Exercise and Entertainment for the Masses – the History of the Sport- und Erholungszentrum (SEZ)

The GDR’s first adventure pool is a hulking colossus of a building. When the Sport- und Erholungszentrum (SEZ for short) opened in 1981, it was located at the corner of Leninallee and Dimitroffstraße. Post-unification, both streets have been renamed and are now called Landsberger Allee and Danziger Straße. Purpose-built to provide ample space for exercise and entertainment for the masses, the SEZ proved a massive attraction from day one, attracting 16 million visitors in the first five years – 10,000 a day during peak periods. Without exaggerating, the SEZ was no less important than the Palast der Republik for the people of East Berlin and the whole of socialist East Germany.

Source: skitterphoto.com, Unsplash

The SEZ Attracted 10,000 People a Day During Peak Periods

With entrance fees of 20 to 50 Pfennig thanks to huge government subsidies, visitors frequently had to queue up to get into the building. To keep numbers down, even those who just came to watch were made to pay. East Germans loved showing off the SEZ to visitors from the capitalist West, while the socialist regime preferred to keep the building’s own western provenance quiet.

SEZ 1987
Outside of the building SEZ 1987; Source: Gerd Danigel , ddr-fotograf.de CC-BY-SA-4.0

During the grand opening in the presence of the East German leader Erich Honecker, the architects who had won the tender to design the SEZ – Bernd Fundel, Klaus Tröger and Günter Reiß from the Essen-based construction company Hochtief – were not mentioned once. The architect in charge of construction, carried out by a Swedish company, was Ehrhardt Gißke, who had already supervised the construction of the Palast der Republik.

Eröffnung SEZ 1981
SEZ opening 1981; Source: Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-Z0320-406 / Reiche, Hartmut / CC-BY-SA 3.0

Source: Chris Kristiansen, Unsplash

A Wonderland of Fun for Visitors of all Ages

Once visitors had made it into the building, they found themselves in a wonderland of fun: a total of seven different pools, including a wave pool, diving tower and outdoor pool, sauna facilities, a bowling alley, various fitness, ballet and martial arts studios, a hair salon, on-site physiotherapists, ten different restaurants and cafés – also heavily subsidised – not to mention the ‘Polarium’, which served as an ice rink in winter and a roller-skating rink in summer. No-nonsense signs exhorting visitors to ‘Take off your swimming costume and wash thoroughly!’ and informing them in no uncertain terms that the use of privately owned hair dryers was strictly prohibited only added to the experience. The SEZ was also a popular venue for sports events, Jugendweihe (secular coming-of-age) ceremonies and weddings. Last but by no means least, a daily TV exercise programme titled Medizin nach Noten, which featured an instructor, several demonstrators and a voiceover commentator who explained the health benefits of each exercise, was recorded in the large gym.

Source: Gez Xavier Mansfield, Unsplash

Wasserkaskaden SEZ
SEZ 1981; Source: Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-Z0318-032 / Link, Hubert / CC-BY-SA 3.0

Post-Reunification Closure and Repurposing of the SEZ

After the fall of the Wall, the SEZ passed into the ownership of the Berlin senate. By then, the building had fallen into decay and could have done with a thorough refurbishment, for which the city refused to pay, forcing the SEZ to gradually shut down all its facilities. In 2001, just in time for the 20th anniversary, it closed completely. Following its sale to a Leipzig-based investor in 2003, the building was partly gutted but has since reopened its badminton courts and bowling alley, although Berliners are still waiting in vain for the swimming facilities to open in accordance with contractual agreements. 2011 marked the building’s inaugural use as a venue for the Long Night of Museums. It also hosts occasional street art exhibitions as well as the two-day ‘Odyssee’ psytrance and art festival every January.