Prefab is All the Rage

The monument starts at Strausberger Platz. The Classicism-inspired buildings of Karl-Marx-Allee go on for miles, all the way to Frankfurter Tor. Apartment blocks made from prefab concrete panels, known as Plattenbauten in German, line the route from Alexanderplatz, the centre of Berlin, to Strausberger Platz, the poor relations of the grand buildings on Karl-Marx-Allee. Are they really all that poor, though?

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Karl-Marx-Allee and Strausberger Platz surrounded by their “poor relations”.
Image courtesy of drsg98 – Fotolia.com

In socialist East Germany, Plattenbauten provided an innovative solution to the housing crisis. In a technique pioneered in New York in 1910 and first trialled in Berlin-Lichtenberg in 1926, prefabricated slabs of concrete were assembled at the building site. In the 1970’s, satellite towns sprang up overnight in cities like Berlin, Frankfurt an der Oder and Cottbus. In colloquial GDR parlance, these buildings were known as Arbeiterschließfächer (lockers for workers) and Fernsehhöhlen (caves equipped with TVs). In architectural terms, they are examples of classical modernism, an iconic style shaped by Le Corbusier.

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Prefab buildings in Berlin.
Image courtesy of tilla eulenspiegel – photocase.de

Devoid of any ornamentation, the buildings’ facades clearly show the contours of the individual panels they are made of. Each panel is made of tiled concrete with a window in the centre and grey stripes going around the edges. Five of these apartment blocks line the route between Alexanderplatz and Strausberger Platz on the right-hand side. Their only decoration are the balconies stuck to the front. The “balkancarpodem” advert floating above one of them is protected by a preservation order. The building opposite also carries a defunct advert for a product from another era: LKWs Made in Balkan.

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Balkancarpodem, Karl-Marx-Allee in Berlin.
Image courtesy of thornet – flickr.com

However, the buildings themselves are anything but defunct. Less than five minutes’ walk from the centre of the German capital, with an incredible view of the city from the upper storeys, these once-standardised apartments now house a colourful mix of different lifestyles. On the one hand, there are leftovers from socialist East Germany like the gentleman I bump into every morning on his way back from the bakery, who appears to have inherited Erich Honecker’s wardrobe: beige trousers, a beige windbreaker and a jaunty cap when the weather demands it, all made from non-degradable plastics. He even still carries a canvas tote bag, once an essential item for anybody queuing up endlessly to buy supplies. You never knew what would be available in which shop on any given day, so people wouldn’t leave the house without their trusty canvas bag. Today, anybody toting a canvas bag would be awarded a medal for environmental awareness – how times have changed!

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Prefab building made in Berlin.
Image courtesy of kallejipp – Photocase.de

After the Fall of the Wall, the popularity of apartments in prefab buildings was on the wane. However, it only took a few years for them to turn into a cult location for hipsters, graphic designers and “creatives” from all over the world. Affordable rents compared to other major European cities are only part of the attraction. The aesthetic parameters of “stylish living” have changed considerably over the past twenty years. Up until the 1990’s, apartments in pre-war buildings with high stucco ceilings and wooden floorboards were all the rage. Nowadays, the zeitgeist feels more at home in buildings dating back to the 1950’s and 1960’s. Many of the new inhabitants live surrounded by bare concrete walls juxtaposed with colourful surfaces and furnished with pieces from Vitra and Eames. The housing associations that own these buildings generously allow their tenants to take out interior walls and turn “workers’ lockers” into stylish homes. The poor relations of the grandiloquent Karl-Marx-Allee have come into their own. There’s a shared feeling between the inhabitants of both types of buildings: this is a special place to live – very special.

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East-Berlin
Image courtesy of tiefpics – Photocase.de