01. December 2022

How Notions of Authenticity Shape the Treatment of Urban Building Heritage

Which parts of a city's building stock are considered authentic, meaningful and worthy of preservation says a lot about the currently valid values and discursive negotiations of an urban society. The project “Urban Authenticity” explores how the building heritage of European cities was “authenticated” in this way from the 1970s onwards. Through visual and auditory online media, it makes the processes tangible for the general public – for example, with an audio walk through Berlin-Prenzlauer Berg.

Buildings are the dress of a city. They provide orientation, create identity and give urban space a certain atmosphere. Recent debates about the creation of the Humboldt Forum in the reconstructed Berlin Palace, the threatened demolition of the GDR Sports and Recreation Centre (SEZ) in Berlin or the reconstruction of the Potsdam Garnisonkirche (Garrison Church) show how different the ideas of an urban society are about what a city centre should look like and which architectural styles, epochs and layers of time should be represented. In the joint project “Urban Authenticity: Creating, Contesting, and Visualising the Built Heritage in European Cities since the 1970s” (UrbAuth), several research institutions are jointly investigating how certain parts of the built heritage in European urban societies have been “authenticated” and thus given value since the 1970s – through public debates and through the practices of citizens' initiatives, city administrations and other actors. The question of urban authenticity is explored on the basis of four case studies: Szczecin (Poland), Potsdam (GDR), Nuremberg (Federal Republic of Germany) and Marseille (France). All sub-projects are developing a website on authentication processes with a focus on the Berlin-Brandenburg region.

The question of authenticity as an apparently “real”, “pure” and “true” property of things has become an important public discourse in recent decades. Authenticity is understood as discourses and practices that classify certain objects as significant and identify them as worthy of preservation within the framework of a scientific, heritage conservation, but also urban society canon of values. What is perceived as authentic is considered authentic – regardless of whether a building, as in Berlin's central quarter of Nikolaiviertel, has actually stood immovably on the same spot for centuries (Knoblauchhaus), has been artificially recreated as a historical mock-up (Tavern “Zum Nußbaum”) or has been moved to a new location (Ephraim-Palais). Authentication processes therefore reflect discourses in urban societies. They include the demolition of controversial sites, the staging of landmarks, the reconstruction of demolished sites, the disinterested letting them fall into disrepair or the deliberate staging of a historical building with stains and cracks. At the heart of the matter is the question of how a city should look and which building heritage is valued, ignored or disputed in a particular era.

“Urban Authenticity” Online: See, Hear and Walk the Heritage

The Urban Authenticity project makes its research public not only through specialist publications, but also on the internet. The diversity of discussions about building heritage, especially with a view to Berlin-Brandenburg, can be seen and heard online. For example, the Brandenburg Museum Association is showing 27 objects on urban authenticity in Brandenburg in an online exhibition. An interactive website with a map and a thematic presentation of authentication processes in the Berlin-Brandenburg region with further examples from Germany, Poland and France is currently being planned. Its publication is planned for the End of 2022. Two audio walks have also been published on the Guidemate portal (https://guidemate.com) and are available free of charge in the web browser or in the Guidemate app. Users can walk through a district along predefined routes and receive background information on the buildings they encounter along the way, just like an audio guide in a museum.

Original, real, authentic? A search for traces in Berlin-Prenzlauer Berg

The German-language audio walk “Original, echt, authentisch? Eine Spurensuche in Berlin-Prenzlauer Berg“ (Original, real, authentic? A search for traces in Berlin-Prenzlauer Berg) describes what was considered authentic for Prenzlauer Berg or is still considered authentic for the neighbourhood on the basis of six different locations in history from the 19th century to the present. Different facets of authentication become clear during the one-and-a-half-hour neighbourhood tour from Mauerpark to Wasserturmplatz: in Oderberger Strasse, attention is drawn to the role of citizens' initiatives in the GDR for the redevelopment of old buildings, in Kastanienallee 77 to the role of squatters and artists since the 1990s, and in Oderberger Strasse 2 to the gentrification process over the last 30 years. The station on Husemannstraße points to the numerous projects for historical reconstruction in the GDR in the 1980s and the so-called “Judengang” to the history of the Jewish population between exclusion and assimilation. The last station, the water tower, shows the development from an industrial site and early concentration camp during the Nazi era to its current use as a green space. It becomes clear that there are very different facets of authentication and associations with Prenzlauer Berg. What is Prenzlauer Berg: a “Bionade-Biedermeier” trendy neighbourhood, a working-class district, a district for artists and opposition figures, or a middle-class district? What would today's Prenzlauer Berg be summed up in one sound? The rolling of prams, the music in Mauerpark or the sound of the underground in the Eberswalder Straße station?

The IRS researchers Julia Wigger, Daniel Hadwiger and Małgorzata Popiołek-Roßkamp developed the audio walk in cooperation with the association Audiokombinat, the Leibniz Centre for Contemporary History Potsdam (ZZF) and with financial support from the Leibniz Research Network “Historical Authenticity”. The exchange with Leibniz institutes producing other audio walks on historical authenticity in Berlin, Potsdam, Marburg, Frankfurt a. M. and Leipzig as well as the professional support by Audiokombinat facilitated the production in this new format considerably.

The joint project “Urban Authenticity: Creating, Contesting, and Visualising the Built Heritage in European Cities since the 1970s” is funded by the Leibniz Association and runs from 2020 to 2024. It is coordinated by Christoph Bernhardt at the IRS. In addition to the IRS, the Centre for Contemporary History Potsdam (ZZF), the Institute of Contemporary History Munich-Berlin (IfZ), the Herder Institute for Historical Research on East Central Europe (HI) in Marburg and the Brandenburg Museum Association are involved.