Even though Eisenhüttenstadt is not very far from Berlin, the 'first socialist city in Germany', planned and built in the 1950s, is still clearly separated, as a cultural space, from the nearby cosmopolitan city, preserving the idea of a different society in its urban layout and architecture. Two projects of the Kunstverein im Kloster Neuzelle, entitled 'Eisenhüttenstadt - Between Model and Museum', realized in 2020 and 2021 as exhibition and symposium, explored the former planned city as a site for artistic research and intervention.
Whoever visits Eisenhüttenstadt as a guest, visits first and foremost the city center, which is protected as an area monument. This center is the model city which was planned and built in the 1950s. Initially, it offered space for about 20,000 inhabitants in four residential complexes, grouped around a central axis. The city was not built in the middle of nowhere, as a myth associated with the founding of the city claims, but in a partly industrially developed area near the centuries-old town of Fürstenberg on the nearby Oder River.
Preserving the model city as a monument, has been the basis for an influx of subsidies and, today, the city is almost completely renovated. But it has also been a challenge for a citizenry that, among other issues, has had to face a severe depopulation process that has cost the city more than half of its inhabitants since 1991. Also, the future of the steel mill, on whose residential settlement the city was founded and which continues to be a meaningful operation and major employer in the region, is always uncertain. For many of its citizens, a shutdown of the plant would call into question the very existence of the town.
The promise of a different, 'ideal' society preserved in the urban fabric is lost today. The sense of absence it creates evokes, particularly on a walk through the city, the question of what constitutes a community - the agreements between its citizens, or its symbolic core? In conversation with citizens, one is repeatedly reminded of an earlier sense of community - without any explanation as to why this should have disappeared so thoroughly after the political events of the fall of communism in 1990. The conversations also convey that the city's model character, which generates international interest, is today experienced more as a burden that obstructs the city's normal development.
In spring 2020, the Kunstverein im Kloster Neuzelle announced the project 'Eisenhüttenstadt - Between Model and Museum'. The international call for submissions asked about the relevance of the idea of an ideal city in the present, against the backdrop of the concrete shape and history of Eisenhüttenstadt. It was aimed at both artists and scientists whose fields of research touch on the question.
In 2020 and 2021, some of the submitted artistic projects and scientific contributions were presented in two exhibitions and symposia. While the first project in 2020 had a focus - due to restricted mobility caused by the pandemic - on the projects of artists from Germany doing research onsite, in the city and its archives, the project in 2021, which this text reflects upon, also included a range of international contributions. Three participants of the 2021 project already took part in 2020, building on the first approach in their second presentation in 2021.
Designing a model today
It is interesting to relate the model character of the city with today's urban design. On this point the contribution of Viktor Munoz Sanz addressed the transformation in urban planning, in response to climate change, e.g. through the 'Green Deal' of the European Union. His presentation refers to the wide, green spaces in the city, including the courtyards in the residential complexes, which the visitor does not expect from a city associated with a steel mill. But they are in fact an essential part of the design of the former model city and are also listed, along with the buildings and the urban layout. Sanz draws on the open spaces as a potential in a city 'born green'. He considers the development of the urban green from an economically productive perspective, whereby such a development must also take place with a re-evaluation of the understanding of the economic. Munoz Sanz reflects this scope against the historical background of urban planning concepts, above all the 'garden city' (E. Howard), which are processed in the design of Eisenhüttenstadt.
Father Kilian is subprior of the Cistercian Priory in Neuzelle, which was re-established in 2018, and is responsible for the development of a new monastery near the ancient Neuzelle Monastery, which was secularized in 1817 and transferred to a foundation and is today a listed ensemble as well. The development of a new, large monastery, which will also be architecturally sophisticated, makes a statement in the largely agnostic region. The monastery will be located so close to Eisenhüttenstadt, a town that explicitly excluded a church in its design, that it seems natural to relate the two places. In his contribution to the project, Father Kilian revealed how the monastery is designed as an image of the heavenly city of Jerusalem. The monastery can thus also be seen as a form of ideal city, whose character Father Kilian elaborates on a theological level, but also in a directly urban planning context. Both the monastery and Eisenhüttenstadt, were conceived as places of (social) unity, raising the question as to what such unity feeds on in each case.
Anthropologist Samantha Fox, who lived in Eisenhüttenstadt for two years to conduct research for her doctorate, asks what constitutes a socialist city in terms of urban planning and architecture. Such a distinction is barely possible. It touches mainly the relationship of the citizen to the city as a question of attitude. This reflects on the conception of space in terms of its ownership structure. A capitalist-bourgeois city consists of a series of privately-owned spaces that form a public space between them; private property is not conceived in relation to this public space. In contrast, in a socialist city the space shared by all is the essential point of reference towards which life is oriented. In the structure of Eisenhüttenstadt today, this character is still reflected in the fact that there is no private ownership of housing in the listed core city. A housing society manages the buildings. But there is today a lack of commitment among the citizens to the shared space, which was required by the state in socialist times, but also enjoyed.
The idea of a 'good public'
In his contribution to the 2020 symposium, philosopher Matthias Warkus asked what constitutes 'good living' and a 'good public sphere,' with regard to the common criticism of contemporary society, in which both are often perceived as no longer existent or possible. In 2021 these thoughts tied in with the question of whether Eisenhüttenstadt as an 'ideal city' has actually ever existed, whether - in a semiological perspective - Eisenhüttenstadt has a 'final object'. Is it possible to determine what constituted or constitutes the 'ideal city' of Eisenhüttenstadt as a sign? Is there a rule expressed in the urban design of the city, in its architecture, the understanding and realization of which allows for a 'good life'? In relating Eisenhüttenstadt to other examples of planned cities, Matthias Warkus notes, that it is interesting that the city still shows the cohesiveness of a unity, while 'the instance that could decree (its) meaning' has disappeared - the urban design that remains voices a 'call for interpretation'.
Sabine Sanio, who heads the theory focus at the Institute for Sound Studies at the Berlin University of the Arts, presented three works of sound art that address, through sound, the emptying of space in the city. In these she addresses the decline of the city centre as a place where citizens come together and participate in a process of negotiation, and formation, of social will. Today's city centers are transit spaces, places of private consumption, where people no longer learn to play a role in participating in society beyond their private interests. How can this emptiness be accessed acoustically? One example is a sound installation that Max Neuhaus installed at Times Square in New York in 1977, and which can still be visited there today. When passers-by perceive the sound emanating from a ventilation grille at a sidewalk in Times Square, mixing with the actual soundscape of the square itself, barely standing out from it, they are caught up in listening. In this act of sudden conscious perception, the listener stands out from the movement of the other passers-by, creating a place.
Can a site for the formation of social will be newly instigated in urban space? With his installation 'ICHFINDEABERDASS' Michael Hofstetter defined a place for enabling, and even demanding, binding speech. For Hofstetter, the formula 'ich finde aber dass' (but I find that) denotes a contemporary attitude that confuses the public presentation of an opinion with the idea of a reflected stance. The expression is perceived as a social negotiation in the alliance with like-minded people, but not in the process of a balancing with those who think differently, refusing the negotiation of a compromise. He wrote this phrase in room-sized letters, sewn onto curtains, in the windows of an empty restaurant on the ground floor of a high-rise building. One comes across the building when entering the city on the main axis, the Lindenallee; it opens up the urban space as the first of three identical high-rises left of Lindenallee. With his lecture at the symposium, Hofstetter backed up the demand he makes on the individual, drawing on the idea of a 'whole' formerly driving social life and culture. With a broad reference to examples from art and cultural history, he fleshed out the earlier relation of the individual to a perceived whole that provided him or her with a sense of place, and discusses historical key moments at which this relation was interrupted.
The individual in the plan
Several of the submitted contributions and realized projects focused, analogously to the described difference between ideal and actual city, on a deviation that opens up between the claim of the planned and the individual citizen, who does not conform to the plan, but whose unavailability can be grasped precisely in contrast with the character of the plan. The filmmakers Diana Artus, Stefanie Gaus and Volker Sattel (Berlin) conceived their contribution as a search for traces of the individual, appropriating the planned space. They wanted to show this appropriation as an event, as something unexpected evading the planned, as happening in the realization of a single planned filmic sequence with which they surveyed the urban space. They decided to make the numerous sculptures placed in the urban space appear in the place of the intrusion of an individual, using the titles or names of the sculptures alone, as a possible anchor of identification. The media scientists Lisa Andergassen and Jan Henning Raff (Berlin) researched the surviving archive of images from the city, whose ideological claim has been propagandistically captured in numerous illustrated books: they look there for the involuntary utterance, for unexpected gestures, people appearing unplanned in the picture. Andergassen and Raff presented their findings as a conversation that accompanied a montage slide show.
Artist Piotr Zamojski (Düsseldorf) contrasted political slogans from the socialist era with slogans from advertising today, pointing out the linguistic similarity of the slogans directed to public space. Referring back to the two social systems, the words cancel each other out in their meaning; what remains is their appeal as such, asking for the individual, passerby, citizen, observer or listener, to whom it is directed. His project envisioned the appeals realized in 25 of the numerous passages connecting spaces in the city, always on the two side walls of the passage, as painted typefaces. In 2020 Zamojski presented the project as a book, by way of several models and as lifesize stencils. In 2021 he completed the two paintings conceived for the passageway next to the theater. In conjunction with a larger group of models depicting the location of the paintings in relation to each other in the city, the realized example allowed the project to become tangible as an installation that could potentially cover the entire listed core of the city.
The model and its reconstruction
Ralf Werner was the only artist invited to participate with an existing work. He showed his installation 'Phantom Monument' in the foyer of the theater, which was one of the first buildings erected in the 1950s. In a rotunda with a diameter of five meters, in its dark interior, a model of a sculpture, illuminated by three slide projections, rotated on a pedestal. It was the Monument to the March Fallen in Weimar, designed and realized by Walter Gropius, destroyed during Nazism and later reconstructed. The three images are the only ones that have survived of the original sculpture. Werner realizes the model exactly at the intersection of the projections as experienced by the viewer in the rotunda, fitting the model so that all three projections of the sculpture coincide with the sides of the model. In the installation, the model repeatedly rotates out of this moment of congruence with the projections. The question of the relationship between original and reconstruction can be applied to the thoroughly redeveloped city: to what extent is the city core, as preserved as a monument, identical to the former model city? At this point the installation reflects a question raised by Matthias Warkus in his lecture, but also posed in Samantha Fox's contribution.
Paul Landon designed the plan of an infinite city that totalizes the spatial configuration of Eisenhüttenstadt, following concepts from the mid-20th century of continuously expanding urban spaces, such as the 'linear city'. His plan was presented at two places in the city, in two windows of vacant stores, so that the claimed continuity was also directly realized in urban space. Above all, the plan also designed repetitive empty spaces between recurring, connected centers that took up the shape of the city core, the model city of Eisenhüttenstadt. The counterpart to this map inserted into the urban space was a lecture held on a path through the very city space. This lecture connected the direct experience of the space with different sources, including architectural theory, history and art. The path seeks out places in the city in which aspects of the urban design can be reflected upon or become exemplary, through reflection in the source related to the place: for example, the porosity of the city, the permeability of spaces or the specific peculiarity of asserting continuity, such as further expansion, through the curvature of central axes that prevent us concretely perceiving the boundaries of the city. Paul Landon's plan has, in addition to the descriptive, also an immediate visual effect; in the repetitive, the viewer gets lost. Such loss ties in with the reported experience of many visitors, as well as residents of the city, who have temporarily experienced a loss of spatial orientation in the uniform courtyards.
As a model, the city was also primarily a promise, a projection of a better future, while that future was already realized in the shape of the city. How does the individual orient to the city, what kind of attitude does the orientation to the general public described by Samantha Fox presuppose? Do I have to desire the model, direct my longing towards it, in order for it to become real? While Piotr Zamojski's work with slogans recalled the appeals that oriented the citizens towards the general public, the shared goals, inciting them with their pathos, in Julia Kröpelin's sound installation, a futile wishing seemed to become audible, which resounded quietly from a building in the city into the empty urban space. Answering the voice of a boy recorded during a casting for the film "Les Quatre Cents Coups" by François Truffaut (1959), Kröpelin sung the lines of a song by Charles Aznavour (1957): 'merci, mon dieu, pour ces désirs qui nous inondent, et se traduisent peu à peu, en des instants de fin du monde' (Thank you, God, for these desires that flood us, and are fulfilled little by little in moments of the end of the world).
The photographs in the numerous illustrated books in which Eisenhüttenstadt is described as an example of a social future have, as examples of political propaganda, an empty pathos today. This is most evident precisely where the photographs depict everyday situations, which 'continue to call for interpretation,' to quote Matthias Warkus once again. Artist Katharina Jahnke (Cologne) worked through an antiquarian-acquired illustrated book by collaging the photographs with various excerpts from other imagery. The association of the images, accompanied by the association of text fragments, transformed the pathos of the photographs from everyday socialist life into an open mental movement. In the city, the experience of really built architecture contrasts with the claim to an ideal, a model. The claim to a model is triggered on the one hand in the experience of urban space and architecture, but does not fully match it. When Katharina Jahnke realizes temporal and spatial leaps in her collages, which were also shown in an exhibition as an installation, she ties in with the movement described above, in which the model becomes dissociated from the real city, triggered by it, in the first place, as a claim and impression.
Model and museum
How can one live in such a city? Which was a model, which as such is a museum today? The two art scholars and curators Lisa Andreani and Sonia D'Alto, who had already realized a joint project with the exhibition 'In the spirit of being with', took on Eisenhüttenstadt as an opportunity to think about the museum. They examined the infrastructure of art as it can be conceived today, in which the museum could be a place of transformation, of the unfinished, and of error - in contrast to its former conception. Eisenhüttenstadt is, in its model character, an example of a modernist project and it preserves this model character as a 'ghost,' that no longer determines the life in the city and its future, but haunts it as a claim from the past. Drawing on the example of a project researching the design of a table by Marcel Breuer, Lisa Andreani described how the utopian, in this case in a design concept, could be reconstructed in the object investigated. Here - speaking with McKenzie Wark – what has already been realized in the past can be reactivated in a museum context. The museum would no longer be primarily a place to present the object as such, but its potentiality. Sonia D'Alto talks about how living together, speaking with and through the ghosts of modernity can instigate a new understanding of community. She relates Eisenhüttenstadt to three examples of projects: the utopian model of Ivrea by Adriano Olivetti in Italy, the museum BPS22 in Charleroi (Belgium) and the 'Projet Phalanstère' after Charles Fourier at the CAC Brétigny. Eisenhüttenstadt, as a model city, is a project of modernity and as such has a museum character due to its status as a monument. As an institution, the (art) museum can also be considered a project of modernity and is likewise haunted by claims that seem empty in the present moment. In such a reverse movement, one could examine Eisenhüttenstadt as an example of how the model city as a museum could become a model for an art museum - and how such a transformation may potentially instigate a new self-perception and conception of a community.
The project 'Eisenhüttenstadt - Between Model and Museum' basically presupposed in its conception an audience, an infrastructure for contemporary art, which does not exist in Eisenhüttenstadt today. The various conceptual approaches, related to the ideal city, were formulated as an offer to the urban community to perceive possibilities for reinterpretation and reevaluation, which also offer approaches for future development. In fact, however, the addressee of the project must be considered to be the model or project character of the city as such, which offered a context and framework for the contributions instead of an (art) infrastructure.
Eisenhüttenstadt, as Samantha Fox too pointed out in her presentation, was not conceived and built as a 'Werkssiedlung', a mere housing settlement, but rather as a city in the full sense of the word, from the very beginning. In addition to residential buildings, stores, daycare centers, schools, cafés, and inns, the design of the urban space and the theater were of central importance. One of the first buildings on the main street was the Friedrich Wolf Theater, in whose large hall, which can seat 700 visitors, both symposia were held (cf. the photograph from 1959 published as part of the call for proposals).
Culture and art were made accessible and assigned to the (steel) workers not only via the design of the architecture in the city, but also via the visual arts, which were and are well present in the urban space, and of course the program at the theater. Art was inextricably linked to a purpose within the model city, meant to enhance a quality of the public space to build society. And even though citizens have a distance to this ideological past, their understanding of art is still deeply shaped by it.
'You can't live in a model'
As emphasized at the beginning, an interest from the exterior is usually focused on the former model. In contrast to the aspirations expressed in the urban layout, architecture and art, the city today seems deserted.
In 2020, artist Natalie Obert developed a city plan based on conversations with citizens, which, in contrast to a plan that provides interested parties with access to the model city and its central buildings, lists the places in the city that are and were actually significant for the citizens. This showed the considerable difference between the planned and the lived city.
In 2021, Obert also led a series of citizens' forums. In a tent erected at an open space on the city's main street near the theater, citizens were offered a meal for free, cooked by artists, migrant citizens and young people living in the city. They were invited to engage in a conversation: about a reassessment of the future as central to the idea of the model. These conversations also aimed to build a bridge between the citizens and the discourses that the other contributors brought to the city by way of their artistic projects and the presentations at the symposium.
The result was, as already said, that the model, to which the contributions referred, was perceived by those citizens taking part in discussion, as an obstacle to normal urban development. The citizens participating, including quite a number of young people, did not and do not reflect on the model character in their perception of the city. No one, as a citizen of the city, identifies with the model. Accordingly, there was some doubt about the projects and their related perspectives. But, in a reverse movement, a citizen's initiative formed from the discussions on main street, also involving the municipality, to rebuild good life in the city; which is persistent, but does not relate to a discussion as suggested by the project.
The most probable possibility to tie this initiative to a discourse linked to the model city, as performed in the project, might be to install an 'urban living lab' as intiated by Victor Munoz Sanz in collaborations with other cities in Europe. This perspective is still to be evaluated, though there is a vital interest from the municipality.
The planned city as an 'imaginary space'
'Eisenhüttenstadt - Between Model and Museum II' is the third in a series of projects organized by Niklas Nitschke for the Kunstverein im Kloster Neuzelle. In 2021, the project was developed in curatorial collaboration with Armin Hartenstein, who had already participated in the first two projects as an artist.
The Neuzelle Monastery, where the Kunstverein is based, is located just six kilometers from Eisenhüttenstadt. Today, the former monastery and the former Ideal City are each listed architectural ensembles. They have in common that in their former idea they each stand for the model of a community. In this context, the projects of the Kunstverein research forms of the communal, especially in artistic practice today, or how contemporary artistic practice today also tries to enable access to new forms of the communal.
The focus is not so much on participation, on the collaboration of the participants among themselves or of participants with citizens of the city; instead it is focused on the relationship between the presented projects, which are often set in dialogue with each other. Essentially it develops the presentation of a contribution or project on different levels of media and the conceptual as well as literal space. This naturally opens up in many different ways a potential to address and include an audience, as in the case of Eisenhüttenstadt. The focus is on artistic thinking, which manifests itself as a movement that spans the various formats.
In these projects, to summarise, Katharina Jahnke presented her contribution as a book, an installation, and a lecture. Her group of works intersected, in its presentation, with a group of works by Piotr Zamojski, who showed his project in 2020 as a book, model, stencil, and example realized in an interior space. In 2021 this continued as a comprehensive model landscape that depicted, to scale, the spatial location of his typefaces in the city, in conjunction with an example realized in a public space. Paul Landon showed the plan of an infinitely expanding urban space, taking up the city center of Eisenhüttenstadt, which Landon in turn directly mapped and explored with a lecture given on a walk through the city.
The claim to devise a model becomes clear in the urban structure of the city center in that, on the one hand, a unity is asserted in the layout, while, on the other, the architecture in the short period of planning and construction in the 1950s undergoes several programmatic, abrupt changes. Where the first housing complex appears functionally simple, the buildings of the second show a classicist pathos according to the Stalinist example and the third connects with its forms and decor to a national building tradition. In this discrepancy between the claim to unity and the structural realization, which becomes most apparent on a way through the city, and which can be also found in former soviet model cities, the historian Mikhail Ilchenko understands the model city as an 'imaginary space'.
In the relational spaces the project ties in with the structure of the city. Both in the interstices between the contributions presented in the project, and in the fact that the projects are presented in different medial layers. The very ambivalent claim to formulate a model is the 'imaginary' of the city, with which the contributions engage. They explore it both as a field of research and also critically in its ideological and historical condition.
The text is based on the concepts by the contributors provided on the webpage of the project (cf. www.kvneuzelle.de).
Niklas Nitschke is a visual artist whose practice is directed towards forms of collaboration in which an artistic production is invested. After studying in Munich and Düsseldorf, and first exhibitions, in Germany but also in New York, he moved in 2003, to the border region between Poland and Germany, where he lives since then, not far from Eisenhüttenstadt. The border region, with Eisenhüttenstadt as a center, was repeatedly subject and venue of his long-term projects.
Media thumb for this text: Katharina Jahnke, vorwärts,rückwärts,seitwärts (forward, backward, sideways), 2021. Collage.