Repetition and Colour

In Berlin, residential landscapes composed from prefabricated concrete-slab towers are called “Plattenbau” (literally “slab buildings”). They are often considered synonymous with East-German architecture – and the slate-skied drabness it may evoke for some. Now, in a new book, Jesse Simon presents these structures in all their grid-like beauty.

Berlin is a city fundamentally shaped by the regeneration projects of the post-WWII decades. Large-scale housing developments reflected a renaissance of modernist architecture. International Style and Constructivist trends of the 1910s – 1930s were reinvented for everyday urban residents, in an effort to rebuild a city hollowed out by bomb damage. As elsewhere, the results were mixed and divisive. When the online image bank from which this book grew was launched in 2020, reactions showed that “these buildings, some of which are now more than half a century old, still had the power to provoke unusually strong, often polarised responses”.

“The word Plattenbau”, Simon continues, “refers to buildings created using a specific construction method in which precast panels of steel-reinforced concrete are assembled into larger structures”. From 1959 onwards, the technique was used so extensively in the East that “Plattenbau” is sometimes considered a catch-all term for the architecture of the Democratic Republic. But similar methods were used in the West. Indeed, to the contemporary eye, the architectural styles of these formerly alien districts – many of them just hundreds of metres away from each other – seem to stand in visual dialogue. East and West German design and culture have been subject to revisionary attention in recent years, stressing points of overlap.

Following a neat potted architectural history of Berlin, we are invited on a sun-filled tour across a once-divided city, from the East (Mitte, Lichtenberg, Marzahn and the Außenbezirke or “outer boroughs”) to the West (Gropiusstadt, Märkisches Viertel, Innenstadt, Der Südwesten and Spandau). The author stresses a qualified continuity across these regions grounded in the shared modernist ideals of the pre-WWII era, and the years of limited rapprochement following the war but before the construction of the Berlin Wall in 1961. “Ensembles of larger buildings set within open, pedestrian-friendly spaces… central area[s] of shops, cafes, schools and sporting facilities that fulfil the social functions of a self-contained town”: plans along these lines were brought to life across the metropolis. Reinforced concrete was the material of choice for ease and affordability, whilst the sheer volume of new housing required made elements of uniformity necessary.

In the East, modularity and repetition were seized as conscious design features to a greater extent than in the West. “The panels,” Simon notes, “with their even distribution of windows, create an impression of overwhelming regularity; and when the visible joints where the panels meet are multiplied to the size of a full building, they create the impression of a vast grid in which each square represents a single unit of human life.” Across suggestively named boulevards, streets and squares, from Karl-Marx-Allee to Platz der Vereinten Nationen (“United Nations Square”), the “aesthetic purity” of the eastern design style is brought to life through the crisp simplicity and shadowless colours of the photography. It should be noted, however, that, just as statues of Lenin no longer feature within the plazas and gardens of these boroughs, modern refurbishment has resulted in much of the cladding, paint and plasterwork that ensures the vibrancy of the images. These bright colours draw in the eye, making the senses long for the hypnotic rhythms of the city.

Plattenbau Berlin is published by Prestel in March. Find out more here.

Words: Greg Thomas

All images © Jesse Simon