Many of Bard College Berlin’s campus buildings are reminders of how Berlin’s urban history has been written and rewritten throughout the twentieth century. In the early 2000s, the European College of Liberal Arts (now Bard College Berlin) acquired eleven buildings in the former “diplomatic quarter” of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) in Pankow. The buildings in which we now teach, work, study, eat and sleep initially served as residences, embassies or consulates. This changed after the fall of the Berlin Wall: with German reunification and the dissolution of the GDR, there was no more need for having diplomats in both the West and the East. When the newly reunified Berlin became Germany’s capital once again, many embassies moved elsewhere. After several years of standing vacant, the acquisition by a small Liberal Arts College breathed new life into these buildings.
“The United States of Pankow”
Founded in October 1949, it took over two decades for the socialist German Democratic Republic (GDR, or East Germany) to be recognized by non-socialist countries, not least due to the Federal Republic of Germany’s insistence on being the sole representative of the (divided) nation. In 1972, improvements in the relationship between West and East Germany resulted in the mutual recognition of the two German states, followed by the admission of both the Federal Republic of Germany and the German Democratic Republic into the United Nations. At the same time, the Federal Republic dropped its policy of censoring states that established official diplomatic relations with the GDR. As a consequence, the number of new diplomatic missions in East Berlin rose dramatically throughout the 1970s.
Faced with the question of where to place new offices and residential quarters, city planners turned to Pankow. From 1974, over a period of roughly ten years, an estimated 130 new buildings were erected in our neighborhood for foreign diplomats. They can be categorized into different serial building types, or so-called Typen: one was named Pankow, an obvious reference to the district; the other two Gera and Magdeburg (their namesake being two East German towns). All of these structures were solitary buildings surrounded by a garden, recalling what is labeled a Villa in German – not exactly as elegant, but a satisfactory solution at the time! Identically looking houses could, and still can, be found all across our neighborhood: No less than 46 Pankow-type designs (including our two student residence halls on Waldstrasse and Kuckhoffstrasse) were constructed, 40 buildings of type Magdeburg (including our three buildings on Platanenstrasse), and 42 of Gera (the college’s cafeteria building).
The buildings’ function
Unlike most embassies around the world, the Pankow embassies did not belong to the states that used them for their diplomatic missions: both the sites and architectural structures were owned by the GDR. Building allocations and site management were organized by a special unit within the GDR’s foreign ministry, the so-called Dienstleistungsamt für Ausländische Vertretungen DAV (or Service Centre for Foreign Missions). The DAV covered a wide range of services: apart from technical support and maintenance for the buildings, they arranged cultural and social events, helped missions recruit local staff, and made sure that diplomats were provided with consumer goods not normally available in the country. Not surprisingly, the East German secret police – the Staatssicherheitsdienst, or Stasi – made copious use of the DAV to keep foreign diplomats under surveillance.
What countries were once accommodated in our college buildings? In the mid-1980s, Platanenstrasse 98 – today used for offices and seminar rooms – housed the cultural attaché of the United States, Cynthia J. Miller. She frequently invited East German writers and intellectuals into her residence: the building was closely watched by the Stasi. Our main office building at Platanenstrasse 24 was the ambassadorial residence of the Kingdom of Morocco. Just opposite, Platanenstrasse 98a (the home to our main lecture hall) was the consulate of the Federal Republic of Nigeria – in fact, the consulate was housed there up until 2002. The student residence halls on Waldstrasse 15 and 16 were once the quarters of diplomatic representatives of Yemen (embassy) and of Egypt (residence). The student residence hall on Kuckhoffstrasse 24 was used as embassy of Egypt and of Cuba. Our cafeteria (Waldstrasse 70) accommodated the residence of Angola. Our student center and library (Kuckhoffstrasse 43 and 41) once served as the official residence of the Head of the West German mission, which for political reasons could not be called an ‘embassy’ but Ständige Vertretung (Permanent Mission).
Unlike many embassy buildings today, the architectural language of the former housing for Western and Eastern diplomats is rather inconspicuous, fitting into the surrounding residential neighborhood. Diplomats of different countries – with a variety of different political regimes and not necessarily exclusively socialist – had to occupy virtually identical GDR-commissioned buildings. As a consequence, it became nearly impossible for any state to stand out. It was the official GDR ideology of egalitarianism turned into brick and mortar: the architectural “face” of affluent Western states looked indistinguishable from that of states with a smaller GDP (Gross Domestic Product). No extravagance was allowed in the standardized types named Gera, Magdeburg and Pankow. Interestingly, this architectural egalitarianism did not merely apply to different states, but also to the upper levels of diplomatic hierarchies: official residences of ambassadors could be identical to the private accommodation of the military attaché.
The buildings’ design
The buildings – even though they are multiply reproduced types – are not “pre-fabricated”, as one might assume. Each structure was constructed from bricks and then covered with grey stucco on the outside. Only the floors and ceilings were cast in concrete. Type Pankow was initially designed by architect Eckart Schmidt, although he was not involved in the 1970s editions Pankow II and III. Born in 1936, Schmidt received a commission from the GDR to design a building to house the Yugoslav embassy in East Berlin in 1966/67. It was this design – with some slight modifications – which went on to become one of the three most reproduced buildings in Pankow’s diplomatic quarter: when faced with the need to construct a lot of diplomatic houses very quickly in the 1970s, planners from the VE Wohnungsbaukombinat Berlin turned to Schmidt’s design.
It has not been possible to establish so far who was responsible for the design of the other two types, Gera and Magdeburg. But there are clear architectural similarities: Pankow and Gera both took the form of essentially a large cube. Magdeburg is a combination of two building blocks which together create an L-shaped form, accessible via a staircase which leads up to the ground floor above a garage and basement. All buildings carried a grey plaster façade, a common sight in the GDR due to lack of wall color. It is in our cafeteria building – type Gera – that many original features from the 1970s are still in place: blue tiles in the bathrooms, light switches and armatures, but also the design of the terrace and the back garden.
Redefinitions in the early 2000s
In 2002, the European College of Liberal Arts purchased the former embassy buildings and some other property in the area to establish its campus, since 2013 named Bard College Berlin. Architect Thomas Kaup was commissioned to oversee the renovation of some interiors. Through the use of primary colors on select walls, Kaup attempted to establish a connection with German 1920s modernism, rather than 1970s GDR aesthetics. The bright red colour used for some of the walls in Platanenstrasse 24, for instance, would not have been available in the GDR, and would not have been considered appropriate. The Bauhaus-feel inside Platanenstrasse 24 was enhanced by expensive modular furniture systems (also not available in the GDR).
Does the attempt to connect our buildings to 1920s modernist architecture – and the associations which are linked to the Bauhaus School of Art and Design as a place of liberal learning and progressive creativity – conceal the 1970s legacy of the spaces? While it now seems obvious at first to draw a connection between the Bauhaus style and the architecture of a type such as Pankow, Pankow’s architect Schmidt once claimed in an interview that making a connection to Bauhaus would not have been welcome in the GDR. Politician Walter Ulbricht had attacked the Bauhaus’ legacy in 1951 as being a product of US influence in Western Germany and as “volksfeindliche Erscheinung” (an appearance hostile to the people). Schmidt gave a simple practical reason for the flat roof aesthetic: in the 1970s, the GDR lacked the resources for the construction of saddleback roofs. Even if the debt to Bauhaus architecture is striking, the ultimate conception and realization of what would later become BCB’s college buildings was the result of a combination of aesthetic and practical considerations.