“Healing a Wound”: From a Neglected East German Relic to an Acclaimed Art Gallery | Germany

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FFor nearly three decades it seemed to have been consigned to the dustbin of history, a relic of East German Communism considered as redundant and unsightly as the Berlin Wall and destined to fall victim to the wrecking ball.

But a former sidewalk cafe in the city of Potsdam, just west of Berlin, is being hailed as a centerpiece of socialist realist architecture having been saved from demolition by a billionaire German businessman who built it turned into an art gallery.

The Minsk Kunsthaus or art house will showcase Hasso Plattner’s vast collection of East German art, a genre that has also been mostly sidelined since the collapse of the GDR in 1989, but is currently experiencing renewal.

Minsk cafe, now reborn as Minsk Kunsthaus. Photography: Ladislav Zajac

Elegant in its simplicity, the modernist building – once a popular local meeting point and a place for nightclubs and coming-of-age celebrations – has been given a new spiral staircase and a cafe with large panoramic windows by Linearama architects from Genoa. Its thought-provoking landscape and housing estate exhibition draws visitors and praise from art critics across Europe.

Hans-Dieter Rutsch, who documented the building’s reimagining in film, called it “an attempt to heal a wound.” Others described it as a gesture of reconciliation.

Works by Stan Douglas exhibited at the Minsk Kunsthaus
Work by Stan Douglas exhibited at the Minsk Kunsthaus. Photography: Ladislav Zajac

Minsk is something of a metaphor, say observers of German unification in 1990, of how the executors of the process of merging the two countries trampled on the feelings of East Germans. Regardless of their political stance, many felt that their identities and biographies had been erased as much of the social furnishings of their lives had been removed.

Nowhere in the former GDR has architecture been so central to this feeling of neglect as in Potsdam.

The former seat of Prussian kings and the Kaiser, and with an abundance of Baroque architecture to match, its post-Communist reconstruction has often been seen as analogous to West German arrogance. Many wealthy people from the west, including fashion designers, television presenters and newspaper editors, bought its historic villas and other buildings, many of which had been badly neglected by the East German regime. At the same time, they supported the demolition of Soviet-era architecture, from high-rise buildings to university buildings, which they considered ugly and soulless.

Minsk Kunsthaus coffee bar
The Minsk Kunsthaus cafe-bar. Photography: Ladislav Zajac

Plattner, the co-founder of software giant SAP, who lives in a classic lakeside villa designed by Mies van der Rohe that housed Winston Churchill during his brief stint at the post-war Potsdam conference in 1945, has long struggled with criticism that it is one. of the so-called besser wessis — a play on the words know-it-all and western — that have contributed to soaring house prices.

The Barberini, his multimillion-euro reconstruction of a Baroque palace destroyed by wartime bombing, opened to the public in 2017. It houses his considerable collection of Impressionist artworks and has been acclaimed by international criticism.

Local opposition to the restoration of Minsk by some who said it was an unwanted expression of “delay ostaglia“, or the nostalgia for the east, softened after recognizing that the construction of two post-communist buildings, the Potsdam station and its recreation center, nicknamed the “bunker baths”, which Minsk faces, were undoubtedly far uglier than anything in the socialist era had served.

Works by Wolfgang Mattheuer exhibited at the Minsk Kunsthaus
Work by Wolfgang Mattheuer exhibited at the Minsk Kunsthaus. Photography: Ladislav Zajac

“With their banal angularity and dark aesthetic frugality, you might regard them as an allegory of capitalism, but then you would have no choice but to immediately revolt against this system, just as people revolted against the GDR “, wrote the critic of the Frankfurter Allgemeine.

Plattner also says he has contempt for what he calls “Wessi the rage of demolition” and this is what motivated him to buy the Minsk from the city after it had stood empty for two decades and to rebuild it “as it once was”.

This includes keeping the original name, despite one critic’s disparaging claim it opens Potsdam “at the risk that Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko will feel hailed”. To counter any criticism, the museum is making visitors fully aware of the plight of Belarusian political prisoners, now estimated at more than 1,300, by inviting them to participate in the #FramedinBelarus social art project.

The Minsk was one of many “nationalized” restaurants found in every municipality in East Germany from the 1970s, celebrating the capitals of the Soviet Union. Potsdam was twinned with Minsk, which had a restaurant called Potsdam. For the interior of the original Minsk when it was built by architect Karl Heinz Birkholz between 1971 and 1977, construction materials including the marble of the entrance, wood carvings and copper lamps, were transported from Belarus and the menu included Belarusian cuisine.

In the documentary film, Birkholz recounted how painful he found the abandonment of his apartment building. Giving his blessing to the revamped version, he said, “She’s got her time again.”

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