Hellersdorf Story

Katrin von Maltzahn: Hellersdorf Story. In: Jeremy Millar & Tacita Dean: Place (Art Works Series). London: Thames & Hudson Ltd. 2005 p.113-114

In the 70's when I grew up in GDR (before my family tried to flee the country), everyone looked with great envy at those who lived in a modern building in (East) Berlin. It was the greatest luxury to have a flat in one of the high rise buildings – central heating, lifts, and dustbins that run like wells from the top floor down to the cellar. At that time old houses were of an extremely low standard because the state didn't invest in the old, only in the new. The main argument for building whole new districts for thousands of people overnight  was a "big housing shortage" (later proved to have been a false assumption). One of the last and highly ambitious GDR building projects took place in Hellersdorf. 

Hellersdorf is a suburb of former East Berlin. It has officially existed since June 1, 1986. Until then this area northeast of Berlin was pretty much untouched. Due to its special soil, its masses of boulders deposited by the glaciers of the ice-age, and the direction of  the prevailing wind, some hundred years ago the fields of Hellersdorf had became a gigantic sewage dump for Berlin. Now a satellite town of 44,000 apartments for at least 100,000 people was to be built there within 5 years. 

All possible resources from the entire Republic - tools, materials, professional builders and building cooperatives of the different cities and regions - were gathered together to build up this new district. Each region was assigned to fulfil a specific part of the building plan. Later on, this became part of the history of Hellersdorf. Those in the know can identify the buildings by colour, the grain and the style of their prefabricated concrete elements as being “typical  Rostock",  “Magdeburg", “Cottbus", ... - also street names and nicknames for houses and places recall the builder's origin.

When just a few houses were finished and the whole surrounding area was still a big construction site young families already began to move in. Most were happy for their new and modern apartments, but some had had no choice and had been sent there by the state-run housing office. During the first few years the inhabitants had to deal with numerous difficulties: the new underground line from Alexanderplatz was not yet finished; playgrounds, supermarkets, and schools were still missing; streets and the surrounding landscape were a big muddy mess. However this didn't really matter. It brought the people closer together, made them feel like they were an active and important part in the process of constructing their new society. Early on the "Hellersdorfers" formed all kinds of collective associations (a widespread habit in the GDR) in order to contribute to their new living area. History and archaeology workshops were founded as well as all kinds of nature conservation organisations and culture clubs. Every little trace and source that could be used to enrich the "Hellersdorf story"  and to support the local identification process was keenly seized up on. 

In 1989 when Germany was re-united, construction work at Hellersdorf was still in full progress. By the 90's it was already deemed necessary to renovate most of the buildings, and the surroundings were adapted to a “western standard”; international architecture and art competitions were carried out to brighten up the area, to design contemporary urban features. Hellersdorf was given a city centre "Helle Mitte" (Bright Centre) including a town hall, a variety of shopping arcades, Multiplex cinema and schools. It tries hard to be another Potsdamer Platz, only smaller.

I became interested in Hellersdorf through an invitation to a public art competition. It was for a high school for medical professions located in the new centre. I wanted to refer to the past (the "pre-history") of the developed area. I suggested creating a garden of drawings representing wildly growing local plants. The school yard was to have big drawings inlayed into the concrete so as to form an uncontrolled wilderness. As a further connection to the natural history I intended to install a group of huge boulders to sit on, lean against, hang out around. In contrast to the chaotic outside, the stone floor of the school lobby was to show the plant drawings systematically organized like a sort of encyclopadic garden, with generic names attached. I won the competition, but for different reasons the project was never carried out. 

For this book I have made a photo series in two parts. One part comes from the Hellersdorf  10 years jubilee magazine and shows sites during the building process - part of the self-mythologizing process. Recently I returned to Hellersdorf to see what these places look like today, and to photograph them again.