Putting a New Face on Communist Housing Horrors

By Ann Brocklehurst

Originally published in the International Herald Tribune, Saturday, November 13, 1993

The project proposes to turn a Communist-era housing horror into a residential, recreational and business community of the type currently favored by Western architects and urban planners.

Three neighboring apartment buildings, bare and unembellished concrete blocks, will receive new facades, windows, balconies and entrances. To link the 11-story apartment houses together, a glass-enclosed pergola-style structure will be built along one side. A three-story building will provide space for shops, cafés, community groups and more housing.

The courtyard-style enclosures created by the new structure will be decorated with trees and hedges. There will be playgrounds and roof gardens as well.

Architect Jens Freiberg’s prize-winning redesign of Wuhlestrasse in the East Berlin suburb of Marzahn is a pilot project that is being closely watched. Some 800,000 East Berliners, or two thirds of the population, live in similar conditions in “der Platte” – slang for prefabricated buildings constructed from concrete slabs.

According to a study by the Berlin Senate, many of the buildings are in urgent need of repair. Politicians and urban planners are also worried that the housing projects, designed and executed as models of social egalitarianism with professors living next door to factory workers, will deteriorate as better-off residents start to move out.

“You can only do so much under these conditions. But you can create a more pleasant quality of life,” said Freiberg. He noted that in East Berlin’s housing projects, there is usually plenty of room between buildings. By adding new buildings in areas that are now nothing more than wind tunnels, he said, “You can give the space meaning. It starts to have the quality of a city and loses the barracks quality.”

One obstacle to the redesign, however, is that most Platte dwellers don’t see their homes as barracks. According to polls, and contrary to outsiders’ expectations, 70 percent of the residents are satisfied or very satisfied with their homes, and 60 percent want to stay there. While tenants definitely want their most pressing plumbing and heating troubles looked after, most are not interested in what they see as fancy and unnecessary renovations that will raise the rent. Freiberg, a German whose office is in Paris, has worked at improving large-scale social housing projects in France and says it is important that tenants be able to afford any planned changes. If rents are raised too high, it can lead to rent strikes and from there to chaos, he said.

The Wuhlestrasse project is budgeted at 10 million Deutsche marks (about $5.9 million) with funds coming from the Berlin Senate and the federal government. Tenants have been told they can expect their rents to double over the next 20 years as they reap the benefits of renovation and more pleasant surroundings. It’s a nasty shock for people who are already paying several times as much as they were under communism, when housing was heavily subsidized.

At a recent meeting, residents expressed worries about higher rents, construction noise, fewer parking spots and loss of light in apartments on lower floors. Freiberg said, however, that they are a lot more receptive to the plan than when it was announced in February.

It is his experience that small changes such as clearly identifying entrances and giving each one its own individual look, can make a very big difference. “When you can hardly see the doorway and don’t know which is the front and which is the rear of the building, it’s bad,” he said. “This kind of improvement work is not usually done by well-known architects because it’s not spectacular. To plan a new building is easier.”

Freiberg believes that housing projects like the ones dominating the suburbs of East Berlin require continuous investment and planning to develop properly. The Senate’s study estimates that 17 billion DM, or an average of 85,000 marks per apartment, will have to be invested by the year 2010, but that is still only a quarter of the cost of building new housing.

“The architects who designed this had a very reduced vision of what life in a city can be,” Freiberg said. “But if a good quality of life can be achieved, new people will come.”