Signs of the East

by jonnywhitlam

Liselotte-Hermann-Straße, Prenzlauer Berg. This is now a thoroughly middle-class district, though through the last 30 years it has been a neglected district of communist East Berlin and a centre of the post-unification cultural boom during the 1990s.

November 9th 1989, the Berlin Wall ‘falls’ and from this night on the Cold War is essentially over. Whilst this was a time of great celebration, the reunification of Germany has not necessarily been an easy process. For 40 years two sides of Berlin were not just in different countries, they operated under completely different political and social systems.

Eastern-European communism was undoubtedly a failure, and for all its faults the West clearly won. Politically this seems to make sense, especially in the case of Germany, where the division of these nations seemed somehow unnatural. This meant that West Germany and East Germany were not defined by their language, culture or history as the majority of modern nations are today, but by the politics of the Cold War.

Following reunification in 1990 Berlin once again became the capital city of a unified Germany. This has of course meant massive political, social and financial upheaval. This also means that East Germany, the DDR (Deutsche Demokratische Republik), has ceased to exist. However its monuments, buildings and architecture will remain as evidence that it was not just the politics that separated these two places, but daily life, customs and values as well.

Wondering around former East Berlin it is easy to see and to imagine how the adversarial politics that defined the 1960s were reflected in the architecture. For the communists this meant the buildings had to be large and imposing, they were the creation of the government, of the party. This of course meant that it was the party that was in control. But more than this: this was communism, everyone was equal and as such entitled to equal living space. These principles were met by one of the most affordable styles of architecture at the time, which was of course prefabricated buildings. The use of prefabrication made the ‘equal living’ ideology easy to implement, it also made construction fast and cheap. Two things that were incredibly important in a city destroyed by the allied bombs, and especially important on the eastern side of the wall where money and resources became ever more scarce.

So love it or loathe it, the nature of the political scene in the 1960s produced some interesting architecture, creating vast areas of Berlin that are not designed as the centre of a capitalist city, there are not shops and bars on every corner, not every road has room for each family’s two cars, walking through former-East Berlin can still in many circumstances feel like walking through another country.

Steel (or aluminium?) cladding on buildings like this appears to be much more common here in Berlin than anywhere else Ive lived. Most examples Ive found tend to be in the former East. Im always conscious though, maybe Im just looking for it there?

This is the town hall for the district of Mitte in Berlin, today one of many centres for tedious bureaucracy.

Kino International (International Cinema), used to host premieres in the DDR until 1989. Brilliant example of 60s architecture in the communist era.

Karl Marx Allee (formerly Stalin Allee) was used as a huge show-street in the DDR. An incredibly wide boulevard, six lanes wide, it connects the districts of Mitte and Friedrichshain. Gone is the former grandeur, however, as large amounts of the street now sit in disrepair as above.

A small street between huge residential buildings, Schillingstr. is one of my favourite locations in Berlin to get a feeling for the East. Starting as an unassuming alley near Jannowitzbrücke S-Bahn Schillingstr. eventually opens up to Karl Marx Alle, taking you to the heart of many of the more interesting buildings from the DDR era - Kino International, Café Moscow and Rathaus Mitte, as well as almost uncountable examples of communist residential buildings from the 1960s.

For more scenes of the East German past in the modern German present check out my Flickr set – East Germany.