This past spring, German Chancellor Angela Merkel surprised the Republic with an unusually private glimpse into her biography. Not typically known to be chatty about personal matters, the politician from the Conservative Party (CDU) revealed anecdotes from her GDR youth, portraying herself as the one who organized drinks for the parties, who wore Western jeans and got down to the Beatles, Simon & Garfunkel, and Serge Gainsbourg. When a journalist from the yellow press newspaper, Bild, set out to spoil the mood, she veered from details to generalizations, discussing her role as Secretary for Agitation and Propaganda with the FDJ (Free German Youth) in the early 1980s at the Academy of Science in East Berlin. She explained to be primarily motivated by community ties, and the nonpolitical activities and experiences that she was afforded as a member of the socialist youth association. With this, harmony was restored in the interview. But the following day’s headlines did not read, “More than twenty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Bundeskanzlerin calls for impartial and open exchange of experiences and stories between East and West Germans.” They read: “Angela Merkel: College Party Barmaid.”
Merkel’s commitment to dubious cocktails of whiskey and cherry juice came out during the “Mein Film” series in which the German Film Academy invites public figures to present their favorite cinema pieces. The chancellor chose The Legend of Paul and Paula, a surreal-realistic love story starring Angelica Domröse and Winfried Glatzeder, which is understood as an allegory for awakening and change in 1973 East Germany. In fact, the film was in danger of being banned before Erich Honecker himself advocated for its release in the cinemas. For him, the movie revealed the issues of young people. That said, it was a good, albeit safeguarded choice on the part of the chancellor.
It was the film’s handling of these problems of youth, recognized by Honecker, which accounted for its success. The primary issue was the housing problem: the ongoing lack of flats characteristic of the time. The year that The Legend of Paul and Paula reached cinemas, the central committee of the governing party SED (Socialist Unity Party of Germany) presided over by Honecker since 1971, adopted a housing program to address this ordeal. The intention was to provide each citizen of the GDR with a reasonable place to reside by the year 1990, which meant that in Berlin alone some 230,000 flats were to be built, and 100,000 modernized by then. To achieve this, the Academy of Architecture set off on a massive operation of prefab construction. This is an architectural concept based upon industrialization that employs standardized and prefabricated parts to the quick and lower-cost creation of living space. The results of this plan could already be seen on a small scale in The Legend of Paul and Paula. The film opens with the demolition of rundown old buildings. Next to this, one sees a newly constructed row of prefab buildings—the Plattenbau. The destruction of existing buildings follows the ideological belief that the old Altbau structure was capitalist, with its back courtyards affording residents the chance to withdraw into privacy. Conversely, Plattenbau housing developments fostered a sense of community and a collective spirit, along the lines of socialism, as they were built so that individuals should enter the space of the residential complex. The Legend of Paul and Paula shows, however, that the solidarity of this housing project has a dehumanizing effect that ends in anonymity. Though the new housing complexes clearly offer more comforts than some old, coal-heated Friedrichshain flats such as Paula’s, the solidarity among her neighbors manifests itself as markedly stronger and more reliable than that of those living in the Platte. The Legend of Paul and Paula insists upon emotionality, humanity, and individuality, thereby resisting the rationale of a system that found its practical, concrete expression in the standardized architecture of the Plattenbau.
The building campaigns of the 1970s and 1980s were the largest mass social-housing projects in Germany. There were no comparable efforts made in West Germany during this time. It is on account of the GDR’s wide-reaching use of this standardized architecture that, since the fall of the Wall, the Plattenbau has become a symbol of the collapsed system.
However, the Plattenbau is by no means a phenomenon unique to the GDR and Andrea Pichl makes this very clear in her work. The artist observes the impact that this form of architecture has had internationally. The adoption of prefab architecture, with its promise of affordable and efficient solutions to housing problems, was certainly not restricted to eastern Germany, and not even to the Eastern bloc. The impetus for the Plattenbau in the GDR came directly from Moscow. After Stalin’s death, Khrushchev positioned himself against his precursor’s preference for Neo-Classical architecture, propagating industrialized construction instead. The shift toward Plattenbau construction was executed in the GDR from 1955 onward. Throughout her travels, Pichl has also found its traces in Western countries. Pichl has been producing her own photographs since 2008, as well as collecting floor plans for blocks of flats that she has searched for in Germany and abroad. The artist has compiled documents on prefab project housing from London, Paris, Berlin, Dublin, and Tashkent. But she has also collected information on individual colonies in areas of the former GDR as well. On one hand, the material serves as the basis for installations such as Doublebind (2011) where photographs from her inventory are projected on a structure whose measurements correspond to that of a GDR Plattenbau flat. On the other hand, a glance at her database reveals the unfinished archive as an artistic work in its own right.
Thus far, Pichl’s photographic collection includes some one thousand images. For this catalogue, 250 pictures were selected. It becomes apparent that Pichl doesn’t contextualize or provide information on the photographs: she includes no locations or dates revealing when or where a picture was taken. It is also clear that the artist is just as interested in details, like a section of a balcony for instance, as well as the overall grid structure arising from the schematic construction units. Furthermore, the buildings are almost never seen in their entirety. Even if it is not obvious in which city the respective photographs were taken, there are certain similarities between the complexes that allow them to be recognized as part of the same housing development. Nonetheless, even when viewed together, the pictures do not grant a complete overview of the whole block of flats. The camera’s point of view is often the same in most cases, capturing the pictures at eye level. When viewed one after the other, they have the effect of a rambling, unsystematic stroll through the Plattenbau grounds.
This rambling seems to have taken place in hermetically sealed zones, as there is no information for the viewer about the area beyond the housing complex. Is it located at the edge or in the center of the city? Is there any infrastructure at all? And above all else, does anyone even live here? Because the fact is, these buildings appear virtually abandoned. The only hints one gets that people live here are towels that have been hung over the balcony to dry, the satellite dishes, air conditioners, and occasional flower pot.
Against this lifeless backdrop, the characteristics of the Plattenbau complexes become emphasized. Each of them is in a state of disrepair. This neglect becomes most obvious through the faded ornaments and embellishments once used to break up the monotonous and Brutalist appearance of the structures. Pichl’s images expose that the Plattenbau housing follows no political ideology. They are examples of how a society imagines the affordable housing and cohabitation of people who can often not afford anything else.