They were ubiquitous in former East Germany when I went there on my exchange. Tired, worn-looking Plattenbau. Their glory days were long behind them and in the years since the wall fell, eastern Germany’s declining population meant that many of them also lay empty. Residents preferred living in newer apartment buildings or houses, which were no longer available based on luck or connections.
I also hated Plattenbau. They were a blight on otherwise charming cityscapes. You could see where the seams came together along the prefabricated sections. Their uniformity made neighbhorhoods dull. I much prefered the charming neighborhoods filled with Fachwerkhäuser, many of which had been painstakingly restored since reunification. They had all the charm Plattenbau lacked. Each one with it’s own uniquely handcrafted decorative carvings. They were full of history. Plattenbau, meanwhile, were like cardboard boxes stuck together to shove workers in.
“I can go into any of my neighbors apartments and know exactly where everything is because they’re all the same,” one of my host sister’s friends complained. His university housing was in an old Plattenbau.
“That’s the point of them,” my host sister insisted. “It’s supposed to create sameness. Everyone is the same. Everyone has the same type of apartment, so everyone is equal. No one has a nicer one. That was the communist ideal.
Both her friend and I wrinkled our noses. There’s no way that could be seen as a plus, unless you were a communist. Which we weren’t.
My art teacher at gymnasium made a better point one day, when she mentioned Plattenbau and several students made sounds of disgust. “Hey now, you may think they’re ugly and awful, but when they were built, we all wanted to live in them. They were fantastic. They had running water and electricity and the roof didn’t leak. Compared to my grandmother’s house, which was an old Fachwerk house where the roof did leak when it rained, it was great.”
I hadn’t considered that aspect, and from their silence, I gathered neither had my classmates. In the days after the Wende, it was so easy to forget how hard repairing any old buildings in the East was. Paint was hard to come by. Plattenbau may have been grey with exterior tiling providing the only color, but so were Fachwerkhäuser because it was difficult to get a hold of any paint.
The town I stayed in ended up tearing down most of its Plattenbau. “Good,” I told my house family. “But what about those two in the middle of town?” They were tall ones, like 7 stories tall.
“Oh, they’re keeping them to house refugees and Russians in,” they told me. I think they were a bit sad to see them go. They had lived in one of them when they were first married and had their first child there. The Plattenbau would be replaced shortly with modern, swank apartments with greater appeal.
But in other larger cities of the east where the demand for housing was higher, fewer Plattenbau were being torn down. Instead, they were being remodeled. Their outsides were modernized so they looked less like cookie cutter boxes to house workers and more like upscale, highly coveted housing. Some of the first Plattenbau to be built are now historical monuments.
What finally changed my mind was reading some articles (including the wikipedia articles) about them. They were very efficiently designed: the bathrooms and kitchens shared a wall so only one wall needed to have pipes in it.
They also designed them with socialist ideals in mind: women as equals to men shouldn’t be isolated in the kitchen during meal prep. So dining rooms and kitchens could be combined to keep everyone together! Yay socialism! It’s like a forerunner of today’s open concept living. You can see the tendrils of today’s open plan living reaching all the way back to post-war, East German prefabs.
More interesting in my mind is the fact that East German plattenbau plans were exported directly to….North Korea. According to Nothing to Envy, the plans and apartments were basically plunked down, including elevator shafts that usually remained empty. A few small modifications were made for local customs, like their traditional system of heating, but other than that a former East German plattenbau resident would find themselves quite at home in a North Korean apartment building.
Probably Plattenbauten’s biggest saving grace nowadays is time and distance. It’s now 41 years since the wall fell and the rush to reject everything of the oppressive country has ended. Now there’s a longing for the things you once had, but no longer are.
Like the Palast der Republik. Built on the sight of an imperial palace in the middle of Berlin, it was hugely ugly, at least compared to the palace that stood there before its destruction in the war. After reunification, the government opted to disassemble it and rebuild the palace that had once stood there. The first time I went to Berlin (in 2003), I approved. It was an eyesore and needed to go. The rebuilt citypalace would be easier on the eye.
But the last time I went, in 2016, I felt differently while we were in the Lustgarten and I turned to our Berliner friend and said, “They should have left up the Palast der Republik. It was ugly, but it’s historical and at least it was original. Not a rebuilt fake.” So much of what you see in the museum island is a fake. It was all bombed out after the war with few buildings not being painstakingly rebuilt after the war.
He sighed. “A lot of people agree with you, but now it’s too late. The Palast is gone.” It’s unfortunate. It would have been a great place to have a museum dedicated to life behind the iron curtain, in all its pluses and minuses. It’s funny how if you wait just a little bit longer, sometimes ugly things grow on you and you come to love them for what they are.