The Chemical Worker's City: Halle-Neustadt

When in 1958 the Central Committee of the SED decided to advance the GDR’s chemical industry, it became necessary to provide housing in the vicinity of the chemical plants at Buna, Schkopau and Leuna. On September 17, 1963, the Politbüro decided the construction of the "Chemical Workers' City," known as Halle-Neustadt, Neustadt, or, just short, Ha-Neu, on the western bank of the river Saale, near the villages of Zscherben and Nietleben. Planning under Richard Paulick, a former member of the SAPD, assistant to Walter Gropius, and a leading architect in the reconstruction of Berlin (1950s, Stalinallee Section C, blending Socialist Realism and Neoclassicism), Dresden and Hoyerswerda, began the same year.
Halle-Neustadt, like any other Plattenbau-estate in the GDR, was planned with CIAM’s Athens Charter in mind. The combination of standardized high-rise and mid-rise apartment blocks, separated by relatively large open spaces, provided a decent amount of exposure to sunlight for every flat and created public spaces shielded from the noise of nearby roads, while standardisation and modularisation allowed for quick and cheap building. Construction started in July 1964, and just a year later on August 9, 1965, the first tenants moved in. Twenty-five years later, it was home to 93.000 people. Unfortunately, much of the infrastructure needed for a self-contained and functional town was never completed. While some basic needs like primary and secondary education were provided for, others, like public transportation and (mass) culture, were neglected (a cinema wasn’t opened until 1983, being the last new cinema in the GDR and Halle-Neustadt’s only cultural institution), mostly due to cost restrictions and shifting attention to Berlin. Halle-Neustadt remained a dormitory town, a faith it shared with many other similarly sized housing projects of that era and that contributed to the decline that set in after the German reunification, when the town lost half of its population. Not even improved infrastructure like new tram lines and shopping centres could turn around the exodus that accompanied the decline of the chemical industry in the area.

Crossing the Saale river from the east, the first thing that pops into sight are high-rise tower blocks, standing tall above the Saale meadows separating Neustadt from Halle.
The centre of the town was the Neustädter Passage, a two level pedestrian precinct with department stores, specialty stores, a clinic, the Main Post Office and the House of Services. On the northern side of the Neustädter Passage are five 18-storey tower blocks called ‘Scheiben’ [slices], which originally included dormitories for students of the Martin-Luther-University Halle, as well as worker dormitories of the chemistry combines Buna and Leuna. These tower blocks, built in the early 1970s, formed the central element of the town centre, but are now empty except for one tower block housing a number offices and authorities. Although the four abandoned blocks are in an appalling condition – heavily weathered and cracked concrete, rust stains, broken windows and railing slabs falling down – and partial demolition became the standard procedure to cope with widespread vacancy in East German Plattenbau-estates, they were left untouched, but the reason for this is most likely to be found in ownership disputes.

Also in the centre is the town hall, which wasn’t built until 1989, and due to the reincorporation of Halle-Neustadt into Halle never served its original purpose. It now houses the State Department for Survey and Geoinformation.
On the southern edge of the centre is Block 10, a 380 metres long 11-storey tower block. Built in 1967 along the towns North-South axis, it was the longest apartment building ever built in the GDR and housed up to 3000 people in 856 flats, some of which were converted to a nursery and a nursing home. Due to its size, Block 10 visually dominates the surrounding area, but three pedestrian passages allowed free movement around the building.

Werner Petzold: Die Friedliche Nutzung der Kernenergie

"Die Friedliche Nutzung der Kernenergie" [trans.: The Peaceful Use of Nuclear Energy]. Mural, painted enamel tiles, 12x16m, Werner Petzold, 1972-74. Paitzdorf/Löbichau, near Gera/Germany.


In Defence Of Lost Futures - An Introduction

“The kind of melancholia I’m talking about, by contrast, consists not in giving up on desire, but in refusing to yield. It consists, that is to say, in a refusal to adjust to what current conditions call ‘reality’ – even if the cost of that refusal is that you feel like an outcast in your own time…” (Mark Fisher, Ghosts of my Life)
I grew up in Gera, a town about 55km south of Leipzig and subject to rather drastic changes over last decades. Once a thriving and rather wealthy centre of the textile industry, the city saw an impressive number of Neues Bauen projects - both residential and industrial - realised during the years of the Weimar Republic. This period, however, was only short-lived. In 1925, after only six years in nearby Weimar, the Bauhaus had to relocate to Dessau because of nationalist and conservative pressure. Contracts became rare and by 1930, when the National Socialists won the majority of seats in the Thuringian Parliament, even academic careers became were beyond reach. Architects like Thilo Schoder, the most prolific proponent of Neues Bauen in Gera, went into exile.    
In the postwar years Gera became the capital of the newly created District of Gera, which led to further development of the city and its industrial sector. The resulting increase of the population demanded a different approach to housing. Socialist modernism provided the answer: Two Plattenbau estates were established at Gera's northern and southern periphery from 1965 on, housing about 20.000 (Bieblach) and 45.000 (Lusan) people each at the end of the 80s. Built around the small village of the same name, Lusan was the largest project of its kind in the district.
The architecture – keep in mind, this was mass-produced prefabricated housing void of any artistic expression - left much to desire, mostly because of the excessive use of the WBS 70 large-panel system buildings which varied only in height and the layout of the flats. While the five- and six-storey houses had windowed internal staircases that served two or three flats per storey, the eleven-storey tower blocks relied on dark, artificially lit corridors, central stair cases and elevators to make the best of the larger floor area. Concrete dominated the entire estate. Especially the exposed-aggregate concrete, the material that made up the majority of the slabs used for construction and paving, weathered quite fast, gradually darkening the buildings. The very fabric of this socialist utopia made it look kind of drab. Rumor has it that in the years before its completion Lusan was nicknamed “Golan Heights”, apparently for its dirt roads and nonexistent vegetation. On the other hand, it served its residents quite well. There were eleven schools, fourteen daycares, four supermarkets (either state-owned or operated by cooperatives), one restaurant, two retirement homes and one outpatient clinic. A tram line and a four-lane road connected it to the city, where thousands made their ways every day. This is where I went to school, this is where I spent most of my childhood and youth.

Before we moved to Lusan, we lived in a small three-storey house in Gera’s Untermhaus quarter, now one of the fancier neighborhoods of the city. The house was only 50 metres away from the White Elster river and has seen its fair share of floods. While I have only good memories of the place, it was always a bit glum. The backyard with its small garden was a confined and shady place lined by sheds and a washhouse, bathrooms were outside of the flats and you always had the feeling that the sun was nowhere to be seen. Lusan was different. From my room you could see for miles, there were green areas everywhere and everything was astonishingly bright and modern. Colourful murals adorned schools and tower blocks, and sculptures could be found in every square and in front of every public building. But then came the German reunification and along with it a number of changes that hit the city hard. In 1990, Gera became part of Thuringia. The loss of its administrative functions as well as its nationalized industry marked the city's slide into a deep economic crisis, which continues to today. Not only the combined textile industry was privatised, the 1990s saw also massive parts of state-owned housing sold to private real estate companies. When people moved away and renting out these icons of socialist modernism became unprofitable, tenants where offered to buy the flats they lived in. Some did, but by then so many flats stood empty, that entire tower blocks where levelled instead. This went hand in hand with people’s newfound scorn for the houses and flats they had lived in for years. With socialism defeated, its remains had to go. What wasn’t razed was either redeveloped for the affluent (I’m talking retrofitted maisonettes and spacious penthouses) or simply rehabilitated. The weathered concrete was covered in alloy panels, colorfully painted. Shopping malls were built between the tower blocks, providing a better consumer experience, just so nobody forgets that instead of the party now capital reigns supreme.
And yet the buildings, the sculptures, the murals and even some of the streets named after local communists are still there. They are artifacts from the past, material traces of history, and as such, they are a constant reminder of battles fought, defeats suffered, and promises yet to be fulfilled. What most people deem obsolete and insufferable remains of an era long gone, what is met with contempt and ignorance, is still of concern. Not because of sentimental nostalgia for a supposedly better past, but because of its refusal to adjust to the logic of late capitalism. From our current point of view, the future may look bleak and frightening. In these artifacts, however, utopian thought survives, offering not only a critique of a reality which deems itself eternal and unchangeable, but also redemption to the lost futures of past and present.

 “You're absolutely right. Our little town is a hole. It always has been and still is. But now it is a hole into the future. We're going to dump so much through this hole into your lousy world that everything will change in it. Life will be different. It'll be fair. Everyone will have everything that he needs. Some hole, huh? Knowledge comes through this hole. And when we have the knowledge, we'll make everyone rich, and we'll fly to the stars, and go anywhere we want. That's the kind of hole we have here.” (Arkady & Boris Strugatsky, Roadside Picnic)


Gera: Golde Patent Top Manufacturing Company

Built in 1921 for the Traugott Golde Patent Top Manufacturing Company by Thilo Schoder, the factory is one of the few examples of New Objectivity industrial architecture in Gera. The city's industry - and along with it, the city itself - declined rapidly in the wake of the German reunification, leaving the buildings to redevelopment schemes that aimed at creating a more service-oriented economy. The 90s saw the factory building redeveloped into a now derelict shopping centre.