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  • The Joy of Concrete: The unexpected story behind Berlin’s divisive Plattenbau


The Joy of Concrete: The unexpected story behind Berlin’s divisive Plattenbau

The prefab concrete housing that characterises Berlin's skyline has long been derided as monotonous and ugly, but is Plattenbau finally having its moment?

Marzahn’s colourful Plattenbau split aesthetic judgement. Photo: IMAGO / Funke Foto Services

When British-American photographer Jesse Simon moved to Berlin over a decade ago, a friend told him where to settle: “Anywhere but Marzahn.” This was common advice. The reputation of the eastern district couldn’t be worse. Berliners elsewhere picture endless stretches of monotonous concrete towers filled with thousands of people.

Two years ago, Simon began documenting Berlin’s prefab concrete housing, the so-called Plattenbau, which can be found in both the East and the West. His Instagram account @plattenbau.berlin, now printed as a bilingual coffee table book, shows uniform yet colourful buildings under clear blue skies. Simon’s photographs prove that, despite what you might have heard, concrete is actually quite beautiful – and there’s a fascinating history behind their presence in Berlin, too.

A GDR Plattenbau in Mitte. Photo: IMAGO / Christian Ditsch

West Berlin’s satellite cities

The Splanemann-Siedlung, a tiny row of squat oxblood red apartment buildings next to Tierpark in Friedrichsfelde, was Berlin’s first attempt to build housing by assembling concrete slabs. This experiment began back in 1926, but it wasn’t very efficient.

Berlin’s postwar reconstruction in the early 1950s saw gargantuan projects like Hansaviertel in the West and Stalinallee in the East. These complexes were fancy, and also very expensive. With a dire housing shortage on both sides of the city, there was a need to standardise in order to build, build, build. This is when the Platte really took off.

A decade later, West Berlin broke ground on what became Gropiusstadt in 1962. The Großsiedlung Berlin-Britz-Buckow-Rudow, later named after architect Walter Gropius, was constructed on empty fields south of Neukölln. The high-rise buildings, eventually containing some 18,500 apartments, went up at the same time that the U-Bahn line C, which is now the U7, was extended.

Other big projects from the time, such as Märkisches Viertel in Reinickendorf (17,000 apartments) or Falkenhagener Feld in Spandau (10,000 apartments), never got a decent connection to public transport – they have been waiting for extensions of the U8 and the U7, respectively, for more than 50 years. By the mid-1970s, Western opinion turned against these Trabantenstädte (“satellite cities”), as they’re called in German, and the style of large-scale construction projects slowly petered out.

Falkenhagener Feld: An example of a Trabantenstadt – this word might make you think of Trabant cars, the most common automobile in East Germany. In fact, the word Trabant means “satellite” – the car manufacturer took its inspiration from the Soviet’s Sputnik spacecraft. Photo: IMAGO / Schönling

More flats for the East

East Berlin, in contrast, saw a downright Plattenbau boom that began in the early 1970s with the “changing of the guard”, when Erich Honecker pushed aside his octogenarian mentor Walter Ulbricht. The Honecker era began with a huge party, the World Festival of Students and Youth, and promised new levels of comfort for the citizens of the DDR. On October 2, 1973, just over 50 years ago, the Socialist Unity Party’s Central Committee launched an Apartment Construction Programme aimed at solving the housing crisis within 20 years.

East German architects had already been experimenting with Plattenbau – such as the concrete apartment blocks of the late 1950s on the de-Stalinised Stalinallee, known today as Karl-Marx-Allee. Under Honecker, the projects took on a whole new dimension. An entire new district was planned on the fields around the village of Marzahn. Work on ‘Marzahn I’ began in mid-1977 – with residents moving in just five months after the first concrete slab had been slid into place.

Back in those days, Marzahn seemed like a paradise.

Within a few years, 100,000 apartments were erected in Marzahn and Hellersdorf. Across the DDR, it was 1.9 million – but since the “workers’ and peasants’ state” often lied about statistics, they celebrated 3 million apartments in 1988. The DDR used 18 types of buildings with strange abbreviations, including WHH GT 18/21, QP64, P2, and the most popular, WBS-70 (short for the Apartment Construction System of 1970). By standardising everything, efficiency went through the roof. The time between breaking ground and handing keys to new renters went down to 100 or sometimes just 50 days. Concrete components – even complete bathrooms – were assembled in factories and brought by truck or train to the site, where a big crane would stack them like Legos.

The Museumswohnung WBS-70 in Hellersdorf. Photo: IMAGO / Jürgen Ritter

Take me down to paradise city

There’s a few places in Berlin where you can still admire a classic East German Platte. The DDR Museum in Mitte, for example, has recreated a typical East German apartment. And if you’re willing to venture out to Hellersdorf, you can visit the Museumswohnung WBS-70 every Saturday from 2 to 4 pm, where a Plattenbau apartment has been decked out with original DDR furniture.

On a recent visit, there were a few Instagramming expats but also some neighbourhood residents who had been there since 1978 and shared that they still used the same armchairs that were being displayed as museum pieces. They recalled their old lives in Prenzlauer Berg and Köpenick in rundown homes with coal-powered ovens and toilets in the hallway. Back in those days, Marzahn, far from being the grey no-man’s land it is seen as today, seemed like a paradise: green, open, good public transport. Berliners would wait for years to get an apartment.

Because of its negative connotation, no politician will ever use the term ‘Plattenbau’, but they do talk about “serial construction”

Over the decades, the neighbourhood’s reputation has gone up and down, but for residents the quality of life has been consistently high. Compared to today’s housing market, the DDR might even sound like a utopia – a world where, instead of paying €600 a month for a tiny room, you got affordable housing from the government. In the country’s 39-year existence, there was no homelessness and no evictions.

Still, Sören Marotz, a historian at the DDR Museum, has a warning before you pack your bags and get in a time machine to the Honecker era: “It was no paradise,” he says. Sure, every DDR citizen had a “right to housing” and the state was required to “make this right a reality”, according to Article 37 of the constitution – but if you were young and unmarried, the authorities might tell you to stay at your parents’ place until age 30. The right to housing could mean nothing more than a spot on a waiting list for a decade or more.

East Germany was quite good at building housing on empty fields – inner city construction with prefab concrete, on the other hand, proved far more difficult. The communal housing system did such poor maintenance of the existing housing stock that, according to some estimates, the net number of units was actually going down by the 1980s, as old apartments had to be abandoned due to leaky roofs and mouldy walls quicker than newer ones could go up. It was rather easy to move to Suhl and find a place to live. But then, as now, who wanted to move to Suhl?

Given the flagrant helplessness of our current government in the face of today’s housing crisis, it’s heartwarming to imagine a system in which children sang songs about heroic construction workers building affordable housing for everyone, like the lively tune about the Baggerführer (digger driver) Willibald.

Plattenbau in Lichtenberg. Photo: IMAGO / imageBROKER

Beautiful concrete

Most of Berlin’s Plattenbauten are now over 50 or 60 years old. Simon argues that they are coming into their prime: after architects and city planners first imposed their own rather sterile visions, it takes a few years for people to really build up a neighbourhood. Looking at the Plattenbau today, the Western versions tend to have more flourishes, but the Eastern neighbourhoods with their extreme functionality have a kind of “timeless… aesthetic purity”, as Simon writes.

During the Deutsche Wohnen Co. Enteignen campaign to expropriate big landlords, lots of young activists from the inner city headed out to collect signatures in the far Eastern districts and were often astounded to hear just how happy Marzahners were with their neighbourhood (if not with the real estate speculators that took over parts of it).

Today, estimates are that Berlin lacks well over 100,000 apartments, yet the only thing that’s really getting built are office towers and luxury condos. Because of its negative connotation, no politician will ever use the term ‘Plattenbau’, but they do talk about “serial construction” – which is basically the same thing. Maybe we need to channel some 1970s spirit to solve the city’s housing crisis.