Posted by: facetothewind | June 16, 2010

Saying Goodbye to GDRchitecture

The now defunct GDR (German Democratic Republic) was never known for its fine design. Witness the Trabant automobile (shown above). It was a marvel of East German centralized planning: 0-60 in 21 seconds and a 15 year waiting list. It came without hubcaps and a gas gauge. The body was made of recycled cotton and resins. As the joke goes, the best thing about it was the heater in back so you could keep your hands warm when you push it. It was in production for 30 years with almost no change to its design.

When the wall came down, the Trabant was sent packing as the BMWs, Audis and a torrent of Western European cars flowed over the borders. A few Trabi lovers still cling to their homely little smoke-belching mementos of a socialist past.

As the Trabi went, so goes the architecture of the former regime – what I call GDRchitecture. It was the pragmatic socialist rebellion against the monumental visions of the Nazis, and the unified Germany is quickly erasing it from memory.

And like the Trabant, there are those who are having separation anxieties about their Sputnik era buildings meeting the wrecking ball. I couldn’t sign on to adopt a Trabi, but I have found something lovable about the concrete behemoths of the GDR.

Perhaps because I’m a product of the same era, I find the repeating patterns and simple grid designs appealing. It’s like 3D graph paper.


Begun in 1956, the opera house was a crown jewel of socialist pride. It was an opera house far beyond the scale of its host town. It was built to place the GDR on an international musical maps. It was recently restored to its 1950s tacky perfection complete with restored period lighting fixtures. Thank god someone recognized the value of preserving this time piece from the wrecking ball or worse: updating it.

Notice the Sputnik-inspired chandeliers that hover over the audience like miniature satellites. I found the building to be spacious, comfortable and with excellent acoustics. One curious feature: the box seating on either side. That only 2 boxes exist in the entire house (probably for visiting dignitaries) is certainly a social artifact of Marxism.

So for those of you who say, ICK, I say, look at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York. Look at the New York State Theater. Look at the Hirshhorn Museum and countless thousands of municipal buildings in America. They’re all (arguably tacky) time pieces. The US is a new nation that came of age in the era of tacky. Germany lost many of its architectural treasures in the war and what stands now are the remains of the short-lived GDR. I for one think at least some of it is worth preserving if for no other reason than what is to succeed it will undoubtedly be worse.

(FYI – these are all my photos, except for the Trabant. Thank you Sebastian for loaning your steady head on which to perch my camera for the night photo of the Opera House.)



  1. Oh, those concrete behemoths in Leipzig – how I recall them fondly! So ugly but so monolithic and iconic, especially the ones across from the Gewandhaus. Sadly I was never IN the Gewandhaus so I am grateful for your wonderful photos of it.

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