Socialist modernity: the built environment debate in East Germany
Bartlett School of Architecture, London, UK
Nikita Krushchev’s speech ‘On the extensive introduction of industrial methods, improving the quality and reducing the cost of construction,’ delivered at the All-Union Conference of Builders and Architects in Moscow in 1954, caused a significant shift in architecture and town planning in the German Democratic Republic (GDR). It initiated a process of modernization in the East German construction industry (along with a reappraisal of architectural modernism and its ideas), which gained further momentum as the party leadership embarked on a programme of economic reforms in 1963, two years after the Berlin Wall was built. New towns, industrial complexes and reshaped city centres, as in Berlin or Dresden, bear witness to this phase.
In this paper I aim to re-address the question of socialist modernity and investigate whether post-World War II modernization took a distinct shape in the GDR. Was there an ‘Ostmoderne’ [east-modern architecture], and if so, where might it be found? I suggest that, beyond built artefacts, traces of this socialist modernity can be found first and foremost in the hitherto unexplored theoretical debates concerning the built environment and its relationship to life in socialism in the 1960s – especially in the concept of Komplexe Umweltgestaltung [complex design of the environment] developed by architectural theorist Bruno Flierl. I will map out discussions about modernism as Erbe [heritage] and examine intersections between architectural theory, cybernetics and social sciences that were formed during those years. In doing so, I intend to offer a reading of East German theorists’ efforts to characterize the specific quality of the built environment in socialism as developed in relation to post-war modern architecture in the west, in particular West Germany, and the other Eastern Bloc countries, especially the Soviet Union. Understood this way, were these developments signs of a ‘departure’ towards socialist modernity in the GDR?