Discovering the past

Kai Uwe Schierz

I cannot claim to be a native of Thuringia or even Erfurt, but I have been familiar with the face of the city of Erfurt for a long time -- for about 17 years to be precise. When I came here to study in 1983, I experienced the contrast between the dusty-gray, but also small-parceled and familiar center of the old city that only received a few coats of color through renovations in its attractive pedestrian area, and the modern, but uniform "sleeping-cities" [Schlafstadte, residential areas in the outskirts were working people live] in the concrete housing projects [Plattenbausiedlungen] situated around the historical center.

In these years, apartments were distributed restrictively. One had to show a "living permit" [Wohnberechtigungsschein] to be allotted living space in the city. This offered little choice, one had to take what had been allotted. As I only studied in Erfurt, I did not qualify for a permit of course, and lived in a dormitory until the opportunity for a half-legal share in an apartment in the historical center which needed repair, but also had a romantic feel to it, arose. The romantic appeal was reminiscent of a rustic outdoor vacation -- the electrical wiring dated from the beginning of the century, the toilets where half a flight down and shared with the other neighbors, without even a flushing system. In addition there were badly heatable coal ovens, windows that did not shut tight and wooden floors with squeaking noises. While these particular living spaces were airy and appealing in the summer, winter brought about the less enjoyable sides: freezing water pipes, continuous carrying of coal supplies, hair that smelled of sulfur when walking about in the neighborhood streets in winter. But in the enclosed environment of the dilapidated historical center, where many young newcomers settled next to old-time inhabitants, a neighborhood community was possible (and a necessity) -- a quality which stood in stark contrast to the anonymous pace of life in the concrete housing projects.

In the old city quarters developed the small niches typical of life in the GDR, niches based on personal relationships and a closely-knit familiar environment. Only rarely did these spaces open up to the world outside, meaning also into the world. It was not only a small, but somehow small-parceled, Biedermeier-world. Many of the houses in the historic center of Erfurt had been officially declared unfit living space already in the 80s, but did not dilapidate as quickly as expected (and planned), because the inhabitants were applying constant damage-control. During summer thunderstorms for example we would regularly climb up to the attic to adjust zinc-tubs and plastic containers under the leaking spots in the ceiling. During winter days, candles placed in jars were often used to prevent the pipes in the hallway and in the basement from freezing.

But this rustic idyll was endangered. For one, there were widely planned construction projects that crept in from the edges into the increasingly dilapidated historical center, whereby the officially so-called "building substance unworthy to be preserved" was simply allowed to be torn down and replaced by "socialist construction projects" stretching from Johannesplatz across Krämpferstrasse through Huttenplatz. These "socialist construction projects" consisted mainly of concrete which was pieced together in squares, promising to allow quick and cheap building for the seemingly never ending need for living space in the GDR. Where before maybe fifty or a hundred neighbors lived closely together under more or less difficult circumstances now the newly erected "living units" were counted by the thousands.

The socialist ideal of modern and comfortable living for everyone began to turn against the city's living organism. Slowly but surely it ate up from the periphery the structures which evolved through centuries, putting in their place stereotypical housing-machines that were however popular with young families with children. For a few amenities--bath with hot running water, central heating in all rooms -- more than a few people agreed to the tearing down of the old. The colloquial expression "worker-lockers" for all these concrete block building sprouting up pointed as much to an alert criticism for these blessings of centralist planning as to the domineering technical results of the engineers of a one-sided architectural modern. Meanwhile the Socialist city planners had enough time to sacrifice entire streets from founders' times for the sake of a city fit for car traffic, and to clear out the historic center by maintaining low rents (even in 1989 on the level of about 1935) and permanent building deficits (concerning all building supplies).

When in 1988 plans were made to lead a four-lane highway right through the historic Andreas district in Erfurt and construction was already beginning to tear down some old half-timbered houses, quite a few people gathered their courage and protested against the plans. In the shelter of sacrosanct space near the site of conflict, in the Michaeliskirche, an exhibit created by active citizens documented the level of planned destruction, and signatures were collected against the plans. Even though a group of students who univocally signed against the road was threatened to be expelled from university, it was the end's beginning, and the fall of '89 [when Germany was reunified] was already foreshadowed.

A citizen's initiative formed for the conservation of the historic inner city: an activity typical for Erfurt in this "heated fall" was a human chain around the historical inner city to emphatically highlight this architectural heritage, which constituted the citizens' unison beyond party-memberships. Today, the profit oriented planning by investors stands in contrast to the physical consistency of century-old city centralism, just as the capitalist economy contrast with the former planned centralism. In the current quarrel between citizen's initiative and city administration regarding new modern developments in the historical inner city this specific development and its political implications should be taken into account.

Already in 1990, however, West German federal states such as Hessonia or Rheinland-Pfalz gave generous emergency redevelopment support for the roofs of old houses to save some of the most endangered buildings. To clarify ownership and claims of reassignment by the former owners of the properties was an often complicated process and took a long time, thus building redevelopment proceeded slowly. The development has a certain irony to it: The less well-off former residents of the dilapidated quarters most often did not return to the old buildings, carefully restored according to historical restoration guidelines. They now had to move out into the less attractive concrete housing projects in the city's periphery. While during the GDR era living space was a much traded and dealt "rare-goods", the city now has numerous empty apartments, both luxurious and less attractive ones. The world has indeed changed since the fall of '89.

The restoration of old buildings after 1990 brought about quite a few surprises: many houses turned out to be much older than their facades led to expect. While before we inhabited them without need or possibility to really explore their history, now a time of rediscovery and research began. On construction sites, urban archeologists dug up old cellar-vaults and foundation walls, and quite often under many layers of plaster, wallpaper and paint reappeared real treasures of historical architecture. The newly instituted annual "Day of the Open Monument" in the beginning of September counts among the city's events that draws the largest number of visitors. Many citizens show an interest in the construction sites or otherwise not accessible buildings that are open on this day. I am among those who venture around construction areas and I am time and again impressed by places bearing witness to their long history. With its secular building structure, which goes back to the 13th or even 12th century and a mostly preserved medieval scheme of streets Erfurt is among the few large cities in Germany that was (comparatively) little destroyed during the Second World War. New dendrochronological datings of old wooden panels were noted with amazement even among historical preservationists: 1385, 1327, 1267, 1220, 1152 -- historical consciousness getting high on numbers.

The former showcase objects of socialist living, the concrete housing projects around and sometimes reaching into the historical areas, are for the most part no longer attractive. Asked about them, many (and I include myself) feel uneasy as if caught red handed. Or one makes excuses for oneself (and for the times these structures were built in) by pointing out that these were compromises born out of the circumstances. While picture postcards from the 80's proudly featured historical sights and new housing structures side by side to show off progressiveness, this facet of modernity has completely disappeared from the tourist view of the city. To prevent social ghettoization of the concrete housing projects, since the mid-90s many housing agencies began costly reconstructions; concrete facades were either covered or newly painted. In addition, residents were offered inexpensive buying options on their apartments, but few offers were taken; the number of uninhabited residential space at the city's outskirts is continuously increasing. What had been previously officially praised now turns out to be a product of economic deficits and does not comply with western standards. These blocks, that Mikael Levin in his Erfurt photographs contrasts often with the historical buildings, also represent GDR-society's vision of a future that now only few, so called ever-yesterdays, would like to identify with. In the 40 years of its existence, "real existing socialism" [real existierender Sozialismus] presented itself so desperately sure of its victory. Those living it experienced the contradiction between proclaimed vision and reality as so grave that today there is hardly anyone drawing on the social idea from which it all originally emerged. But how much do architectural promises of these forty years count against the almost one thousand year old witnesses of a grand urban history?

One might come close to thinking that the city of Erfurt would like to cancel its history of the past forty years, or at least marginalise it in the light of its rich, transmitted older history. Drawing large crowds, tourism experts stage an idealized presentation of this history. Against this backdrop, the awareness of one's own reality as the result of a modernity one feels disappointed by dims. The outcome is the paradoxical conclusion that in our attempt to redefine the present we call upon the oldest available time, the medieval age. I am convinced though that it did not only consist of pottery-feasts, clavichord-music and knights' tournaments. The intellectual inheritance of Meister Eckhart who went out into the world at the threshold of the 13th to the 14th century has not yet been sufficiently explored. An in-depth view of history can however only emerge from the awareness of the present. In this respect, Erfurt is presently rediscovering its past, while the latest history is yet waiting to be discovered.

Kai Uwe Schierz


Kai Uwe Schierz was born in Bischofswerda, Saxonia, in 1964. Educated in cultural studies, he is executive curator of the Kunsthalle Erfurt since 1996.

(Translation by Anja Grothe)