Iron Curtain, plastered walls: the architectural transformation of former East German cities
Although the key event in the history of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) is often seen as the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989, throughout its 40-year existence, the state underwent a series of radical metamorphoses that were manifested in the transformation of its built environment. The fundamental reconstruction of Germany’s cultural and economic identity post reunification is therefore just a continuation of a radical national history in which architecture, planning and inhabitation itself are the material representatives of political and cultural forces. This thesis describes and analyses the complex relationships that evolved between planning, construction and ideology. It argues that the process of reunification and its associated expropriation of the socialist city (which symbolises a failure to understand the urban history of the GDR) – is still going on.
The thesis covers the period from the total destruction of 1945, via the political collapse of 1989, to the present day eradication of the socialist state’s physical relics and built environment. I examine how the GDR attempted to institutionalise its revolutionary and utopian ideology through a complex urban choreography of ceremonial movement and symbolic buildings designed to promote the artificial re-enactment of a non-existent revolution. I also describe how a particular style of planning and architecture was employed to inscribe state ideology through the most mundane of everyday practices. Following on from this, I analyse the influence of Cold War antagonism on architectural design. The cultural and ideological repercussions of the standoff with the West were manifested in urban planning as an ‘arms race’ of avenues, housing estates, public amenities and towers – each designed to demonstrate the industrial might and ideological superiority of their respective sponsors.
Since the collapse of the Wall and the integration of the New Lander into the Federal Republic, a process of aesthetic transformation has been underway. The thesis explains why the rewriting of city monographs in the late 1990s was important and loos at how these monographs documented the removal of city ‘icons’ and celebrated the rapid transformation of former East German cities. I argue that these monographs create an imaginary geography, in which socialist architecture is portrayed as culturally ‘alien’ – a foreign invader in the ‘traditional’ German city. It was this transformation of perception that paved the way for the subsequent physical destruction.