When Less Is More Eastern German Project Provides Hope for Shrinking Cities

[M] Doreen Ritzau / Stiftung Bauhaus Dessau / IBA-Büro

By Rainer Müller

Part 2: Symbolic Price


The easiest demolitions involve real estate formerly owned by the state: Two schools have already fallen victim to the wrecker's ball as have 3,500 apartments, the majority of which were also state-owned. When it comes to privately owned buildings, however, there are often difficult negotiations. The process continues, Brückner says, "until we can convince the owners or their creditors that their property or land will still be worth nothing in the future and that they should sell the property for a symbolic price."

In Magdeburg, the shrinking capital of Saxony-Anhalt, industrial areas are also being "greened," albeit in smaller amounts than in Dessau-Rosslau. The site of an old train station on the banks of the Elbe River now has a lively public square featuring installations by Italian artist Maurizio Nannucci and German artist Gloria Friedmann, as well as -- despite the city's shrinking population -- a new residential area. The city is focusing on its waterways. The former commercial harbor is finding new life as a "Science Port." The Fraunhofer Institute for Factory Operation and Automation and the Max Planck Institute for Dynamics of Complex Technical Systems are both based here.

Demolition Unavoidable

Another city in Saxony-Anhalt, Aschersleben, is also shrinking. Which is why the city, which still has 30,000 inhabitants, is trying to strengthen its historic downtown area. A vacancy rate of around 75 percent is considered acceptable on the busy ring road circling the inner city, in order to protect the remaining buildings. And where demolition is unavoidable, there are huge, pieces of contemporary art, as big as houses, plugging the gaps and making the busy road a kind of drive-through art gallery -- an outdoor exhibition rather than urban wasteland. Even after the end of the IBA, there are plans to continue expanding the gallery.

Still, with this IBA it's not just about knocking things down -- there are also examples of new construction as well as redevelopment. In Aschersleben a paper factory is being turned into a training center and integrated into a park. This project, by Lederer Architects, counts as one of the few examples of actual construction during the IBA exhibitions. Asked about the lack of new building within the IBA, Oswalt explains that: "We are deliberately setting out not to make beacons or architectural exclamation points -- even if that means there will be fewer photographs and it doesn't seem quite as sexy."

It is true that the results of the eastern German approach to dealing with shrinking cities are not exactly sexy -- but they are noteworthy for their restraint. A new visitor center in Eisleben based in the buildings around Martin Luther's birthplace, a tourist attraction, is a good example. The building, designed by the Berlin-based Springer Architects, insinuates itself delicately into the array of medieval dolls' houses that make up the old city.

It's the sort of design that reflects the IBA exhibition's name, "The Future is Less," rather well. And one could also add that phrase, popularized by renowned German architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe: "Less is more."

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