Color in a Plattenbau world

The word isn’t found in the Germany dictionary I currently possess, and I have met numerous West Germans unfamiliar with the term… yet, ask any Ossi and they will know. 

 Most people (most Westerners, Ossis don’t count as real people, at least according to Pop culture)  if familiar with what they are, harbor unfavorable opinions of the cheaply made, usually very square and formerly very drab blocks of habitable concrete.

Plattenbau (roughly, ‘flat-building’) is the name for the pre-fab apartment houses typical to the ex-Warsaw Pact countries.

They are derided by comedians and laughed at by tourists, and seen as a sort of metaphor of the cheap and crumbling GDR communism.

Indeed, “Plattenbau” is rarely said lovingly.

The local GDR museum, and every tourist shop in town for that matter, sell ‘cutout and paste,’ paper models of the buildings. Along with the funny little one-stroke GDR-produced automobile, the Trabant, the buildings are looked at by many Germans as ugly, poorly made crap. 

Here in BMW, Bosch, Siemens and Mercedes-land: woe to they who do not engineer things well. Such people are normally seen as inferior.

But these were German built!  The fact embarrasses Wessis, deep down, I think. There is something too loathsome in the way they say the word. Something repressed.

“Plattenbau,” is a sort of curse-word for Wessis.

But Plattenbau were a god-send when built at the time for the people who were lucky enough to move in. The GDR struggled almost its entire history with a lack of housing, until the last few years, when they finally caught up to demand mostly due to the inexpensive and fast construction of Plattenbau. In the East, then, the opinion of the buildings seems split. 

Older folks, who perhaps remember the days before they had new housing, tend to describe the buildings as modern and pratical. The youth tends to say Plattenbau fucking suck. They even ‘rap’ about them (youtube “Plattenbau Ostmob,” or “Mein Block Sido.”)

Anyway, I seem to have contracted a ‘thing’ for the unloved buildings. I’ve spent the last week tramping and tramming around out in the far-burbs of Berlin.


Sure, everybody loves Europe’s cobblestone streets, the classic 19th Century European architecture–all organic and weird–with its stonework and ironwork and all that fancy jazz. And who can hate tree-lined canals, cosy squares, and winding and twisted alleys leading in every direction, of which Berlin has its share? I love that shit, you love that shit, everybody loves that shit.

Europe, at its best, looks as if painted by the fine brush a drunken artist, or whittled by the sharp knife of a skilled but dreamy craftsman.

If so, East Berlin was pulled from the fire and stamped while sparking and hot, beaten with hammers until formed into a rough, but a ‘dialectically materialistic’ designed machine.

I don’t know…there’s something weird about them. Some are crumbling and ready to be torn down…others gleem in the sunlight, freshly remodeled and with new coats of paint (usually, rather bright.) So for whatever reason, I’m on the story. Somewhere out there in Ossi-land I will find the secret to the mystery of these odd pyramids to the gods of ugliness. Stay tuned for more.

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About Andrew Flohr-Spence

Something about the sound and the word. Was a singer/bassist for five years, a German major for five, an English teacher in Germany for another five, then a journalism major in Denver for 5 more, and now I'm back in Berlin (for a while, I intend).
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