Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
The city is looking to the ubiquitous building type from its Communist past to help solve a housing crunch.
Berlin has decided on a novel location to host some of the new apartments the city badly needs—on top of the old ones.
Yesterday, Berlin’s Senate announced a project to add more units on top of already existing buildings in the city’s east, with a possible capacity of up to 50,000 new homes. The plan to add floors isn’t novel in itself, of course, even in Berlin. What’s striking is the specific type of building chosen for the experiment: East Berlin’s Plattenbau. These mass produced, partly prefabricated modernist apartment complexes (the name translates as “slab buildings” in reference to the concrete panels that form their walls) were put up in huge numbers during the Communist era. When a German thinks of a Communist-era building, a Plattenbau likely springs to mind.
After reunification, however, Plattenbau were heavily derided as dreary, meretricious, and frequently remodeled, demolished, or reduced in size. Now, it seems these buildings are set for another reversal, rising high again as their role in providing decent housing is reassessed.
It’s not necessarily the case that Berlin is falling back in love with the Plattenbau’s aesthetics. The Senate’s plan, which will launch a partnership with social housing association Howoge to identify suitable Plattenbau for trial construction, is essentially pragmatic. The building type makes a great candidate for roof extensions. Plattenbau are almost always flat roofed and usually broader than they are tall, which means that additional floors could provide a lot of new apartments. Unlike the tenements in Berlin’s older districts, Plattenbau were generally set back from the sidewalk and placed among open spaces, so their height can grow without throwing the streets beneath them into permanent shade. And crucially, there are a very large number of them. Howoge estimates that it has 320,000 square meters (3,444,450 square feet) of roof space suitable for more construction, some of which could well host multiple floors.
If all this space was used it would transform the face of East Berlin, a place where it can be a struggle to find a building that doesn’t have a slab-covered façade. Plattenbau are ubiquitous across all East Germany, largely the product of a nationwide housing program launched in 1972 that saw the state build a phenomenal 1.9 million apartments across the country. Following a model that had been developed from the 1950s onwards, this housing program was able to speed up construction by preparing almost all of a building’s components offsite in a factory—even adding windows—before it was slotted together in the chosen location. Popular across the Eastern Bloc, the technique took off in such a big way partly because it fitted so well with the state’s yen for central planning.
For the residents who moved in, the Plattenbau often represented a sharp leap in living standards. East Germany’s older working class housing—much of it still battered from wartime damage—required residents to lug coal upstairs to heat stoves and water heaters, and to share toilets with neighbors. In the new Plattenbau, however, many got central heating, full bathrooms, fitted kitchens, and instant hot water for the first time.
The buildings also gave East Germany a monotonous, strikingly uniform aspect, with cities coming to substantially resemble each other from one end of the country to the other. A classic interior aesthetic developed as well, with a stereotypical Plattenbau home featuring mass-produced, wood veneer-covered furniture, space-saving fold-down beds, and living rooms equipped with the ubiquitous Schrankwand—a display unit that covered an entire wall. Conditions weren’t generally terrible, but it wasn’t hard to see the Plattenbau as the representation of the broadly competent but stifling state that created it.
In the 1980s, the state itself realized that the overall impression of this monolithic standardization was a little too oppressive. In a spirit of tentative experimentation, East Berlin built some fancier Plattenbau overlooking the wall that loosely echoed Art Nouveau forebears and employed polychrome panels. The city even constructed a little huddle of faux-historic, gabled prefabs in a villagey corner of East Berlin that was at the time being milked for all the picturesque charm it could muster.
Since reunification in 1991, the Plattenbau have had a checkered experience. Some of them were demolished, while others (such as the homes visible here) had as many as half their floors removed. What remained was often cheered up with a polychrome paint job that made parts of East Berlin look like they’d been sprinkled with colored sherbet. Shrinking the housing stock this way might seem shocking now, but at the time much of East Berlin was emptying— along with much of eastern Germany—as people fled high unemployment rates in search of opportunities in Western Germany. At the same time, there was time a smaller counter-movement of relatively affluent Westerners moving into East Berlin, but they made a beeline for its pre-World War I tenements close to the city’s heart and largely avoided the Plattenbau. Now, with rents spiraling and apartments scarce, they are steadily looking more and more attractive.
This new interest doesn’t necessarily mean a new appreciation of the way they look, even if attitudes seem to have softened. New floors might well be constructed in a different style, while the lack of individual detailing on most buildings of this type makes them poor candidates for the type of aesthetic fetishization that Brutalism is currently experiencing. Something has still shifted. Thirty years ago, the idea of living in a small apartment in a Modernist project was hardly the stuff that most people’s aspirations were woven from. Now that affordable urban apartments are so hard to find, that goal seems to many not just desirable, but increasingly unattainable.
Plattenbau may not have provided spectacular accommodation, but they did provide liveable homes for a large number of people, and fast—something the city needs out of its housing construction yet again.