Wednesday, September 04, 2019

East German Modern

East German Modern
Hans Engel in cooperation with Ben Kaden
Prestel, September 2019

Hardcover | 9-1/2 x 11 inches | 208 pages | 130 illustrations | English | ISBN: 978-3791385358 | $50.00

Publisher Description:
The buildings constructed in East Germany after the Second World War are often dismissed as drab, Soviet-style, prefabricated blocks of cement. But the architecture of the former German Democratic Republic was created with an eye toward modernity and efficiency, and heralded the birth of a pioneering country with a new economic and social system.

German architectural photographer Hans Engels traveled throughout East Germany to photograph iconic modernist buildings that survived demolition. From cinemas to high-rises, restaurants to museums, department stores to transit stations, these buildings have all stood the test of time. While the philosophy that drove their design may be outdated, their retro appeal is stronger than ever.
dDAB Commentary:
Earlier this year I reviewed a couple "subjective atlases of modern architecture" by photographer Nicolas Grospierre: Modern Forms and Modern Spaces, both published by Prestel. The two books are international in scope yet have a plethora of buildings from Poland and other Eastern Bloc countries, so they both come to mind as I flip through Hans Engel's East German Modern, which is more geographically precisely but has a very similar feel to Grospierre's books thanks to similar focuses on postwar Eastern European modernism and the layouts by the publisher they have in common. While Modern Forms and Modern Spaces are laid out formally, with the forms of buildings and space creating geometric gradients from cover to cover, the 130 buildings in East German Modern are sequenced geographically, more or less, moving from Leipzig to Dresden and following a roughly counterclockwise loop around the former East Germany. Short descriptions of the buildings (written by Ben Kaden) come at the back of the book, while an essay by Frank Peter Jäger precedes the dozens of spreads of Engel's color photographs.

Taking in the various parts of the book, I'll admit to being fairly disinterested. I think part of this is personal. When I spent a semester in Italy and had two weeks to travel afterwards, I opted for Paris and other cities in Western Europe rather than Berlin, Warsaw, and other cities my fellow classmates visited in Eastern Europe. Having only visited Berlin for a few days since, there is no feeling of familiarity when I look at Engel's photos or see who designed which buildings: Hermann Henselmann, Josef Kaiser, and Ulrich Müther are just a few of the architects I never learned about in architecture school or in the years since. Some of my disinterest must also lie with the buildings themselves, which may hold "retro appeal" to some but often appear to me as unworthy of inclusion. Of course, there are a number of buildings — cultural, educational, and religious ones, mainly — that stand out from the rest, but with only one photo per building I'm left wanting more of those. So for me the book is a jumping off point for learning about some buildings and architects I'd remained ignorant about until now. But for those who have trekked East Germany and hold its cities in their hearts, hopefully the book is much more than that.

Author Bio:
Hans Engels specializes in architectural photography. His numerous books include Havana: The Photography of Hans Engels and Bauhaus Architecture.
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