The Power of Socialist Architecture

by Elsa Kenningham on 15 August 2022
The Power of Socialist Architecture
How architecture shaped a nation

In the limbo-period of occupation and division following World War Two, the official establishment of East Germany in 1949 marked a turning point. The GDR, a brand new nation, needed to establish an identity. This identity would be rooted in Soviet socialism, while being careful to con- struct a clear departure from both Nazism and from the ‘other Germany’ which was simultaneously evolving in the capitalist West.

As per the socialist project, this national identity was decided at a state level with the aim of permeating all aspects of citizens’ lives. To create a collective socialist identity, overt and covert tactics were used. Overt examples would be erecting enormous statues of Stalin and organising mass events; but the authorities also found subtler techniques for influ- encing mundane, everyday behaviours.

The power of space

“You can kill a man with a building just as easily as with an axe” – Adolf Behne, art critic.

When discussing national identity it’s important not to overlook the most foundational shared experience of the citizens of any nation: the space in which they live. As the philosopher Henri Lefebvre wrote, space is pro- duced socially and historically. It is not neutral or simply material, mean- ing that its production can be manipulated by authorities through “built space”, namely architecture. Architecture defines how people behave and move in a space. As buildings influence public experience both in- side and outside of them, they are a means by which to impact the psy- che and quotidian experiences of individuals in public and private spac- es. The socialist regime in East Germany exploited this power to shape its citizens.

Socialist in theory

At this point, the country was in ruins. Two thirds of housing in major East German cities had been destroyed during the war. The process of rebuilding therefore presented a chance to combine both material and conceptual reconstructions: to shape the identity of GDR citizens from above using architecture.

Most residential homes in the GDR were built during the 60s in the Plat- tenbau style. Designs prioritised functionality, utility, and frugality over creativity, aestheticism or privacy – in part due to financial constraints, but also in part due to socialist ideology demanding refrain from excess. Prefabricated, unembellished, multi-storey flats made of concrete could be mass produced and assembled quickly at little cost. As a result, most East Germans lived in almost identical apartments within almost identi- cal buildings. They shared spaces and amenities like staircases, hallways and any recreational terrain with five other households – often many more. This fostered a sense of communality, collectivism and equality. Compared to the vastly varied buildings of historically (and still) capital- ist cities which reflect social inequalities, this was (at least in theory) an egalitarian model.

Socialism in practice

At the same time, public ownership of housing meant that virtually all space in the GDR was owned by the state, and as a result the line be- tween private and public spheres became blurred, enabling both to be shaped by state policy and politicised. The proximity of each apartment within buildings encouraged a certain level of self-policing as the sound of any ‘asocial behaviour’ (say, playing politically unacceptable music or vocalising any criticism of the state), would travel easily through the building. There was no excess of living space in the home, which encour- aged leisure activities to be persued within public spaces. The result was a sense of pervasive surveillance at home, the encouragement of resi- dents into public space and participatory collective performances (such as playing sports or attending clubs) which helped foster individuals’ sense of a national community.

The repeated architectural structures and spartan functionality of Plat- tenbau housing earnt these blocks the nickname Arbeiterschliessfächer (lockers for workers). This shows that they were seen through a sense of purpose – built to serve the needs of people as cogs in the machine of East German industry. Individuals were subliminally as well as overtly encouraged to identify as workers participating in and contributing to the common cause of socialism.

Large complexes of Plattenbau were ubiquitous in big cities which cre- ated uniform and nondescript cityscapes. The featureless landscape enhanced the drama of buildings that differed from them; one example being the distinctive, and at the time space-age, television tower in Alex- anderplatz, Berlin, which was also built during the ‘60s. The tower was a symbol of wealth, technology and therefore international status for GDR citizens even though the televisions they had in their homes lagged far behind the technology of their western counterparts in terms of hardware and content. Its distinctive shape and visibility throughout the capital make the tower a point of affinity and identification for Berliners – even to this day. Pride and belief in the nation were crucial for upholding a shared socialist identity.

East Germans experienced socialist identity on an individual level, through their surroundings, both private and public, which in turn con- tributed to the creation of an imagined collective, of feeling part of a larger entity. This was done with the aim of achieving a national identity that would last far beyond the generation that built it. Official reunification after the Peaceful Revolution happened in a frenzied rush and left – and indeed still leaves today – many former GDR citizens feeling left behind only 38% see the process as a success. Statues of Stalin may no longer be acceptable but Plattenbauen remain as casual everyday monuments to a now harshly criticised nation. These days, gentrification and unsus- tainable rent increases are an issue in East Germany even for those living in the Plattenbauen; it will be interesting to see how the state will provide enough homes and what the architectural and public space choices will tell us about today’s increasingly individualistic, atomised society.