Afternoon in Johannisthal; the summer sun beats down through the trees on a quiet residential street. A man in a wheelchair watches me from an open doorway and an elderly lady peers suspiciously from her balcony as I snap pictures of a block of flats. Its grey-rendered neoclassical exterior marks it out from the surrounding buildings, more ornate, with a certain grandeur in its tall windows and floral decorations, which could only be the 1950s East German ‘national style’. Were this a side-street off Karl-Marx-Allee, it wouldn’t seem at all unusual, but here in the seemingly less exceptional surroundings of Johannisthal, even its best attempts to hide behind a line of trees can’t disguise the fact that it’s something unusual.
This building was part of an experiment which would change the face of the GDR, the foundations of something which would come to form the backbone of East German housing policy: this was the GDR’s first Plattenbau (panel construction - see below for more on the word).
The concept of building housing from precast concrete panels wasn’t a new one; it was developed by John Alexander Brodie in Liverpool around 1905 and it was first employed in Berlin for the Splanemann-Siedlung in 1926. It’s often said that the flagship building projects in 1950s East Berlin employed traditional materials on ideological grounds, but this is not the case. Even when introducing the five year plan at the third Socialist Unity Party conference on July 22nd 1950, General Secretary Walter Ulbricht was calling for the development of “standardised heavy and light concrete parts” for use with “industrialised building techniques.”
A steel embargo and a shortage of cement were among the reasons that the showpiece buildings on Stalinallee (now Karl-Marx-Allee) were built mainly with brick and stone, much of it recycled from bombed-out buildings. Reinforced concrete parts did, however, form the frame to Hermann Henselmann’s towers at Strausberger Platz and parts of those at Frankfurter Tor.
With roughly 600,000 homes destroyed and the labour force depleted by World War II, the need to build quickly and cheaply with a minimum of manpower was clear. The 16 Principles of Town Planning, produced on July 27th 1950 after a visit to Moscow by prominent planners and architects in April that year, further reinforced what Ulbricht had declared a few days previously, stating that cities were predominantly “built by industry for industry.”
Ulbricht made quite clear at the 1950 conference, however, that he did not appreciate the modernist style of building, which he said was “not in accordance with the national character, but rather, the formalistic thinking of a number of architects who transferred the primitivity of certain factory buildings to residential buildings,” and that these “American boxes” (the phrase ‘American egg boxes’ often attributed to him was not used on this occasion) could just as easily be placed in the African landscape, so little did they have to do with the traditions and character of Berlin.
Everything was instead to be constructed in the new ‘national style’ as exemplified by the Stalinallee project, taking hints from the greats such as Karl Friedrich Schinkel and Carl von Gontard, but also making a rather heavy nod to the ‘Socialist Classical’ style that had developed under Stalin in the Soviet Union.
The task of employing the Plattenbau technique in the context of the new architectural tradition was given to the architect Carl Fieger. He was called to work at the Bauakademie by Richard Paulick, director of the institute for residential construction, who had known Fieger from their days at the Bauhaus in Dessau, working in the office of Walter Gropius. Fieger began work at his research post in late 1952 and the experimental building in Johannisthal which resulted was built from 1953 to 1954.
The death of Joseph Stalin in March 1953, and his eventual replacement by Nikita Khrushchev, is often seen as a turning point in building practice, with a push towards more pragmatic, industrialised forms of building. However, though building of the Johannisthal Plattenbau began after Stalin’s death, it was before Khrushchev’s speech at the All-Union Conference of Building Workers in Moscow on November 30th 1954, where he signalled the change in direction in the Eastern Bloc. The Johannisthal Plattenbau was to be one of a number of experiments in industrialised building taking place in place in Berlin in the early 1950s, many of them decidedly less ornate than the ‘national style’ seemed to dictate.
In the case of Fieger’s Plattenbau, there is nothing about the building’s external appearance which would give away its construction and it adheres closely to the National Style. Fieger also made sure that the interior was of a high standard, with marble in the stairwells, ornate banisters, and parquet flooring in the flats.
The panels which make up the building - each one equating to one wall of a room and weighing between 2.5 and 3 tons - were cast on site, in a small factory on what is now the building’s back garden by workers from state-owned building firm VEB Bau (VEB standing for Volkseigener Betrieb - publicly-owned operation, Bau being ‘construction’). Casting was done in wooden frames, using cement mixed with crushed bricks, which both provided the concrete with a good aggregate and proved a good way of recycling the huge amounts of rubble left by the destruction of World War II. Conduits for cabling and pipes were made during the casting process, by laying inflated rubber hoses in the wet concrete. The panels were then left to set, before being plastered and fitted with windows and doors, while still on the ground. They were then assembled to create 19 flats over 4 floors.
The whole exterior is rendered, and the steel plates which hold the concrete panels together are cleverly concealed by decorative elements, making it impossible to tell how the building was constructed. However, one of the two relief carvings above the main doorways, by the sculptor Karl Felzmann, holds a clue, showing builders assembling a building from concrete panels. The second relief hints at the buildings roots in past architectural traditions, depicting a group of architects at work, with the central figure measuring what appears to be the stylised ground plan of a three-wing baroque building in the vein of the Palace of Versailles.
The topping out ceremony was held on 19th March 1954, with a speech from Bauakademie president Kurt Liebknecht. He predicted that the use of this technique would, once the process was fully industrialised, lead to a sinking in building costs of around 25 percent. While the technique did eventually yield great economies of scale for the GDR, it was many years before the savings could be realised.
For his work on the project, Fieger was awarded a certificate for outstanding achievements by the Bauakademie, on May 1st 1953. It was to be the last building that he worked on, as he suffered a stroke in November 1953 and retired, aged 60. He died in Dessau in 1960. His work, however, paved the way for a huge industrialisation of home building in the GDR, which left its mark over much of East Germany and gave Berlin developments as diverse as the satellite town of Marzahn-Hellersdorf and the ‘old town’ areas of the Nikolaiviertel and Gendarmenmarkt.
Notes on the word 'Plattenbau'
A combination of the words ‘Platte’ (best translated here as ‘panel’) and ‘Bau’ (construction), the word is today used to describe buildings constructed from prefabricated concrete panels. In the days of the GDR, the technique was referred to as Großplattenbauweise (large panel building method) and the buildings were simply ‘Neubauten’ (new buildings). The word ‘Plattenbau’ seems to have developed, at least in print, since the fall of the wall. The first reference recorded by the http://www.dwds.de system is in the West German magazine Der Spiegel on November 13th 1989. There are some who feel it is a politicised term used by Westerners who look down on the Eastern housing developments as being inferior; others use it with a certain pride, and it is often also used in the positive marketing efforts of property management firms such as WBM.