A Decade at Home

Strausberger Platz is at the heart of everything – both as an architectural monument and as the starting point for a new stage in my personal life.

image courtesy of HG Esch

It is now ten years – in May 2005, I found the apartment of my dreams. It all started with a tour, a tour I always recommend to friends who visit Berlin, “And now we’re off to Karl-Marx-Allee” (“Und jetzt geht es in die Karl Marx Allee”). This grand boulevard, synonymous with GDR monumentalism, has always provoked ambivalent reactions from visitors and Berliners alike. Whether people take a positive or negative view, the boulevard always fascinates with its Stalinist “gingerbread style” architecture and classical details (Schinkel says hi!). Generously proportioned balconies meant that the GDR’s Cold War dictators always enjoyed massive crowds of cheering and flag-waving onlookers when they paraded along the Allee. The backdrop for all of this military muscle-flexing are the buildings lined with playful wrought iron railings in front of tall French windows – still a unique feature amongst the monotony of architecture on display here. One thing the powers that be in the GDR, the Honeckers and Ulbrichts, did manage: this 2.3 kilometer of Berlin has enjoyed architectural heritage status since the 1990’s and is the longest single architectural monument in Germany.

The entrance to the Allee, once named after Stalin, is marked by two towers. I live in Haus Berlin, the building to the right, and am currently looking out towards Alexanderplatz as I write. At the moment, the landmark TV Tower is bathed in sunshine and glowing with reflected light. On the street below, the traffic is speeding by on its way towards Berlin-Mitte. 50,000 vehicles per day. Every day. “I just couldn’t live here,” said my estate agent after a two-year apartment viewing tour de force that covered almost every inch between Frankfurter Tor and Strausberger Platz, before finally ending when we found my dream apartment. After getting fed up with the plastic doors and laminated floors in countless sub-par apartments, my search for the perfect place to live finally reached a happy end when I signed my new lease. And what an apartment! A generous 120 square meters with herringbone hardwood parquet floors, double wing doors with frosted glass insets and a generous reception area that stretches across 20 square meters.

image courtesy of HG Esch

Frau Winnigton, the previous tenant, laughed gently at the estate agent’s dismissive comment. Having reached the age of eighty, Frau Winnigton was leaving Berlin to spend her time in Wandlitz, just outside the city. Wandlitz? Wasn’t that the ghetto of the  leadership of the GDR? Frau Winnigton laughed my comment away just as gently has she had the comment of the estate agent a few minutes earlier.

image courtesy of Koosinger / photocase.de

Construction work on Strausberger Platz started in 1951, a social experiment of great historical relevance. From the rubble of the Second World War (the reason no neighborly noise makes it through the thick walls), masses of volunteers erected the Platz. With every extra shift, the volunteers improved their chances in the lottery to allocate the apartments that would follow their completion. Workers, seeing no other option, manned the barricades on June 17 1951. Resistance was their response to increases in their workrate required by the 24th ”Plansollerfüllungsquote” (planned work quota). Their resistance  almost succeeded in bringing down the GDR and is still rightly celebrated with its own national public holiday. Frau Winnigton versus revolutionary workers. The country’s leaders versus workers and farmers. Strausberger Platz and Karl-Marx-Allee were the epicenter.

jock+scott - photocase.de
image courtesy of jock+scott / photocase.de

Bert Brecht hammered stone here. Heiner Müller, the celebrated dramatist, was another who sweated for Strausberger Platz. They wanted to create a space for everyone. And they succeeded to some degree. On my floor, one of the tenants is the son of a former tenant, who in turn took her dream apartment over from her parents. There weren’t just Winnigtons here, even if there were hard to shake rumors that the GDR’s elite had made this their new home.

image courtesy of drsg98 – Fotolia.com

The West moved in, but the East will never be forgotten. There may only be six original tenants left in the building, but Strausberger Platz represents both the past and a rich future. And I am celebrating my tenth anniversary here. I have never regretted moving here, not even for a minute. Although… just after I moved in I cast my eyes towards Alexander Platz and my gaze settled on the streetlight in front of my window, a streetlight with a sign that said “Mitte”. To be able to read it, I had to be outside “Mitte”. It was difficult to get to grips with ten years ago, but now I’m happy that I belong to Friedrichshain. No joke!