a lot of ideas, some of them good, but by and large, I think it’s been a case of “you can’t make a silk purse out of a pig’s ear”. Do you have any images of the proposals you generated as part of that process? I’d be very interested in seeing them if you do!
      The term “shrinking city” was thrown around a lot about 5-10 years ago and even became the focus of a major international research project which brought together academics, architects and artists to look at the phenomenon in a comparative way. The idea was to diagnose the factors driving this process in a variety of settings (Halle-Leipzig, Detroit, Ivanonvo and Manchester-Liverpool) and then to make recommendations for how to deal with the problem. The project wrapped about 4-5 years ago with what I think many felt were really disappointing results. I think that the micro-scale solutions offered were so specific that they offered no sweeping response of how to address the question of what to do with these developments. If you’re interested, the project website is at: http://www.shrinkingcities.com
      Appreciate the input and do drop by again as I pick up on cities and urban design themes from time-to-time.
      jpk

      • Doug Shearer said:

        Re: ghosts: I can only guess it was an attempt to highlight the architecture in drawings…same reason why arch’l mags often feature pictures of interior spaces unsullied by people. They sort of get in the way and mess things up.

  5. mandorlino said:

    I would really appreciate it if someone would explain the way the numbering system works. I am trying to translate the explanation that is available in wikipedia, but it doesn’t seem to make sense when compared to the excerpt of the map you posted.
    By the way, great article!!

    • Hi, insofar as I can understand it, the principle for the numbering system was as follows: buildings were numbered in reference to the Wohnkomplex (the units in which the city was built up, roughly equivalent to subdivisions) they were in and their distance (measured in streets) from Neustadt’s central axis, the intersection of the Magistrale and Commuter Train (S-Bahn) line that runs through HaNeu.
      Specifically, the number in the hundreds position (e.g. 102) reflected the Wohnkomplex (this number did not mirror the number of the complex. For example, all the buildings in WK 1, the first built in HaNeu, began with 6**. Go figure). The number in the ten position (e.g. 633) was determined by the number of streets is was away from the intersection of the train/Magistrale. The last of the street numbers reflected that specific building.
      Thanks for reading and hope this helps!
      jpk

      • mandorlino said:

        Thanks for the attempt!

        Yes, it is true, although the number in the hundreds position is not the same as the number of the WKs, every WK has its own unique number in the first position of the three-digit numbers. I am almost sure that they have been assigned with a clockwise system having the center in the main intersection.

        But regarding the other two positions, I don’t think it works the way it “should”. Take a look at the numbers 202 and 274 at the top right of the map excerpt. There is no way there are seven streets between both; or 042, right besides the S-Bahn station and in front of the Magistrale. How come it is got a 4 in the second digit?

        I am starting to think they are just partially random numbers and everyone believed there was a system to it, but nobody admitted they just didn’t know.

      • Looking closely at the examples you give, I see that you’re right and that the “system” appears not to have been uniformly applied. Afraid I can’t offer and explanation beyond that I translated from the HaNeu Wiki page. If you continue digging on this, I’d be most interested if you find an explanation of some sort!

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