The Prefabrication of Utopia, East Berlin

Neu Hohenschönhausen 2019


Familiar as I am with the paradoxes of life in modern industrial housing, that the more humans are packed into concrete compartments the more atomised they become, such spaces are conceived through ideas about modern utopias and socialist dreams. Irrespective of whether it's the banlieues of Paris, or the Stalinist mega-estates of the former Soviet bloc, cast in each and every cubic millimetre of concrete is a strain of utopia. Nowhere was it as bold or as advanced as in the vast estates of the former East German republic.


In the old GDR, over a third of the population lived in large estates symbolised by the so-called plattenbau. Plattenbau literally translates as platte-bau or slab-house. The prefabricated slab-house building program began at Marzahn in the 1970s. A prototype for the generic place of home for everyone. Here was the doctor and the lawyer next door to the factory cleaner and the waiter. Thus 'the slab' die platte was not only a form of architectural construction, but in the GDR epitomised a place of home that transcended class. A plattetopia, the topia of the home that symbolised the marriage of society and state.


It is 2016. I have come to stay in Lichtenberg in East Berlin, a bit further out from the fashionable districts of Kreuzberg and Friedrichshain. After the reunification of 1990, Lichtenberg, unlike Friedrichshain, remained neglected. Over two decades it acquired a notoriety as much for its Far Right skinheads as its anarchist squats. But just as the Far Right moved eastwards, gone are the days of streets of squatted communes. But now Lichtenberg finds itself on the front-line of gentrification as real estate moves in.


I am staying in a neighbourhood on the edge of where the spread of socialist plattebau housing begins. Still undesirable for the gentrification game. I move into an apartment on the 10th floor of an ex-GDR housing block at Ruschestrasse Lichtenberg to be met by views I did not expect. They look straight into the old Stasi headquarters that now serve as temporary housing for Syrian refugees. It's like having a ringside seat wherein I can peer into their privacy.


Spying on refugees in their temporary accommodation in a former secret service HQ is an insight into the contortions and distortions of history. To see their sequestered lives from above is also an understanding of the commonality irrespective of circumstance: that to live in these complexes is to live at the mercy of the "system" – to surrender to forces outside one's control, to mass bureaucracy and to an impersonal scale of administration and planning. My window at Ruschestrasse in one single sight-line beholds the dream and the nightmare of the socialist state.


Ruschestrasse former Stasi HQ Lichtenburg April 2016


East from here, on the other side of the train tracks, are the vast enclaves of slab-housing at Marzahn and Hellersdorf; and just north from Ruschestrasse is Hohenschönhausen, with its Stasi interrogation centres and prison complexes at Alt Hohenschönhausen, surrounded by a sea of slab housing. These spread north to Neu Hohenschönhausen and then onto the housing satellites of Wartenburg and Ahrensfelde. For anyone interested in the GDR legacy of East Berlin, these slab housing sprawls remain as their testimony.



I return again to Lichtenberg in 2019. Settling into my residency at an altbau (old house) studio above the Lichtenberg Museum, I follow the footfall along the signature Berlin overground sewer pipes and under the rail arch to a socialist-era housing estate by Coppistrasse. There is a dis-used bit of green space I enter to find another notion of home – the self-made home of a homeless person. A shed, about three meters by one meter, held together by cast-off wood and rusty nails. Partly hidden from view by trees and shrubs, it symbolises a home free from all bureaucracy: the independent life of the "homeless". I find a laid-out table, duvets, cutlery, books, cds, electronic gadgets, but no one at home.


This "home for the homeless", in its irony of naming and its dishevelled display, has an innocence in its pure use value as shelter. It has nothing to do with home as an embodiment of state regulation or private property. The dissociating of the home from property is to be found in the utopia of Thomas More. More's story of utopia as a fictional island of fulfilling and fully human life is made possible only by the absence of any conception of property, private property. As he tells his fellow utopians, “I must freely own that as long as there is any property, and while money is the standard of all other things, I cannot think that a nation can be governed either justly or happily: not justly, because the best things will fall to the share of the worst men; nor happily, because all things will be divided among a few (and even these are not in all respects happy), the rest being left to be absolutely miserable.


Coppistrasse Lichtenburg December 2020

The abolition of property is equally at the foundation of the modern socialist utopia. But here the gulf between the idea and the reality of utopia comes out into the open. They may be in stark contrast to one another, but the self-made shed and the concrete slab housing overlooking it both stand against the notion of home as private property that arose from an "original sin". In Capital Volume 1 (1867) Marx spelt out this correlation of sin and accumulation which in modern times turned the commonwealth into property and the home into a commodity. In his words, “.. primitive accumulation plays in political economy about the same part as original sin in theology. Adam bit the apple, and thereupon sin fell on the human race.” Comparably both the homes here are symbols of escape from this sin.


I regularly visit the empty shed that is a reminder of modernity's original sin now sitting outside the regulated plattenbau tenements. But the shed remains empty even over the Christmas week. I grow bolder in my use of the spaces around this isolated shed, appropriating the deserted spaces with its throwaway debris as a workspace for my ideas about the home in modern society. These ideas have become split between the notions of home I see here that draw from the conflicted place of home in my own life.


The socialist utopia assures everyone the right to a home, a home de-commodified but its regime of state regulation compromises the right to space, right to the city. Against the regime of regulation is the renunciation, the escape - here to be seen in the efforts of those who still forage for their home outside the law. The (unoccupied) shed has a different claim to space by a life that lives outside regulation with its own freedom for self-making its space. Between these homes lies the dilemma that haunts the making of any utopian project.


Translated into modern society and the socialist state, the dilemma consumes the work of the urban sociologist Henri Lefebvre in his theories on the failure of state socialism to connect everyday life and space. In his book The Production of Space (1974) Lefebvre asks, “has state socialism produced a space of its own? The question is not unimportant. A revolution that does not produce a new space has not realized its full potential; indeed it has failed in that it has not changed life itself, but has merely changed ideological superstructures, institutions or political apparatuses.


For Lefebvre, the revolution of modern space in its inception already bears the seeds of its assured demise. Nowhere is this to be read more forcefully than in the concrete banlieues of modern housing of Lefebvre's Paris that become the stage-set for cult nihilistic films with the brutality of life portrayed in Mathieu Kassovitz's la Haine (1995).


Lefebvre sees the proclaimed transparency of modern space as duplicitous. He writes of it as an “impersonal pseudo-subject… concealed by its illusory transparency - the real 'subject', namely state (political) power.” Further, “Within this space, and on the subject of this space, everything is openly declared: everything is said or written. Save for the fact that there is very little to be said - and even less to be 'lived', for lived experience is crushed, vanquished by what is 'conceived of'.” And here it is the socialist state as the sole arbiter of space and lived life that comes to symbolise the repression transparently. The GDR as its exemplar welded the state apparatus and space together. Seen from the outside, the “other side” as in the lyrics of David Bowie's We Can Be Heroes (1977), it was where all the shame fell – on its side of the Wall.


The fall of the Wall gave the licence to take a wrecking ball to its system of repression so it could never come back. But there would begin the unwritten chapter of the peaceful revolution that hides another repression through the Oedipal violence of one system killing another. The dissolution of one state by another, the extinction of one order by another. Die Wende as not so much an unification but a dissolution.


With the formal reunification of Germany in 1990, a new era for modern space emerges as the market usurps the state. A regime of space that dominates life without exclusion, without competition. But the greater its domination, the more the need for reminders of the fallen socialist state, totalitarianism, secret police, the reduction of life to drab utility and so on. These become alibis to enclose life entirely in its web. To enable us to read the innocence and neutrality of a ‘peaceful revolution’ we call die Wende.

Borner Strasse December 2019


With this in mind, I return to Neu Hohenschönhausen to make a direct insitu intervention on the banks of blank prefab walls that the plattenbau offers. I am quickly reminded that I am an invader. A resident appears out of one apartment to interrupt me. He doesn't understand that my work which reads 'Realität ist Ideologie neutral' against the backdrop of neutral grey slab concrete has only the one purpose: to be a photographic record of itself. In an hour the work as a momentary intervention is gone from sight. The intervention was only an exercise for other questions to emerge.
These questions on modern space and socialist space come as much in the empty time of journeys on the S-bahn trains and trams commuting between these vast housing estates. Staring out of moving windows that blur the experience of time we call boredom. I wonder if J.G. Ballard, author of novels such as Concrete Island (1974) and High-Rise (1975) ever came to East Berlin. Ballard left an unrelenting narrative examination of the modern concrete environment; and yet there is little in his writing on socialist space other than the odd interview as in The London Magazine (2003) on the Soviet era. “The end of social utopia? Yes...” he says, to follow with his reading on its totalitarian dystopia.


The politics of Ballardian space lie entirely in capitalism; in Ballard’s writing, capitalism is the sole author of modern space and it is also the psychopathology that will destroy it. Through Ballard, concrete and capitalist consumption fuse in a destructive spiral. The “vertical zoo” of Hi-Rise is “environment built, not for man, but for man's absence”. Ballard gives up on any possible redemption of modern space. His future vision, as he put it in his 1962 essay, “Which Way to Inner Space?” lay in the "inner space-suit" that explores our inner horizon in a new genre of sci-fi. This emphasis on inner psychological space was also famously elaborated in a 1968 interview for the German TV channel Munich Round Up:
I define inner space as an imaginary realm in which on the one hand the outer world of reality, and on the other the inner world of the mind, meet and merge.


On the Berlin S75 train to Wartenberg or the S7 to Ahrensfelde, I ponder on the merger of the inner and outer worlds through a blurred industrial landscape that flies past. I recall the ideas of the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan and his much adopted formula of the imaginary, the symbolic, and the real. The triadic structure by which the inner world grows and entwines with the world outside, and vice versa. The entwining is three-fold; from the imaginary as we seek our own mirror-image in what lies beyond us, to the symbolic by which we create a sense of unity, to the real which is what exists irrespective of us, outside of our representation. The imaginary, the symbolic, the real - each as a word may feel almost self-explanatory but the way our sense of self and the space we are in come together depends on their convergence. And whether that fulfils or fragments us.


Out of the suburban ride and into the vast estates at Neu Hohenschönhausen, the rhythm of the body changes even in the softened landscaping of managed social spaces in these industrial environments. We become conditioned in time but we know the mental change that comes when the sanctuary of the home shuts out the form of commonality that modern space offers us - corridors, lifts and stairwells, and beyond them the spaces with no sense of belonging. Regimented lawns, hedgerows maintained by the invisible hand of bureaucratic management. If this describes the quintessential modern space that drains the sense of self, Neu Hohenschönhausen is a graphic tableaux of replanting what the modern removes. At one level this is done by the officially sanctioned giant murals that transport our minds out to some seascape or bucolic imagining. And more pervasively all around by a scattering of escapist images - on refuse bins, post boxes and so on.


The old church steeple, the picture-book cottage, the fairy tale castle tower reappear. Ballard writes that concrete has its own consciousness but here is a contest with an appeal to heimat, the German concept of home through the tradition that modernity foreclosed. And there are other contests of space that overlap here in these estates. With the work of anonymous taggers. The tags are signatures, hidden transcripts comprehensible only to their authors. Marks of self-recognition that allow them to claim another notion of space in this place.


Ahrenshooper Strasse January 2020


These overlapping layers tell us that space is not only given, it is always also to be made. Lefebvre claims that, “each living body is space and has its space: it produces itself in space and it also produces that space”. This is so even in the case of modern space, where the real may have cut the hidden strings of the imaginary that connect us; or displaced the symbols that ground us. But by means that are not always recognised, we reclaim space. Space is returned to life and without our knowing it, we prevent the psychosis that is Ballardian modern space. We don't redeem modern space but yet we save it. We ward off, to use a Freudian analogy, the "sensory castration" modern space has forced upon us using the canny and uncanny.


In his classic essay “The 'Uncanny'” (1919), Freud contrasts the canny or heimlich – the “familiar”, “native”, “belonging to the home” - with the unheimlich, the uncanny, unhomely, that ultimately “belongs to all that is terrible”. We need these to preserve our  imaginaries in the concrete environment. Thus here, the Hans Christian Anderson cottage, the mad King Ludwig castle, like the gnome in a suburban garden, take their place along with the scrawls of taggers. Out of modern ennui come the war games of the imaginary against the real. Games between the seen and the unseen, games by which what is unheimlich comes to be heimlich and vice versa.


The more I look, the more I find. Freud refers to “what is supposed to be kept secret but is inadvertently revealed”. What is inadvertently revealed, can be traced and followed. Picture to picture, sign to sign.  What I follow I mark discretely and tag onto my Googlemaps. This way I can find it again to claim it as my own. An exercise of seeking and finding. An exercise that leads me into the corners of Hohenschönhausen, Alt- and Neu-, and onto Arendsfelde, and Wartenburg.


On a bright sunny midday in Neu Hohenschönhausen, I am lingering at a corner of Ribnitzer Strasse by an electrical box marked by a street tagger TRN. Whilst quietly tagging the tag for my own purposes an elderly man stops to talk. He introduces himself as Uwe (pronouncing it as 'eu-we' not the German 'oo-vay'). “That's the English way”, he says for my consideration as he explains he had worked briefly in Scotland, in the North Sea industry. Uwe has lived on the estate for almost 40 years since it was built in 1984 (as we can see from the old newsreels of Hohenschönhausen). With his girlfriend in West Berlin, his is a story of love across the Wall. He recounts the time when she was given a permit to see him, and vice versa; of how they compared his small apartment dis-favourably to her altbau West Berlin flat. Yet after the Wall fell she moved in with him at Neu Hohenschönhausen only to die tragically before her years.


Within Uwe's life story I find narrations of inversions I was seeking to resonate with the greater tragedy of inversions in a making and unmaking of socialist space. Of unfulfilled hope. Aborted reality. The tragedy of it all to be laid now entirely at the door of a collapsed socialist era.
But if the symbol of its collapse, the Wall die Mauer officially ceased to exist in 1991, Germans began to speak of the Mauer im Kopf - the Wall in the head, the wall that remains, the wall that still separates the eastern (ossie) from the western (wessie). Of course, it referred more to the head in the East, the complaining jammer ossie. If the metaphor of the Wall wanes with time and a new generation, it now stands for what still has to be repressed. The twentieth century socialist project.
In the re-cladding of the plattenbau also lies a broken thread of narrative. To draw on Freud's essay, the “unheimliches house” of the plattenbau is now to be estranged from its own history in a process of forgetting. But these vast tracts of concrete are somehow resistant to the forgetting. The wall of die platte is the Wall that still stands, the wall that separates itself from the Berlin that swallowed other GDR neighbourhoods like Prenzlauer Berg and now claims Lichtenberg, street by street.


It may be that home here is no longer the home of society at large, the home of the doctor next door to the waiter and so on. Instead, the reunification has made this the space of the left-behinds, overwhelmingly working class Germans alongside those who have no choice in where they are asked to live. The refugees and migrants. Neu Hohenschönhausen though is no ghetto, it epitomises the managed order of the managed revolution. Everything transitions according to plan. However here is the place where the autopsy of die Wende remains open, a space still apart from what lies across the train lines to the west. By its separation, an impasse hangs upon it in a transitory hold between a past that must be banished and a future yet to come. The present is a compromise of history.


In this compromise of history, I follow Lefebvre's injunction to make my own space in its utopian mission. My understanding of it has changed in the course of my walks and rides and my countless interventions that no-one will notice. But through them I can connect my experiences and encounters for a place of my own imagination: Plattetopia. Not as nostalgia for the socialist utopia that produced the platte-bau as the home for all, but as a deeper search into the genesis of modern space and the question of home in it.


My walks are an investigative exploration of these to encompass both the utopian mission and its abduction by capital and property. It has fallen to me to gather the evidence in the everyday that lies outside the prescribed narrations of history.


On my last day in Lichtenberg, I go back to the self-made shed at Coppistrasse where I started, but the state bureaucracy has caught up with it. Perhaps as a portent, I find it removed without a trace. Perfectly in a way such that it had never existed at all.


Extracted from publication Socialist Amnesia 2023 Postscript edition
A prior version of Plattetopia was first published at Popmatters.