From ‘Workers’ Lockers’ to ‘Workers’ Palaces’ – Housing in the GDR

Strausberger Platz was a real flagship project for GDR architecture, with many East Germans hoping for a chance to move into one of the apartments. There were features in national newspapers and inaugural festivities to celebrate the arrival of the first tenants. Who were the apartments built for? ‘Workers who were allocated an apartment in the first socialist street as a reward for their achievements’ (Berliner Zeitung, 7 January 1953). A look at the alternatives available at the time shows why these apartments had such a powerful resonance as symbols of aspiration.

Poster for the reconstruction campaign of Berlin, reading ‘Get involved in the National Restoration Scheme’ – Source: Wilhelm Schubert, Plakat, 1952 | Berlin 1952 | Pinterest

Architecture at Strausberger Platz: an Aspirational Showpiece for the Rest of Berlin

In the early 1950’s, the devastation of World War II was still visible everywhere in East Berlin. Undaunted by the Herculean task of rebuilding their capital from the rubble, the GDR leadership launched a National Restoration Scheme in 1951 to recruit ordinary citizens for clean-up duties such as salvaging construction materials and clearing building plots. Specifically, the programme was designed to (re-)build Stalinallee to ‘showcase a vision of excellence in architecture and urban-planning for the newly emerging German capital’, as the official mouthpiece of the Socialist Unity Party of Germany (SED), Neues Deutschland, reported on 25 November 1951. A lottery giving away 1,000 one- and two-bedroom apartments, which was open to anybody who agreed to give a part of their monthly wages to the government for a year and do 300 hours of clean-up service, was launched at the same time.

Built in the first rush of feverish restoration and designed in the iconic ‘wedding-cake’ style of architecture, the Strausberger Platz buildings still stand as beacons of the ideal they were meant to represent. Hermann Henselmann, the architect who designed the residential buildings along this, the ‘most difficult section of Stalinallee’, was awarded the National Prize of the German Democratic Republic for his work. At the time of their original construction, they offered a tantalising glimpse of a way forward out of the housing crisis that plagued socialist East Germany, where a large proportion of the existing building stock had been destroyed during the war. By 1964, the ambitious Restoration Scheme had resulted in a disappointing 800,000 new residential units built across the country. Housing was extremely scarce even though large numbers of people had died in the war or were still in POW camps.

Aufbau Karl-Marx-Allee
Reconstruction of Karl-Marx-Allee – Source: Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-16144-0006 / Krueger / CC-BY-SA 3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

Strausberger Platz today – Source: Central Berlin

Pre-War Buildings: All Shabby, No Chic

Makeshift repairs and modernisation work was carried out on apartments in pre-war buildings across the city. As late as the 1980s, many of these buildings had no running hot water, toilets were shared between several apartments and coal-burning stoves provided the only source of heating. The government made matters worse by freezing rents at 1930 levels of less than 1 East German mark per square metre in order to prevent landlords and property owners from making a profit. What appeared to be good news for tenants led to a shortage of funds and supplies for much-needed refurbishments. Instead, entire rows of pre-war buildings were left to slow decay.

So what do you do if your walls are crumbling and a professional builder is hard to come by? Plenty of tenants became very proficient at DIY. They received support from state-run Repair Hubs that provided free construction supplies, rented out tools and sometimes even paid tenants for their work. The launch of the New Housing Development Scheme in 1971 kept builders and other tradespeople busier than ever.

Change in Policy Gives Rise to Plattenbau Buildings

Treating the housing shortage in East Germany as a social policy issue was taboo for a long time. According to the socialist worldview, social policy was merely an instrument by which Western countries attempted to compensate for the social problems created by capitalism. Socialist East Germany initially turned a blind eye to the existence of any such issues on its own soil, assuming that they would resolve themselves sooner or later. This attitude didn’t change until Erich Honecker succeeded Walter Ulbricht as the First Secretary of the SED Central Committee in 1971. Launched in the wake of the 8th Party Conference with a pledge to build 3.5 million new homes by 1990, the New Housing Development Scheme promised ‘warm, dry, secure housing’ for all.
In practice, this meant that new developments constructed from pre-fabricated slabs, the infamous Plattenbau buildings, sprang up on greenfield sites all across East Germany.

These developments typically included social institutions such as schools, medical care facilities and shopping opportunities. Thus, new urban centres were created on the outskirts of existing cities. Modular building methods allowed for quick mass construction of new homes, which were very popular and even offered a certain level of luxury: a bathroom and toilet in every unit, running hot water, fitted kitchens, central heating … However, tenants typically had to wait for years to be allocated an apartment in one of these developments. There was no private housing market in East Germany and very few people owned their homes.

Housing as a Social Equaliser

These new developments were not designed to be aesthetically pleasing. They were meant to produce quick results to demonstrate the prowess of socialism. As a consequence, Plattenbau apartments across East Germany were uniform in exterior and interior design and featured a very limited choice of layouts. The choice of furniture was equally limited as a matter of ideological principle – Plattenbau buildings acted as social equalisers, with university professors living next door to steelworkers. The idea was to eradicate any signs of social or economic privilege. Dwindling funds during the final years of the socialist regime led to increasingly cramped housing conditions, with extra walls added to convert formerly spacious Plattenbau apartments into ‘workers’ lockers’ by turning two-bedroom into three-bedroom apartments.

Eröffnungsfeierlichkeit Aufbauprogramm Berlin
Opening ceremony of the reconstruction campaign Berlin – Source: Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-15894-0004 / Krueger / CC-BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Central Berlin Strausberger Platz
Strausberger Platz today – Source: Central Berlin

The Strausberger Platz apartments offered a true alternative that was visually stimulating and impressive. Like the Plattenbau apartments, the units were fitted with state-of-the-art amenities. Although they did initially serve their original purpose of providing housing for workers, they were subsequently turned into luxury accommodation for loyal supporters of the Socialist Unity Party.

Today, all of this is history. Nowadays, the properties at Strausberger Platz are listed buildings protected by a preservation order. Their historic charm and unique ambience makes them very popular with capital investors. However, buying an apartment at Strausberger Platz is more than just an investment opportunity – it is also a chance to own a piece of East German history.

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