The platoons of Easyjet hipsters scavenging Berlin for its rapidly depleting stock of Ossie architecture are in some ways already a dozen years too late.
In 2000 the Gaststätte Ahornblatt (Guesthouse Mapleleaf), a concrete supershell structure built in 1972 and once the pride and joy of Erich Hönecker’s socialist Haupstadt was unceremoniously (and somewhat mysteriously) bulldozed, despite massive objections. It made way for an anonymous chain hotel now catering to some of those same, unknowing, Ostalgics.
The Ahornblatt was also probably the greatest masterpiece of East German architect and engineer Ulrich Müther. Müther, who is barely known outside his native state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern on Germany’s Baltic coast, let alone outside Germany, has some claim to be the Oscar Niemeyer of the German Democratic Republic.
Born in 1934, he single-handedly pioneered the construction technique for poured-concrete hypershells behind the Iron Curtain. The results graced the East German cities of Rostock, Cottbus, Magdeburg, Berlin and the Baltic island of Rügen from the 1960s to 80s. Their uber-modern, cosmopolitan internationalist flavour is far at odds with the socialist murals and grey Plattenbau blocks of the rest of the GDR. Müther, who died in 2007, merely described his designs modestly “as a very rational way of directing energy”.
Between 1963, when his 100-strong engineering firm was founded, and 1993, when it went bankrupt in the wake of Der Wende (“the turning point”, the shorthand Germans use to describe the repercussions of the fall of the Wall), Müther built some 50 works in Germany, plus a mosque in Amman, planetariums in Kuwait and Libya, and a velodrome in Havana.
The GDR authorities, recognising Müther’s talent, termed these “Sonderbauten” (special buildings), and allowed him special dispensation. These space-age hyperbolic paraboloids provided the socialist regime with architectural prestige and foreign currency. (However his moonlighting in the capitalist Federal Republic, West Germany, was never mentioned in the GDR.) Spied upon by the Stasi, not least in order to grant him permission to leave the GDR to build in Libya, he told friends he preferred to build out in the sticks of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern “because the grass grows higher in the provinces – and it’s easier to keep your head down”. His construction teams, some still living, simply referred to him fondly as “the craftsman from Rügen”.
Due to the nature of the regime he worked under, there are no Müther private houses or personal commissions. Instead his work comprises several community centres, seaside pavilions, bobsled courses, state-owned restaurants, workers’ hotels, cafes, some rather outlandish bus stops and, most famously, a very singular lifeguard hut. More than a dozen Müthers have been demolished since 1989, and several – such as the planetariums in (East) Berlin and Cottbus, and the Stadthalles in Magdeburg and Neubrandenburg, face an uncertain future.
The lifeguard hut – the Rettungssstation der Strandwache II (beach rescue station) at the beach resort of Binz, on Rügen, Müther’s birthplace – survives, although it has lost its original purpose. Instead of strapping Baywatch lifeguards scanning the tideless Baltic with binoculars, it is now rented out for weddings.
Which raises the question, what is a ruin? An abandoned structure left open to nature, a building which has lost its function, or, as is in the case of several surviving Müthers, a structure which has survived, but had its shell so bastardised and refacaded with plastic coverings that it bears only an ancestral echo of its authentic DNA?
In the 2003 documentary It’s Up To You To Make It Swing, a stoical Müther is followed tramping through the ruins of his Gaststätte Inselparadies, and on to a socialist scout hut on the edge of the Baltic, now collapsed. Poignantly, he spots fallen sections of his unique concrete roof in the tideless waters. “It was never just a job – it was my hobby,” he proudly beams.
The lifeguard’s hut perhaps more than any other Müther shows the influence of fellow communist Niemeyer, although the two never met. Its graceful curves, pillared support, cinematic fenestration and white-painted concrete could be mistaken for a minor Niemeyer, even a precursor to his Museum of Contemporary Art at Niteroi, Rio de Janeiro.
Unlike Niemeyer, Müther was – like Félix Candela – fascinated by the mathematics behind concrete shells, striving for ever more precise calculations to decrease thickness and eliminate bulk. Given the lack of materials in the GDR, Müther’s construction technique of applying thin layers of sprayed concrete to a wooden framework was the product of necessity – although the socialist worker state did not lack for time and workforce.
The now-ruined adjoining beach cafe Inselparadies (Island Paradise) has been standing empty for more than a decade, the stiff Siberian wind blowing through the innards of what was once one of the GDR’s most fashionable worker-resort cafes. Recent attempts by the Rügen authorities to sell it have not yielded any interest.
A still-standing ruin of Müther’s is the Gaststätte Teepott (Guesthouse Teapot) in Warnemünde, the beach resort of the industrial port of Rostock. “Restored” in 2002 by sheathing the single-glazed exterior in plastic and dividing the single internal space into a series of shop units, Müther was filmed inspecting the damage. “Well, they can always be taken out again,” this most phlegmatic of talents diplomatically mumbled.
But Müther was responsible, as engineer only, for one object even the skinny-jeaned brigade will have seen, if only inadvertently. The base of the Fernsehturm (TV tower) in Berlin, with its jagged, clothes-hanger ramps, was his contribution to that 1968 symbol of technologically advanced socialism, East German-style. Now housing a Fitness First gym and a Burger King, its soaring external buttress spikes fenced off, it is effectively ruined – albeit heavily used.
Far from capitalising on this possibly lucrative arch hipster tourism, the Berlin authorities, and those of the state Länders in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern and Brandenburg, seem content to let his remaining works rot, or quickly bulldoze them before they gain a cult following.
In Magdeburg, the state capital of Brandenburg, Müther’s Stadthalle was abandoned in the late 1990s. Standing beside Johannes Göderitz’s 1920s expressionist masterpiece, it is fenced off but not yet flattened, and still easily accessible to Müther pilgrims. Talks between the city council and investors in 2011 ended without agreement, and its future looks bleak.
Similarly in the city of Neubrandenburg, 90 minutes north of Berlin, Müther’s 1969 Stadthalle has benefited from a recent, albeit half-hearted, renovation. Again, the city authorities have made their true intentions clear by building a large sports centre and convention hall directly opposite, cannibalising any possible events the building could now hope to attract. Completed in 1969, in time for the GDR’s 20th anniversary, the Neubrandenburg Stadthalle nods to fellow engineer Candela’s Church of San Jose Obrero in Monterrey. For years it hosted a popular live TV show broadcast across East Germany.
The closest British equivalents to Müther’s briefly fashionable Schalenbauten medium are Huddersfield’s 1970 indoor market (listed in 2004), and the John Lewis distribution centre, in Stevenage (also listed).
By the 1980s, Müther had abandoned “Doppelt Gekrümmte Beton Schalentragwerke” (twin-skinned concrete hyperbolics) for a descent into bricks and mortar. His Catholic church, also in Neubrandenburg, and the Ernst Thaelmann planetarium – still surviving in Berlin, on Prenzlauer Allee, but only clinging on by its fingertips in a city 66 billion (sic) euros in debt and funding two (Ossie and Wessie) planetariums – are superb examples of his still highly graceful touch.
I have been unable to ascertain if Müther’s 1981 Tripoli planetarium – built directly opposite Muammar Qadaffi’s main official residence – survived the 2011 Libyan uprising. If it did, it would be a sad indictment of the EU’s largest and richest state if it lets the work of one of its most uncelebrated architects die an unwarranted death-by-neglect (prompting “Is It ‘Cos I Is Ossie?” thoughts), while his desert folly for a petrodollar madman survives civil war and NATO bombardment.
All photographs from Ulrich Müther Shell Structures, by Rahel Lämmler and Michael Wagner (Niggli, 2011)
Matt Tempest and Katja Bechmann
Restaurant Teepott (Teapot), Warnemünde, 1968 (image: Dominic Ott)