01. December | 2022

Urban Heritage Groups on Facebook: Virtual Spaces for Civic Discourse

Large housing estates exist in both East and West Germany. However, their starting points, their lines of development and the social composition of their inhabitants differ significantly in both parts of the country. Whereas large housing estates in West Germany were from the beginning focal points of immigration and inhabited by predominantly low-income households, the “Plattenbau areas” in East Germany underwent a dramatic transformation: From popular and socially largely homogeneous residential neighbourhoods to places of out-migration and finally to centres of renewed immigration. In this process of change, the socio-spatial inequality in East German cities overtook that in West German cities.

In spring 2023, after four years of research, the joint project “Urban Turnaround” will come to an end. In it, civic mobilisation against decay took on a key role, a self-empowerment that preceded the upheaval of 1989 and made it a practical reality in many places, for example by taking over houses. At that time, many people would have been happy to have a platform for the exchange of information and opinions like the online forums offer today. However, experience from contemporary dictatorships shows that even if the technology had been available in principle, it would have been difficult and risky to circulate critical contributions back then.

Today, Facebook groups articulate different perspectives on heritage conservation, urban history and urban design. On the one hand, they enrich the political discourse and on the other hand, they can also form a starting point for the concept of Citizen Science. In addition to forums that deal with questions of the cityscape and its aesthetics on a very broad level, there are those with a thematically more sharply defined focus. In the ones presented here, the author of the article is reading and sometimes commenting.

GDR Architecture as a Building Heritage Worth Preserving

Among the groups that take a friendly approach to the architectural testimonies of socialism in East Germany, three loosely connected forums stand out. They share the claim of bringing together the centre of society and the professional world, whereby the focal points vary, but the topics and actors overlap. All of them are concerned with making the design qualities and potential of GDR architecture visible, as well as with possible interventions in the face of imminent demolitions. Current publications and events are also announced. “Ostmodern.org, the Network for Post-War Modern Architecture" has over 2,600 followers. The forum grew out of an association formed in Dresden in 2006 for the preservation of “significant buildings, building-related works of art, open space designs and urban ensembles” from the GDR era. The aim is to found as many regional groups as possible in order to work locally in the interest of preservation.

The “FG OSTMODERN” (OSTMODERN Research Group) is somewhat broader in content, but smaller in number with just under 1,400 members. It sees itself as “a platform for networking all activists who deal with the topics of urban development, architecture and architecture-related art in the GDR”. The spectrum ranges from contributions from research contexts to ambitious lay interest to nostalgia. The “Philokartie” series by Ben Kaden and Louis Volkmann, an annotated presentation of architectural postcards, received a strong response here: it was not only the GDR buildings, ensembles and works of art in public space immortalised on them that captivated, but also the concise explanations of motifs, authorships and history of use.

This genre of a mass-distributed visual document hinted at a perspective that gave Kaden, as a library scholar, the idea of interweaving the field of lay research in the online public sphere with the recording of pictorial evidence by professionals in the archives. To this end, he developed a conceptual study in coordination with the Scientific Collections of the IRS to tap into the wealth of knowledge of the residents – a future practice that should benefit the differentiated evaluation of the peasant heritage. More sustained efforts will be needed to make such interaction fruitful. Finally, reference should be made to the group “Magistrale und Komplex – Städtebau, Kunst, Architektur im (Post)Sozialismus” (Magistrale and Complex – Urbanism, Art, Architecture in (Post)Socialism), which, with just under 190 members, is once again more strongly oriented towards a scientific community interested in the topic. Here the perspective expands in an interdisciplinary fashion beyond the borders of the GDR.

The Pre-Modern Urban Ideal

As a counterpart to the previous groups and with reference to the whole of Germany, the page “Stadtbild Deutschland e. V. – neue klassische Architektur & Rekonstruktion” (Cityscape Germany – New Classical Architecture & Reconstruction) represents perspective critical towards modernity, which has a great impact on the current building scene. The postings are currently followed by over 2,300 interested people. By seeing themselves as committed to “urban repair and building culture, reconstruction and new classical architecture”, the examples of conservative urban architecture shown (often presented by the designing offices themselves), which are often surrounded by a discreetly elitist aura, are placed in the line of tradition of the socially committed movement of the 1970s. Almost unanimously, post-war modernism is seen as “soulless” and “failed”. Instead, closed spatial solutions based on the pre-war state and historically appealing new building façades appear as exemplary. The ideal is considered to be the most exact possible reconstruction of existing buildings or at least their suggestion.

As in the cases of the Neumarkt in Dresden and the Garnisonkirche in Potsdam, buildings of GDR modernism are seen here as a particularly unpleasant obstacle to a cityscape full of character. The mention of Ulrich Müther's shell buildings in a survey of appreciative modern architecture that seems almost dissident at this point is an original exception. However, the façade of the Dresden Semper Opera, rebuilt in the late GDR era, appears on the header under the group's motto “Committed to Beauty”. Probably under the impression of the expert debate on “right-wing spaces” (in urban reconstruction), the administrators in 2020 made it clear that there was no place for extremism in the group, indeed that any politicisation of the discussion was to be refrained from. Wherever impressive testimonies of historical buildings are found, and especially when their decay is deplored – as in the case of many half-timbered houses in the town of Alsfeld in the state of Hesse – a consensus is reached with otherwise reconstruction-sceptical fence-sitters of this forum.

City-Based Forums: The Example of Dessau

Those interested in the processes within a local framework will find themselves in forums on the cultural and architectural history of individual cities. Sometimes – but not always – they are focused on specific eras. Many of the posters build on an in-depth knowledge of their home region. In quick succession, visual finds from private collections, internet auctions or publications appear (which does not always make the question of rights easy). The Facebook group “Dessau Through the Ages” is particularly interesting as an example.

The Mulde city in the former small state of Anhalt, princely residence, centre of the “Garden Kingdom” around 1800, Junkers' and Bauhaus city was a centre of the Garden City movement since the 1920s. During National Socialism, Dessau became the capital of the Gau and a production site for Zyklon B. 85 % of Dessau's centre was destroyed in the Second World War, rebuilt under socialist rule and comprehensively de-industrialised after the fall of communism. Thus Dessau combines the heights and abysses of German history like few other places. The wealth of historical testimonies, contrasted by the demolition of the remaining historical substance in the years before and after reunification, creates a collective memory that provides material for lively discussions. Younger people and newcomers in particular learn more about their place of residence for the first time. The fact that many current problems of urban development and thus of the economy and politics come up requires skill on the part of the administrators in moderating without prematurely excluding. As a station of the “Stadtwende” exhibition, Dessau-Roßlau, as it was renamed after a merger, has its own module dedicated to the loss of the old town and to citizens' groups in the GDR. Valuable contacts were made for this via the online platform.

For us as researchers – and especially in the “Stadtwende” project - these online forums are an invaluable source through their activation of knowledge resources. At the same time, as places of broad participation in social discourse, they are a communicative bridge to people from different milieus with their life situations and narratives. The benefit of the encounter at eye level lies on both sides – with lay people and in the scientific community. While the groups discussed in the first two sections are largely fixed in their basic orientation (which does not affect their validity for the time being), controversies about the value of certain building stocks, for example, can become more apparent in the Dessau Forum. Knowing this helps to correctly assess the gain in knowledge to be expected in each case. 


Research Associate