In 1977, Carola and Gerd Jütte, together with their 2-year-old daughter, were the first occupants of the East German regime’s prized new residential district in the northeast of Berlin. Their previous home was a pre-war building with a coal-fired oven and a bathroom shared with other tenants. Now they moved into an apartment in a 10-story block in Marzahn, where they were thrilled to have their first hot baths ever. The children loved the diggers, cranes and constant action on the construction site all around them. Rubber boots were mandatory, the Jüttes recall – anyone without them had to wrap plastic bags around their feet to protect them from the ubiquitous mud. Many of the streets and paths were still unpaved.
The Marzahn housing project marks its 40th anniversary this month. Comprising hundreds of concrete tower blocks stretching for kilometers, it is usually mentioned in the same breath as the word “Plattenbau” – the German term for the large, prefabricated concrete slabs used to construct the sort of housing blocks considered considered to be the quintessence of communist architectural atrocities. Marzahn is in fact Europe’s largest development of this kind, and thus of historical importance. That said, it is unlikely to become a tourist attraction, even though Prince William and Princess Kate visited a youth center there this week.
The name “Marzahn” was borrowed from a nearby medieval village. But for most of history, the area was mainly open fields on the outskirts of Berlin. Before the Olympic Games of 1936, the Nazis rounded up Berlin’s population of Roma and Sinti people at this remote location to keep them out of view from visitors to the games. Later, most of them would be deported and murdered at Auschwitz.
After the war, now in the communist eastern zone, Berlin’s first agricultural cooperative was founded here, with the appropriately socialist name “New Order.” The first concrete slab was laid on July 8, 1977, 40 years ago. On the Cold War-era Avenue of the Cosmonauts, a weathered concrete slab still bears the image of a construction worker called Peter Zeise, the man who gave the signal for building to start.
The first tower blocks were completed just six months after work began. The East German state built kindergartens, cinemas and promenades. Variety was not a priority. The most common tower design was 11 floors high; these were interspersed with double-height towers of 21 floors.
In 1984, a second, huge development began to take shape in the neighboring district of Hellersdorf. All East Germany’s building conglomerates were involved in the project and the tower blocks were a little more varied. In just fifteen years, the largest high-rise development in Europe was completed, with 103,000 apartments. The last building site was closed in 1992, by which time East Germany itself no longer existed.
The East German leadership was proud of its affordable, easy-to-build accommodation. “Anywhere else,” trumpeted the state news agency ADN, “a comparable transformation would have taken centuries.” While historic districts like Prenzlauer Berg were left to fall into disrepair, the regime believed that concrete slab construction represented a genuine solution to housing shortages.
Photos from the time highlight the contrast between the old village of Marzahn with its little church and the vast urban jungle that had sprung up around it. The East German state, often indifferent about historic buildings, carefully preserved the village and even added an old-style windmill that only came into service in 1994.
After German unification, Marzahn’s reputation rapidly deteriorated. Far from the socialist dream, it became a byword for desolate concrete landscapes, unemployment and vacant, derelict apartments. Some of the towers were demolished or reduced in height.
But in recent years the mood has become more upbeat. The population of Marzahn-Hellersdorf has started to grow again. Profiting from Berlin’s citywide boom — and the accompanying housing shortage — the district is the focus for an array of new building projects. In an area now considerably greener than it once was, the concrete tower blocks still house 190,000 people.
Most of them, it seems, are happy to call it home. The Jüttes have never moved away, nor do they plan to.
This article originally appeared in Tagesspiegel. To contact the author: firstname.lastname@example.org