The origins of Strausberger Platz’s “Gingerbread” architecture

The buildings around Strausberger Platz in Berlin are an impressive example of 1950s East German architecture. The so-called “gingerbread style” is a lasting legacy of the past, viewed around the world as representative of socialist influenced architecture. The buildings around Strausberger Platz may be unique in their form and arrangement, but there are further architectural examples all over the world that bear testament to the fact that the spread of this characteristic architectural style, which is also known as Socialist Classicism or Stalinist architecture, was not constrained by national borders.

Strausberger Platz in Berlin, image courtesy of HG Esch
Strausberger Platz in Berlin, image courtesy of HG Esch

Architecture in the USSR and Soviet Union

Socialist realism emerged from the USSR in the period after 1932. It was to be conceived as a blueprint for any kind of art, literature or music, and was intended to celebrate workers’ lives and glorify the modernity and technology of everyday socialism. Socialist Classicism is one element of what was an overarching movement. As evidenced by the scale of the buildings and the design elements on their facades, Socialist Classicism architecture clearly diverged from its Constructivism and Russian avant-garde predecessors. The latter featured simple geometric shapes and an emphasis on functionality. Following the end of World War II, however, magnificent buildings were once again on the architectural agenda; numerous decorative elements were employed, less in service of construction engineering or functionality, much more so as visual adornments. Since they were more-or-less purely decorative, just like the icing on cakes and pastries, this architecture quickly came to be known as the “gingerbread” style.

Karl-Marx-Alleein Berlin, image courtesy of Dnsob
Karl-Marx-Allee in Berlin, image courtesy of Dnsob (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
The “Gingerbread Style” of the 1950s

The architecture of the 1950s was dominated by what has come to be known as the “Gingerbread style” or “Socialist classicism”. This architecture called for buildings to be much more dominant and striking than previous objects, such as the Bauhaus buildings. The Gingerbread style, adopted across the entire Soviet region, was based upon a clear cultural and political concept, the so-called “National Elements”, which had a massive influence on the architecture of the period. For example, the classical and baroque ornamentation of buildings was embraced. At the same time, one major goal was to secure higher levels of residential comfort. Buildings in the gingerbread style can still be found today both in Berlin and in a range of Eastern European countries.

Strausberger Platz in Berlin, image courtesy of HG Esch
Strausberger Platz in Berlin, image courtesy of HG Esch

Socialist Classicism in the DDR and beyond

The architect Hermann Henselmann was the person most responsible for shaping architecture and urban development in the DDR of the 1950s and 1960s. In addition to the ensemble at Strausberger Platz, he designed many of the country’s major buildings in conformity with the spirit of Socialist Classicism. These include the high-rise building at Weberwiese and the “House of the Teacher” at Alexanderplatz. The birthplace of this architectural style is Moscow, with its monumental “Seven Sisters” and numerous other buildings. The original “Seven Sisters” plans incorporated eight buildings, seven of which were actually built, including Moscow’s State University, the hotels Ukraina and Leningradskaya and the Foreign Ministry. The role of the Soviet Union as one of the victorious powers after the Second World War should not be underestimated, and neither should its monumental stylistic approach. The Soviet Union’s high-rise buildings became a construction template for other Eastern bloc countries, including Poland. Warsaw’s “Palace of Culture”, constructed from 1952, was explicitly based on Moscow’s “Seven Sisters”. A “Palace of Culture” was also built in Riga at the same time; today the building serves as the seat of the Latvian Academy of Sciences. Further evidence of Socialist Classicism can be found in the Casa Presei Libere (House of the Free Press) in Bucharestand the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Prague. The impact of socialist architecture even extended as far as China, where the Great Hall of the People in Beijing was built in a neoclassical style and is one of the capital city’s most emblematic buildings.

Casa Presei in Bukarest, image courtesy of Radu Bercan / Fotolia
Casa Presei in Bukarest, image courtesy of Radu Bercan / Fotolia

The Hochhaus an der Weberwiese – a New Architectural Style Is Born

The 50’s in Berlin were characterised by reconsturcting and offerd a lot of space for the creativity of architects shaping the new city. The GDR-Government knew what they wanted – a representative residential building should be constucted at the Weberwiese. But the party leadership was not happy with the designs originally submitted by a collective of architects whose most prominent member was Hermann Henselmann (he went on to draft early designs for the Television Tower at Alexanderplatz). Their drafts were for a modernist high-rise building, a style that the SED’s Soviet masters unequivocally condemned as smacking of bourgeois decadence. They gave the collective an ultimatum of eight days to revise their designs based on historic influences.

When Henselmann presented the revised designs, he highlighted the influence of the 19th century buildings designed by Karl Friedrich Schinkel. In actual fact, the new designs also referenced the high-rise buildings that started to crowd the Chicago and New York skylines in the 1920’s. Either way, the political leaders liked Henselmann’s rationale – after all, the new “Stalinist” classicism emerging in the Soviet Union had similarly taken its cues from the neoclassical architecture of the early 20th century. The decision was made – the “Hochhaus an der Weberwiese” is to be designed in a classicist style.

Built in Record Time

Battalions of builders get to work. After only 141 days and nights, the building’s exterior was finished in January 1952. At the topping-off ceremony on 19 January 1952, Erich Honecker, the then-chairman of the Free German Youth (FDJ), lays the final brick. On 1 May 1952, 33 working-class families move into their new homes – two-bedroom apartments with a living space of 96m2 each – in the 35m tall nine-storey building.

This was the birth of the gingerbread style in architecture. The flagship building at Weberwiese set new aesthetic standards for the reconstruction of Stalinallee, which was later renamed Karl-Marx-Allee and many other projects around the world.