Behind the scenes

In East Germany, art and crafts were part of a deliberate attempt to develop a collective consciousness—even if the end results were often only as beautiful as the State allowed. The collective art produced during the 1970s may eventually have disappeared from East Germany, but there is still art to be discovered in the public spaces around Strausberger Platz.

image courtesy of Andreas Tölke

Of course there were souvenirs and mementoes sold at the 18 World Youth Festivals, two of which took place in East Berlin. The most in-demand items: a shawl and a scarf. Style: GDR goes Merchandising. A semiotic language that is clearly identified as “eastern” by today’s standards — a strange combination of orange and blue, unsurprisingly not found anywhere else, that resulted from the intense metal additives only seen in the East. The shawls, enthusiastically brandished at Alexanderplatz, were “Design to go” and are rare collector’s pieces today.

One of the pieces of design that has survived is the mosaic on the Haus des Lehrers—at 25 metres long and seven metres wide, it is the largest of its kind in Berlin. The Wall fell, change everything has changed, the mosaic doesn’t care. The decorative border was not restored until 2004. Thankfully, a number of the building’s occupants had saved many of the mosaic pieces that fell off over the years. As a result, most of what you now see gleaming around the base of the high-rise is original. The same is true for the mosaic that graces Café Moskau. No tourist strolling along Karl-Marx-Allee misses a chance to pose in front of it.

image courtesy of Andreas Tölke

But no-one can pose in front of the “Maple Leaf” on the Fischerinsel. In 1973, it was first used as a restaurant for the World Youth Festivals, but the building’s shell, designed by the architect Ulrich Müther and by the VEB (state-owned enterprise) Spezialbetonbau, was torn down at the turn of the millennium—despite its status as a heritage building. Today, in its place, is a deadly boring, functional building, housing one of those nondescript hotels that could be classed as anti-architecture. The Palast der Republik — also gone. Replaced with a Disneyland-esque castle, the failed hybrid of yawn-inducing modern and fake baroque. One might suspect that it won’t be long until the last piece of the Wall has disappeared. The TV Tower, Strausberger Platz and Karl-Marx-Allee may soon be the last surviving architectural testaments to GDR history in Berlin.

image courtesy of Andreas Tölke

In this setting, it’s worth searching for traces of what once was. For example, behind Café Moskau on Schillingstraße. Here’s where you will find a unique partition wall between the green area and the street. The wall is made up of a series of concrete squares and rectangles of various sizes. These “concrete boxes” are home to Schlemmer. Oskar Schlemmer was part of the Bauhaus movement in Dessau, although originally from Stuttgart. In the 1920s, the artist, painter, sculptor and set designer made history with the “Triadischen Balett”. Miniature artworks inspired by his sculptural costumes can be seen in the wall on Schillingstraße. Who made the sculptures? Nobody knows. Even Berlin’s authorities don’t have a clue. Sadly, the sculptures are obscured by a prefabricated fast food stand that seems to have been thoughtlessly deposited in front of the six-meter installation. Depressingly, the sculptured figures are not only partially hidden from view, but also slowly rotting away. On the other side of the street, there is a well-preserved mosaic in grey and white on one of the concrete prefab high-rises. Strict geometry on a side wall. A little artistic treat for those who accidentally discover it.

image courtesy of Andreas Tölke

Not far away, as part of the block of houses on Singerstrasse, there is a flat-roofed building—a former day care centre—that is has been reinvented as a Buddhist centre. There are fairy-tale scenes from Grimm’s tales on the facade, some of which are in relief, a recognisable style of the late 1960s GDR. On the other side of Karl-Marx-Allee, in the Weydemeyerstrasse park, there is a sculpture in the children’s playground. Abruptly. Boom, in public space: seven metres of concrete bevels and cassettes at a height of 1.5 meters. Off-the-wall, 70s GDR—also produced by an unknown artist. Walk further down the boulevard toward Frankfurter Tor and you’ll find another treasure on the side of the computer game museum. Yet another mosaic. Strolling through the portals between the blocks of flats on the boulevard and through the parks around the Weberwiese is like following a treasure trail. A trail that will hopefully be there to enjoy for a long time to come!