If you’ve ever visited East Germany during the Cold War, you probably saw a lot of grey, cheaply-built apartment buildings that might have made you feel depressed. This sort of building is what Germans referred to as Plattenbau – a structure made up of prefabricated concrete slabs. Basically, an inexpensive structure with little originality.
In this context, Platte means “concrete slab” and Bau means “building.” World War II had left many parts of Germany damaged and in need of reconstruction. By the 1960s, the German Democratic Republic (GDR) was struggling financially, and most of its new apartment buildings were therefore built in the Plattenbau style. There were several different designs, varying in size and height, but overall each one was made up of concrete panels.
The Plattenbau design made it possible for the GDR to rapidly build new apartments across the country. GDR architects claimed to base their construction on the world-renowned Bauhaus style. Indeed, the Plattenbau was a functional concept, but lacked aesthetic qualities. At first, East Germans were excited about their new homes; many young people wanted to move out of their parents’ apartments to receive a Plattenbau-style apartment of their own, because at a minimum, they had central heating. But after the wall came down in 1989, things changed; East Germans saw the higher-quality homes of the West, and few remained content with their Plattenbau apartments. They sought out homes exhibiting greater originality in their design.
Over time, many of these buildings were modernized. Some were demolished. Others remain occupied, but are often a cheaper alternative to Western-style buildings. But if you visit cities in former East Germany today, you will probably see at least one Plattenbau. You’ll know it when you see it.
By Nicole Glass, German Embassy