Leipzig: Big City Lights

"Read more, know more, do more": large scale neon from 1964 for LKG, a book wholesaler based in Leipzig, circa 1999 (photo: author).

“Read more, know more, do more”: large scale neon from 1964 for LKG, a book wholesaler based in Leipzig, circa 1999 (photo: author).

East German cities came by their reputations as grey, dingy and depressing places honestly. From the early 1960s onward, efforts by the GDR authorities to give their urban centres a “socialist face” often meant that the renovation or maintenance of historical buildings was neglected in favour of new construction using prefabricated blocks with little charm, character or colour. The approach left most East German cities looking rather generic and unattractive.This is not to say that no attention was given to the aesthetics of development, and one tool that city planners did turn to in an attempt to brighten up these city scapes was the neon sign. This post will examine the use of such signage in GDR-era Leipzig and also include a section from my Master’s thesis which looks at the restoration of Leipzig’s most famous neon, the Spoon Family.

Urban Flair to the Trade Fair City

During the immediate post-war years and into the early 1950s, East German cities were very poorly lit at night. This reflected the socialist regime’s economic realities and priorities, but there was an ideological component to this as well as many socialist functionaries of the time condemned the flashy lit advertisements then popping up in the west as examples of the “excesses of capitalism”. The Workers’ Uprising of  1953, however, helped force a change in approach with authorities realizing that it was incumbent upon them to make their state more attractive to residents if they had any hope of prevailing in the clash of the systems taking place between the GDR and Federal Republic of Germany (Plaste und Elaste: Luechtreklame in der DDR (Berlin: Das Neue Berlin, 2010), pg. 7).

One of the first cities to benefit from this change in tack was Leipzig, the GDR’s second city and home to two annual trade fairs which were perhaps the most important platforms for trade between the East Bloc and the western world. As host of these fairs, Leipzig was a showcase of East German socialism and in 1955 Party leaders there began to a campaign calling for the city to have “a modern face fitting of its status as a world class centre of commerce and trade” (Plaste und Elaste, pg. 7). Over the next several years, eighty large-scale neon signs were installed throughout the city, several examples of which can be seen above.

Leipzig’s Gets Its “Socialist Face”: 1965 – 1975

In the decade between 1965 and 1975, a number of high profile projects in the city centre which were intended to give Leipzig a “socialist face” and these frequently incorporated large-scale neon signs. One of the most important of these was the redevelopment of the Brühl, a historical section of Leipzig’s inner-city which had suffered severe damage during World War II. This project included the erection of a number of large prefab office and apartment blocks as well as a new public square featuring several fountains. Large-scale neon signs were placed atop most of these buildings (see above) and several of these would become local landmarks including one quoting Germany’s preeminent poet, Wolfgang Johann von Goethe, as he sang Leipzig’s praises (“Mein Leipzig lob ich mir” / “Leipzig is the place for me”) and another welcoming visitors to the city in four languages. While the GDR-era Brühl development has largely been removed, the two aforementioned signs have been carefully stored and indications are that they will soon be installed in a prominent place close to their old locations.

During this period several neons went up in the inner city as part of new construction. Most notable here were the custom sign created for the Penguin Ice Cream Bar (1975), a Leipzig institution to this day, and the Trade Fair symbol installed on top of the Wintergarten high rise, at 29 stories the tallest apartment building put up during the GDR-era. This latter sign has a diameter of 8.9 metres and when lit it is visible from well beyond the Leipzig city limits.

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“Leipzig – City of Light and Water”

One notable, and possibly apocryphal, story relating the neon signage found in Leipzig dates back to the early 1970s. During a visit to the city by the Yugoslav leader Tito, he apparently remarked while being chauffeured about one evening, “In the West, the cities are brighter than here. On account of the neon signs.” (Carsten Heinke, “Löffelfamilie löffelt wieder,” Mitteldeutsche Zeitung, June 8, 2000, p.36) Stung by what it felt was a slight to Leipzig’s “socialist face,” the SED District Administration responded by drafting “Leipzig–- City of Light and Water,” a program intended to provide an element of international flair to the GDR’s “showcase to the world” by planning a series of new neon signs and public fountains. The effects of this project were ultimately more meagre than initially called for, but, over the course of the 1970s and 80s, a number of buildings on the protocol route favoured by visitors to the trade fair grounds received new neon installations advertising high profile eastern bloc producers. Happily most of these signs remain in place today.

While much of the GDR-era neon signage in Leipzig was found in prominent places, I came across a number of remnants of such installations throughout Leipzig as I explored its further corners during several trips in the 1990s. I’m pleased to be able to report that both “Beer Head” and the strip of neon’s that accompanied the Konsum grocery store on Arthur-Hoffmann-Strasse have been renovated in recent years.

In preparing this post, I often realized how absurd it was to be using still, daytime photos to illustrate a text about neon signs. Thankfully, I came upon an amazing video of Leipzig’s GDR-era neon signs in action. It features footage shot in 1989/90 and includes a number of the installations featured in my still photos. Be sure to check out this great clip from the Wir waren so frei website (“We were so free”)!

Saving “The Spoon Family”
"The Spoon Family", an iconic GDR-era neon sign from the canned goods factory down the block from where Frau K. and I lived (photo: author).

“The Spoon Family”, an iconic GDR-era neon sign for a canned food factory, Karl-Liebknecht-Strasse, 1999 (photo: author).

One of the neon installations that sprung up on the protocol route in the wake of the District government’s “Leipzig – City of Light and Water” plan was a sign which would become known colloquially as “The Spoon Family”. Affixed to the side of the People’s Own Food Processing Factory located just south of the city centre, this neon featured a family of four which, thanks to circuit technology, could be seen carefully spooning up their dinner.

Close up of the "Go West Cowboy" on Las Vegas strip, the inspiration for Leipzig's "Spoon Family" (photo © Laura / Themightyquill).

Close up of the “Go West Cowboy” on Las Vegas strip, the inspiration for Leipzig’s “Spoon Family” (photo © Laura / Themightyquill).

This 1973 installation was inspired by Las Vegas’s famous “Go-West-Cowboy” (see above) and quickly became a landmark on Karl Liebknecht Street. By the late-1980s, the sign fell into a state of disrepair and it continued to languish after the Wende whe its “host factory” went out of business. “The Spoon Family”, however, came to the attention of the Saxon Office of Historical Protection which in turn granted the installation status as a “cultural monument.” Though this classification brought with it no funding for a possible restoration, it did prohibit the sign’s removal. Salvation for the Family came in the form of “Spoon 2000,” a citizens’ initiative formed in 1997 by artists, entrepreneurs, and interested residents from the Karl Liebknecht Street area. The initiative raised $100, 000 dollars (C$) to finance the installation’s restoration in time for the millennial New Year’s Eve celebrations.

While this project was popular and in no way controversial, it iis worth spending some time considering the “Spoon 2000” initiative as it casts some light on the way the debates around the historical memory of the GDR and the Leipzig cityscape had evolved in as the tenth anniversary of German unification neared.

Leipzig's Spoon Family after renovations in December 1999 (photo: author).

Leipzig’s Spoon Family after renovations in December 1999 (photo: author).

The driving forces behind “Spoon 2000” were primarily younger Leipzigers, from both the former-east and former-west, who by the late 1990s were between their early twenties to mid-thirties. The initiative’s spokesperson was Paul Fröhlich, a resident active in the local arts scene (No relation to the hard line SED First Secretary of Leipzig of the same name, ed.). In an interview in the Leipzig city magazine Kreuzer in November 1997, Fröhlich explained the initiative’s goal was not “art historical Ostalgie” (a term combining the German words for East (Ost) and nostalgia (Nostalgie) and then a politically loaded term which suggested a willingness to downplay the negative aspects of the state socialist regime, ed.), but rather “to get people’s attention. To say, ‘Here is the Spoon Family, it’s a part of Leipzig, and we are going to get it happening again.” ( “Löffeln für Leipzig: Interview mit Paul Fröhlich” in Kreuzer, November 1997, p. 11.)

Other “Spoon 2000” organizers, however, offered different explanations for their desire to see the Spoon Family restored. For example, German Studies student Sheila Reimann stated, “It’s pop art with a clumsiness and wit that could only have been manufactured in the GDR,” (Carsten Heinke, “Löffelfamilie löffelt wieder,” Mitteldeutsche Zeitung, June 8, 2002, p. 36.). Another supporter of the initiative, Dominik Braehler, one of the business people who contributed financial support to the cause, justified the project by contending, “The Spoon Family is one of the last GDR era neon signs that is still around. Many others were simply thrown out. And the fact of the matter is the thing just looks great. Not even New York has anything like it.” (E-mail from Dominik Braehler to author, April 6, 2004). Finally, Falk Elstermann, manager of NATO, a bar and cultural space just down the street from the sign, offered several reasons for the initiative;

“Quite simply, we grew up here and walked past the sign every day on our way to school. Even then we thought it was pretty cool and asked ourselves–despite our young age–why someone would advertise in a place like the GDR, where the reality was that as a consumer you had only one choice: to buy or not to buy . . . . In our ‘mission statement,’ we defended the Spoon Family for its ‘historical value as an example of the GDR’s interpretation of advertising design and as a manifestation of the dictates of the Planned Economy.’ The neon is simply a landmark of our home town. It tells the story of the now gone factory it represented. And then of course there was the designers’ reference to the ‘Go-West-Cowboy’ which was so twisted that we just couldn’t let it go.” (E-mail from Falk Elstermann to author, April 6, 2004).

As the above statements indicate, it is clear that the historical memory of the GDR played an important role in motivating the participants in the “Spoon 2000” initiative. Perhaps the most striking commonality shared by these positions is their understanding of the project as an act of “cultural maintenance.” With the exception of Fröhlich, the other three participants all provided aesthetic reasons for their support of the initiative, arguing that the sign was worth saving because of its artistic value. The secondary justification evident in the above positions is the assertion of Fröhlich and Elstermann that the installation had value as a manifestation of local identity or an historical landmark in the urban space. Beyond these arguments, however, I would contend that the Spoon Family project was significant for two reasons. First, it marked the initial, clearly identifiable contribution of Leipzig’s generation of younger adults to the debate surrounding the manifestations of the GDR in the public space. Second, this contribution took a form that was free of the ideological ballast that weighed down other episodes in these debates, and testified to the emergence of a perspective capable of a differentiated, almost “depoliticized” memory of the GDR, a position that older generations found difficult to emulate.

  1. Stephen Brooke said:

    Great post, John-Paul – at some point, I’ll have to lend you a film a friend of mine in Poland did on neon there; hope you are well

    Stephen >

    • Thanks, Stephen. That film sounds great. Let’s try and make time to watch that this fall. Hope your summer is going well. John Paul

  2. Beautiful post! I imagine ths also explains the signs atop the buildings on Karl-Marx-Allee in Berlin. I loved seeing they are still there (although not light up at night), signs for factories like Balkancar from Bulgaria (Update: While Googling to confirm the name of that Bulgarian factory, I saw you already wrote about those signs, I’m off to read it, now!).

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