Towards Open Architecture

June 6, 2011

Simon Scheithauer shows how “the case of Weimar vividly illustrates how planning can surface opposing views. Conflicting views, dispute and controversy in this context are productive and a precondition of progress.”


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© Archiv Moderne, N/63/58.1.

In 1967, the city of Weimar announced a competition in order to re-organize its center. The city itself–at times home to many famous writers, painters, musicians, and philosophers, founding place of the first German republic and cradle of the Bauhaus–was and still is considered to be a kind of “nucleus” to German culture. The municipalities’ undertaking was part of a broader approach by Eastern Germany’s government–ruled by the Socialist Unity Party (SED)–to “reconstruct” its cities along with the intended construction of a communist society.1 The general concept of a socialist city is a rather diffuse construct, which is especially true for the late 1960s. Whereas in the early postwar period, architecture was subject to the dogma of national tradition, along with the end of Stalinism a paradigm shift led to a more functionalist architecture.2 From the beginning of the decade, the SED government undertook a major effort, which the construction of the Berlin Wall in 1961 was only the most visible part of, to obviate Eastern Germany’s economic decline. On other levels, officials were desperately trying to introduce an (at least almost) realistic relation between monetary and actual value of production. The government knew it could not meet the people’s needs, especially sufficient housing space, unless it would promote industrial methods of building. In the course of this development socialist architecture lost its distinctive features or, more precisely, they were changed from aesthetical to more ideological ones. By the end of the 1960s, with the events today known as Prague Spring,3 the attempts of reform in Eastern Europe and the GDR came to an end. Today, what used to be “behind” the Iron Curtain often appears as some obscure world of political oppression, economic incompetence and everyday oddity. Phrasing it “behind the wall” of course implicates a perspective from either the western side of it, or in my case, from a temporally distant position. More important though, contemporary views often contain the notion of something unknown, alien, of something that is different from what we are dealing with today.

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Municipal Planning Department: Rekonstruktionsplan, 1967. © Stadtarchiv Weimar, 13/1671 Bd. 1.

As the architect and historian Holger Barth states, examination of competitions allows much more information about the prevailing views on architecture and the city than the actual practice, because competitions were much more driven by idealism.4 This is certainly true in regards to the plannings undertaken in Weimar at this time, which were ambitious regardless of the economic capacity–or lack thereof. They had been preceded by a general town planning scheme, which already addressed many aspects of the competitions brief. The brief then included an eight-pages program of all kinds of functions; thousands of square meters to further model the city as a major cultural centre of the country. The existing city was segmented into different parts that were meant to be designed according to their urbanistic role, whereas the transportation network was to be equipped in a way that would meet “modern requirements.” At that time, this apparently meant to separate different types of traffic (motored, pedestrian etc.) and having a four-lane bypass road to border around the centre on three sides. At the same time, the existing morphology of the urban fabric was proclaimed the basis of future planning. The historic centre was to be preserved, but since large parts of it were defined as “architecturally marginal,” they were excluded from protection. It is rather easy to unmask this technocratic lingo as the pure functionalist ideology it represents. The dogmatic approach is most obvious on closer inspection of the data used for argumentation by the city officials: Traffic counts, for example, indicated 3,000 cars passing one of the major junctions in a period of 16 hours. Needless to say, that means a little more than three cars per minute, which is why the drawn conclusion to extend the street to four lanes must be irritating. This, of course, is a reason for distrusting the officials claiming to follow actual necessities. This megalomanic planning continues in the competitions’ actual submissions.

The winning proposal is characterized by a major bypass-road paling the centre’s western side. The design mostly follows the preferences verbalized in the brief. Two sets of up to twenty stories-high buildings are positioned at the two main intersections, which these so-called “dominants” were supposed to mark. In the centre, major parts of the existing urban fabric were completely destroyed, to be rebuilt with large sets of buildings providing functions according to the program. This was to become the basis of future city development, paradoxically claiming to preserve the “historic milieu” of the city. I am not at all condemning the architects for being radical, brutal or not sensitive enough. It is an unalterable truth that destruction sometimes is a precondition of the new and there always is a certain bravery in following a vision, but it is also critical not to always be doubtful. Today, architects of that time appear to be commonly viewed as barbaric. Without question this is an awful commonplace, since there are many architects whose work is widely appreciated today–by other architects. Still, in Germany and Europe we are today seeing large-scale approaches to rebuild what, in the eyes of large parts of the population, has gone lost–by removing what exists today instead.

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VEB Hochbauprojektierung Erfurt: Winning proposal, 1968, photography of the model. © Stadtarchiv Weimar, 13/1671 Bd. 2.

For the case of Weimar, these discussions are obsolete. Even though further planning was undertaken subsequent to the 1967/68 competition, there was no actual impact on the city’s morphology. First of all, the intended massive destruction of the urban heritage was not without consequences, but already criticized even at that time. The president of Nationale Forschungs-und Gedenkstätten der klassischen deutschen Literatur in Weimar, Helmut Holtzhauer, published a scathing criticism on the competition results directly after its end.5 He especially opposed the idea of excluding large areas of the city from protection by marginalizing its value. He exposed the brief’s contradictory goals to take the existing city as a basis for future planning and at the same time demolish large parts of it. He was the only one openly criticizing the plannings, but he admittedly was one of the few persons whose status allowed public criticism. Without question, there were differing definitions of something being of cultural value, which must necessarily lead to harsh dispute. Another reason that must not be underestimated is that the phase subsequent to the competition coincided with another paradigm shift in the economy and in architecture, as well as building in general. The national housing construction program of 1973 meant to use precast concrete slabs to build millions of apartments in the open countryside next to the city, leaving the inner cities more or less untouched. The developments could not be implemented to the existing city, because the prefabricated elements could only be put together perpendicularly. Therefore, buildings could not be just filled into empty plots, but whole neighborhoods would have had to be cleared out first, which would have been much more costly. The socialist economy did just not have sufficient capacities to carry out the ambitious plannings undertaken in Weimar and elsewhere. Looking at the carefully restored façades of Weimar’s inner city, this is forgettable happenstance, and even though it was merely a coincidence, it should be a warning to us how reality can be fatally misjudged.

The case of Weimar vividly illustrates how planning can surface opposing views. Architect and writer Jesko Fezer in this sense describes architecture as a “cultural method of negotiation.” He argues that architecture is a tool to articulate, to uncover and discuss problems rather than solving them. For him it therefore is necessary to accept conflicts as proliferous and to value buildings as crossing points of contradictory discourses of reality.6 In Weimar, the competition brought up the question of whether the existing city should be preserved or rather replaced by something else. The conflicts between present and future are always there, but in moments like the one described, they appear to surface in order to be dealt with. Architecture therefore is not only a “room for possibilities” (Möglichkeitsraum), but first of all a “room of negotiation” on what the result should be like,7 on what the preconditions are, on nothing less than how life should be. Conflicting views, dispute and controversy in this context are productive and a precondition of progress. Still, it is no guarantee for a “solution” to turn out right, because the very idea of an “architectural solution,” which implies a problem solving by means of design, is part of the problem. Architecture does not solve any problem on its own; if anything, it states a new problem itself. In this sense architecture, as a culminating point of countless aspects of social life, does not end at the property line and does not finish at completion of a project. Architecture should therefore not be understood as evolving linearly towards a finished and hence closed “solution,” but rather as a discursive process for the creation of what Umberto Eco calls an “open work.”8

1 In Socialist parlance, “reconstruction” in this context is used as “remodeling to increase benefits.”
2 In 1954, Nikita Khrushchev, First Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, declared a turnabout towards an industrialized way of building. The paradigm shift started having influence on the GRD after the first national congress on building in 1955.
3 The term describes the event in Czechoslovakia at the beginning of 1968, when reformist Alexander Dubcek came to power. In April, the Warsaw Pact invaded the country in order to halt the liberalization of the country.
4 Holger Barth, Grammatik Sozialisticher Architekturen (Berlin: Reimer, 2001), 31.
5 Helmut Holtzhauer, “Weimar – Kritik eines städtebaulichen Ideenwettbewerbs,” Deutsche Architektur 3 (1969): 186. – The institution mentioned was in charge of the all research, exhibiting and memorizing facilities of the city of Weimar. It was later turned into the Klassik Stiftung Weimar.
6 Jesko Fezer, “Entwurfsproblem Wirklichkeit,” HORIZONTE 3 (2011): 49.
7 While the latter term was coined by Jesko Fezer (cf. Note 6), the former concept was developed by Robert Musil in his masterwork The Man Without Qualities.
8 Umberto Eco, The Open Work (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1989).