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Anyone with an interest in the GDR quickly encounters mention of Marzahn, a massive housing estate located on the northeastern edge of the East German capital Berlin. Made up of approximately 60,000 prefabricated concrete apartment units housed largely in high rise tower blocks, Marzahn was built over approximately fifteen years beginning in the mid-1970s to provide modern housing options for tens of thousands of East Berliners. Supporters of the socialist system saw the district as concrete evidence (I couldn’t resist!) of the state’s commitments to its citizens’ welfare and a tangible example of what the socialism could achieve. For critics, however, Marzahn’s seemingly endless blocks of anonymous, monotonous apartment blocks recalled the sort of dystopian world conjured up George Orwell in his totalitarian critique 1984.

While I didn’t get to Marzahn during the GDR era, I’ve had the chance to visit a view times over the past twenty years or so and been able to see first hand some of the remarkable changes that it has undergone since reunification in 1990. Before turning to my impressions, however, allow me to present a brief history of the district.

Marzahn: Heaven or Hell?
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East German city planning is a particular interest of mine because here the frictions between the utopian aspects of the socialist project and the concrete realities of daily life in the GDR are revealed in a most telling way. East German leaders were determined to create the “new socialist personality” (their version of the Homo Sovieticus) and saw in city planning another tool to facilitate this goal. At the centre of these efforts were four so-called “socialist cities”, towns planned from the ground up and, theoretically at least, built in such a way as to enable its citizens to live their lives in conformity with the values and priorities of the state’s socialist ideology. Over the past number of years, I managed to visit three of these several times (Eisenhüttenstadt, Hoyerswerda and Halle-Neustadt), but had never made it to the fourth, Schwedt. That changed this past April when I was able to spend a day in this town in the lovely Uckermark region to the north-east of Berlin.

Public Art from GDR Era, Pt. 1

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My guide in Schwedt was Dr. Johanna Goldberg, a resident of the town since 1969 and someone who will be familiar to regular readers as the subject of several recent posts. My hope was that she would be able to give me a personal take on Schwedt’s history and I was not disappointed. Before heading out for my tour, however, I gave a close read to Dr. Philipp Springer’s Verbaute Träume: Herrschaft, Stadtentwicklung und Lebensrealität in der sozialistischen Industriestadt Schwedt (Blocked Dreams: Power, City Planning and Daily Life in the Socialist Industrial Centre of Schwedt – Ch. Links Verlag, 2006), a detailed look at the development of this “socialist city” and source of many of the facts laid out here. Read More

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.

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This week’s item is an Aufbaukarte or Construction Card issued as part of the GDR’s Nationales Aufbauwerk (NAW), the National Construction Project, which was called into life as part of efforts to clear East German cities from the destruction wrought by World War II. Construction Cards such as this one issued to a Ms. Johanna Goldberg, were used to keep track of the number of hours which individuals volunteered on NAW projects. Those who reached set milestones received pins and certificates of recognition at public ceremonies.

This piece is a new addition to my collection and I wanted to post on it as closer examination has raised a few interesting questions for me about the holder of the card. But before getting to those, allow me to give a thumbnail history of the NAW.

Trümmerfrau (Rubble Woman), a sculpture by Edmund Neutert from 1955 and which stands in front of the unused Lichtspieltheater der Jugend (Young People's Film Theater) in Frankfurt/Oder (author's photo)

Trümmerfrau (Rubble Woman), a sculpture by Edmund Neutert from 1955 and which stands in front of the unused Lichtspieltheater der Jugend (Young People’s Film Theater) in Frankfurt/Oder (author’s photo)

Trümmerfrauen and The Immediate Post-War Years (1945-46)

The massive destruction wrought in German cities by World War II required considerable effort and time to undo. In the immediate post-war period, the occupying powers throughout Germany (that is, in both what would later come to be become East and West) ordered all able-bodied women between the ages of 15 and 50 to take part in the clearing of rubble and reclaiming useable building materials from the war-ruined cities and towns. While such heavy labour was not previously carried out by women in Germany, the demographic situation after the war made this necessary (There were 7 million more women than men out of a total population of approx. 77 million). Indeed, scenes of women doing this work became ubiquitious in German and international media to the point where the Trümmerfrau (Rubble Woman) has become one of the best known symbols of Germany in the immediate post-war period. Read More

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