Beyond Prefab: the GDR’s Best (?) Architects

What do you know about architecture in the GDR? It started with the Stalinist palaces on Karl-Marx-Allee and ended with endless boring prefab buildings (‘Plattenbauten’)? Think again. Even though building was – like everything else in the GDR – a government-run affair, there were still some architects that grew to be stars. They designed properties that still define Berlin, each an inseparable part of the time they were built in and each telling us about more than just architecture. So allow me to introduce you to three of the most remarkable architects of the GDR.

Hermann Henselmann: Stalinallee, Leninplatz and Skyscrapers

Let’s start with the most famous of them all: Henselmann, responsible for almost everything that is so remarkable about Karl-Marx-Allee and Strausberger Platz – and therefore also for my own building. This makes him a prime example of the socialist building aspirations of the 1950s, since he was the one who translated the Stalinist architecture of Moscow into a German equivalent. This ‘Socialist Classicism’ is pompous, playful and palace-like. After the completion of Karl-Marx-Allee (then Stalinallee), he moved into one of the apartments in the Haus des Kindes on Strausberger Platz himself.

Central Berlin - Strausberger Platz
Henselmann: Strausberger Platz. Image courtesy of Skjerven Group

Still, Henselmann started his career on a completely different note: in the 1930s and 1940s – long before the GDR existed – his designs consistently followed Modernist principles: straight lines without any unnecessary decoration. He tried to convince the GDR leadership to adapt this style for the rebuilding of Berlin, but without any success – Modernism didn’t suit socialism.

After Stalin’s death (1953) however, the GDR reinvented itself and so did architecture. It was decided that Berlin needed international flair and a modern look, so Henselmann returned to Modernism. He continued to design iconic buildings that still define Berlin and other East-German cities today. His most famous designs include the Haus des Lehrers (1961-1964) on Alexanderplatz, the buildings on Platz der Vereinten Nationen (then Leninplatz; 1968-1970) and ‘skyscrapers’ in Leipzig (City-Hochhaus 1968) and Jena (Jentower 1969).

Ulrich Müther: Modernist Beach Houses and the Planetarium

Ulrich Müther might be one of my favourite East-German architects, even though he’s nowhere near as well-known as Henselmann. He wasn’t part of Berlin’s elite, like many other architects in the GDR – and that’s why he was called an ‘Einzelgänger’, a loner, among the building engineers. Müther was born on Rügen and also carried out most of his work on and around this island. Unlike Henselmann, his style remained modernist – and looking at the most extraordinary examples now, it is hard to imagine that they were built in the ‘Plattenbauten’ country that most assume the GDR to have been.

His shell-shaped buildings are spectacular, from the ‘Inselparadies’ in Baabe (1966) and the ‘Osteeperle’ in Glowe (1968) to the ‘Teepott’ (1968) in Warnemünde. They are constructed from thin concrete and organically shaped. Apart from many pavilions, restaurants and sports complexes, he was also responsible for a horse racing track in Cuba and a mosque in Jordan. When looking at his (impressive!) list of designs now, however, it is quite saddening: many of his constructions have been torn down since 1989. His most beautiful design in Berlin survived and has just been renovated: the Zeiss Major Planetarium (1987) in Prenzlauer Berg, still one of the largest modern stellar theatres in Europe.

Roland Korn: Marzahn, Alex and Socialist Disneyland

But obviously there’s no writing about GDR architecture without getting deeper into the Plattenbauten. And when talking about Plattenbauten in Berlin, nothing beats Marzahn. From 1973, Roland Korn was head architect for the GDR section of Berlin and he became responsible for the creation of two entirely new prefab districts with housing for 250,000 people: Marzahn and Hellersdorf.
There was nothing here, on the north-eastern outskirts of Berlin – until a complete new city was rolled out between the late 1970s and the late 1980s.

Back then, Berliners couldn’t wait to move to these new neighbourhoods: there were plenty of green spaces, the apartments were modern (central heating! private bathrooms!) and there was plenty of space to live. Right now, Marzahn has probably the dodgiest reputation of all of Berlin’s districts – even though that’s mostly unjustified. During the final days of the GDR, around 170,000 people lived in Marzahn. Right now, about 100,000 remain. But Korn’s touch is visible in many other areas of Berlin as well, albeit in a very different style. He was in charge of the new building for the State Council of the GDR and helped redesign the Alexanderplatz in order to make it the new centre of East Berlin.

Korn was also responsible for the renovation of the Nikolaiviertel. This is known as Berlin’s oldest part, because the first settlements of the city – dating back about 780 years – were found at this exact location. Not only is the oldest church of Berlin here, but this little neighbourhood also still has a medieval street layout. Not much was left after the war and it wasn’t until the late 1970s that plans were made to bring back the historical charm. Under Korn’s guidance, buildings were restored. Unfortunately, this happened partly in a typical GDR Plattenbauten way – that means timbered houses with many concrete elements. Nikolaiviertel is now nicknamed ‘Socialist Disneyland’ and it’s not hard to see why.

Central Berlin - Nikolaiviertel
Korn: Nikolaiviertel. Image courtesy of By Dieter Brügmann (Bruhaha) (German Wikipedia) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons