Cut down to size
What to do with a tower block that no one wants to live in? The solution: pull
it down, slice it up, turn it into pleasant family homes. Steve Rose on
Germany's ultimate recycling scheme
Monday November 14, 2005
It looks like many other desirable new homes: a light, spacious two-storey
villa with a cool, geometric simplicity. But architect Hervé Biele's first
built project, in Mehrow, just outside Berlin, is more than it seems. In its
previous life, it was a grim communist tower block in an East German housing
Apart from new fittings and a new coat of render, this is a genuine recycled
house. And it's good news for all concerned. It cost its owners about 30% less
than a conventional house would have. Its basic structure took just seven days
to put up. It saves a considerable amount of energy in construction materials,
and therefore has impeccable environmental credentials. And it has prompted a
rush of inquiries to Biele's small practice.
In addition, Biele's solution could provide relief for what has become a
national headache. While Britain is scratching its head over how and where to
build all the new homes it needs, Germany has the opposite problem: a housing
surplus. There are an estimated 1.3m homes currently standing empty,
predominantly in the east of the country. Better economic conditions in what
used to be West Germany have resulted in an exodus of workers from the former
German Democratic Republic (GDR). As a result, parts of the east resemble
surreal ghost towns made up of elderly citizens, closed-down factories and
deserted apartment blocks. Most of the latter are what is known as
plattenbauen, or "slab houses".
The plattenbauen were the GDR's one-stop solution to its gargantuan housing
problems - the architectural equivalent of the Trabant car. Made from
prefabricated concrete panels, they were churned out fast and cheap in a
handful of blankly functional, almost indistinguishable designs, usually five
to 11 storeys high, arranged in long, relentless blocks. They are so
ubiquitous in the east that it's sometimes difficult to know whether you are
on the outskirts of Leipzig or Dresden. But at the time when central heating
and even internal bathrooms were still a rarity, these plattenbauen were
regarded as highly desirable. People often got married and had children at the
earliest opportunity so they could move out of their parents' homes into their
own new plattenbau.
But when the Berlin wall came down, and the east got to see what standards in
the west were like, nobody wanted to live in a plattenbau any more. In
addition, hundreds of thousands of new "western standard" homes were built in
the east, so nobody had to live in one.
So what to do with them? Plenty of plattenbauen were modernised and are still
occupied, but the government plans to demolish at least 350,000 homes in the
next five years. Until recently, the only course of action was to grind the
concrete to rubble and use it for road building, but projects like Biele's
have put the legacy of the plattenbau in a different light.
"Architecturally, the design of these 11-storey buildings was not so good,"
says Dr Frank Vogdt, deputy director of the Institute for Building
Rehabilitation and Modernisation at the Technical University of Berlin. "But
their technical standards are very good. It was often alleged that these
buildings were badly constructed, but our institute made some tests and proved
that the materials meet international standards no problem. So why not keep
the technology and just change the design?"
Biele worked with Vogdt on a study of these concrete panels, most of which are
less than 20 years old, and concluded that they actually get stronger as they
dry out with time. They built a test house to prove the panels' structural
viability, after which 32-year-old Biele set up his own practice, Conclus,
with his brother Joel, specialising in recycled homes. The materials for the
house in Mehrow came from an 11-storey building in Berlin's Marzahn district,
which the government is paying contractors to dismantle.
"We don't have to pay for the panels - they're garbage," he explains, on site.
"We just come here and say, 'We want this one, this one and this one'; and
then we cut them to shape right here and take them away to put up on site. The
only thing we have to do is take the wallpaper off them." Lying next to the
ruins of a tower block is a stack of fresh panels for Biele's next project, a
two-bedroom house with an adjoining guest flat, 30km away. Each panel is
labelled according to its eventual position as a floor or a wall.
Behind the site, another scarred and vandalised 11-storey behemoth sits empty,
awaiting a similar treatment. "Out of each floor, I can make one small house,
so there's 11 houses there," says Biele. "It's like building out of Lego."
It's not quite as simple as it sounds. For one thing, samples from each panel
have to be sent back to Vogdt's lab to be certified for construction - they
are hoping to be able to certify whole buildings at once in future. For
another, the panels are heavy and difficult to transport and store, which
limits a small-scale operation like Biele's. But other than that, it's a
beautifully cheap and simple process. The panels are so strong that no extra
structure is needed, only bolts and steel ties to hold them together.
To make his next house even more environmentally sound, Biele is adding a
thick insulating layer to the exterior, and putting in triple-glazed windows
and geothermal heating. For 80% of the year, the house will require no
external heating, he claims.
The forms of Biele's houses are necessarily boxy, which could be why the
Mehrow house was likened to the work of the Bauhaus or Frank Lloyd Wright. But
Biele's favourite architect turns out to be Frank Gehry - less for his
curvaceous recent works than for his early creations from cheap, everyday
materials such as corrugated iron and chain-link fencing. "They don't look
like Gehry's work but there's a technological connection," he says. "I try to
build a house that the owner likes. They say, 'I'd like an opening over here,
a window there, a wall there.' They decide everything. Its technological
background is more important to me than what it looks like."
Since the Mehrow house was featured in the German press, Biele has been
inundated with requests, many of them for homes identical to the one he has
built. He is working on another four or five houses for individual clients,
but he imagines much greater possibilities. "This could be a whole new
approach," he says. "I can imagine it could be a way of transforming a whole
area, but right now nobody believes. So it's important to prove that this is a
good way of building."
Biele is by no means the first architect to experiment with the plattenbauen.
An earlier scheme in the town of Cottbus also reconfigured the concrete panels
into smaller detached townhouses, although these were built directly on to the
foundations of the demolished apartment blocks.
On a larger scale, under the German government's plan for urban regeneration
in the east, a variety of strategies are being attempted, with the intention
of generally reducing density and improving quality of life in these declining
towns. Even without rebuilding, the plattenbauen have proved to be extremely
adaptable. On the most basic level, the upper levels of the buildings can be
removed to leave three-storey apartment blocks. This has been the standard
solution for many eastern towns. The government is even in talks to ship the
leftover panels from these alterations across the Baltic to St Petersburg, to
be recycled into brand new Russian plattenbauen.
The town of Leinefelde, where 85% of the population once lived in panel
housing, is being transformed even further. As well as lowering and
modernising some of the buildings, the planners have been demolishing other
blocks and replacing them with parks and open spaces, thus transforming the
whole town with minimal disruption.
Perhaps the most successful example of how to adapt the plattenbau is at
Ahrensfelder Terrassen in Berlin's Marzahn district, just around the corner
from the tower blocks that Biele is recycling. Here, a whole plattenbau estate
has been given a makeover. Under the auspices of the local housing company,
WBG Marzahn, the height of the buildings has been lowered by varying amounts,
to create a less uniform profile. Balconies, canopies and roof terraces have
also been added (not to mention colour), to create a differentiated,
individualised landscape, closer to a collection of townhouses than a
monotonous estate. The interiors of the buildings have also been replanned,
with larger, more open apartments, and modern kitchens and bathrooms. It's
difficult to tell it used to be plattenbau at all.
It is difficult to gauge exactly how citizens of the former East Germany feel
about their architectural heritage today, and how they'll feel in the future.
Against the rejection of all things Soviet, there has been an opposing current
of Ostalgie, or nostalgia for the old days of the GDR. This has been bolstered
by an appreciation of communist style on the part of west Germans who never
had to live there. The grand, orderly Soviet structures of east Berlin, such
as the monumental Stalinist apartments of Karl-Marx-Allee, have been fetching
good prices on the property market. Some intrepid cool-hunters have even
snapped up cheap plattenbau apartments in the city, especially those on upper
floors with commanding views. You can buy a plattenbau card game; Coca-Cola
has shot commercials trading on "plattenbau radical chic"; and in Dresden
there is even an open-air plattenbau museum.
Whatever the environmental benefits of reusing these concrete panels, there
seems to be an emotional one too. Since they have occupied such an indelible
part of German history, perhaps it's appropriate, or even therapeutic, to do
something new with them, rather than just throw them away.