Mr. Stallknecht, do you still remember what brought you to design in the first place?
I literally grew up in my father’s factory. Back in the days, he owned a furniture and clock plant in Geringswalde, a small community between Dresden and Leipzig. So, I whizzed through my carpentry apprenticeship in my father’s business – after all, I already knew all of the processes inside out. After the war, my family’s property was seized, but I was allowed to finish my apprenticeship in our former factory, which certainly felt very odd at times. Nevertheless, I preserved my penchant for product design and I always loved to experiment.
Many stories on the GDR highlight the scarcity of resources. How did this affect your work as a designer?
I have always loved exploring Germany’s beautiful rivers and lakes by boat, but after the war, there were simply no paddle boats for sale. So I, the young carpentry apprentice, simply decided to build my own. I rustled up a blueprint and adapted it to the available materials. For example, I could not get any thin rubber – essential for any rubber dinghy. To solve this problem, a friend and I stretched fabric that is usually used in laundry mangles around the boat’s skeleton and then painted it with a rubber solution to make it watertight. And the boat survived everything! This search for the perfect functional solution, under given circumstances, continued to define my later work. “No” is not an option – you only have to try!
How did the political regime influence your life?
As the son of a former industrialist I did not have the easiest time. Many administrators considered me the spawn of an class enemy, closing several doors for me. Although I never had much interest in politics, the GDR secret police apparently monitored me for years, as I found out after reunification. Nevertheless, I am pleased with the course of my career. I won most of the competitions I entered as an architect. I had plenty of freedom. I could do what I wanted, short of leaving the country. I still stand by my works – as you can see for yourself, since I live in one of my own designs.
When and why did you switch to architecture?
I more or less “grew” into construction. In Erfurt, I studied interior design at the Master College for Applied Arts, while also finishing my examination for a master craftsman’ certificate as a carpenter. In the 1950s, I moved to Berlin. This was the time when the GDR built many “workers’ palaces” on Stalinallee to showcase socialist urban development and I knew that they desperately needed skilled people from all fields. So, I introduced myself to the chief architect of a major design bureau. When he noted my qualifications as a master craftsman and interior architect, he hired me straight away. After all, it was vital to have people on hand who could see beyond all the design and deal with the associated practical issues. I would still advise any students of architecture and other design disciplines to learn a craft and trade as well!
Your own living concepts have been realized millions of times – what was your main planning focus?
It was all about finding solutions for the rapidly growing demand for accommodation. We needed new construction approaches. I always found myself tackling issues others had given up on – and I always searched for the best possible path. Starting in 1958, the single-family home series EW58 was built more than 500,000 times in the GDR. This template is ideally suited for simple country living and even includes an early type of central heating. The heating was installed on the ground floor to avoid any basement heating loss – one of my earliest steps towards energy efficient construction. Today, none of these homes look the same any longer since occupants would constantly redevelop their houses according to their own needs and available resources. And although this might sound hard to believe – some of my designs are still being built by large construction firms, with only slight modifications. It’s all about the thought behind it!
You are best known for the development of industrially prefabricated housing – the so-called Plattenbau …
In 1959, I was asked to join the GDR’s Construction Academy under Hermann Henselmann. Here, I focused on the potential of serial housing construction. We developed the prefab building type P2 to supply many people with high-quality living space in a short amount of time. This prototype later served as the template and starting point for countless of variations. I also invented the useful hatch between kitchen and living-room. Altogether, around 360,000 units of this type were realized. Based on this experience, we developed another residential construction series, the Wohnbauserie 70, that later dotted East Germany with 650,000 units. And while we considered it our duty and task to find new solutions for mass housing construction – we never envisaged the sheer number of units that would be built.
I like to draw parallels between my design practice and my professional career, from furniture designer to architect and city planner. All of my planning follows an inside-out route, strictly geared towards practical value – unlike many statement structures erected around the globe today. Design features should never come at the expense of energy efficiency, for example. From interior design to large-scale planning –residential construction and urban planning should always go hand in hand!
You have introduced some landmark architectural concepts that continue to occupy designers to this day. Could you tell us a little more about these ideas and approaches?
My parents lived on an old factory floor – in a way, a precursor to today’s loft living. It was equipped with thin partitions for flexible rearrangement of our living space. This left a lasting impression on me. In today’s times, flexible living and resident participation are highly topical. We practiced all of this back in 1968/69 as part of an experimental Berlin residence where we helped the tenants to shape individual living arrangements and to design their own apartment. Together, we shifted and changed blueprints on magnetic walls. Unfortunately, this principle was not pursued for economic reasons.
A huge problem now gripping European cities is the mono-functional nature of their large housing estates. Back then, our P2 prototype came without ground floor flats, but with plenty of space for workshops, laundry rooms, parking for strollers and bicycles, and communal meeting rooms – ideas often honored with “social sustainability” awards today. Unfortunately, we did not prevail, but this did not deter me from starting new schemes – I never cried over lost opportunities.
Where do you see the particular strengths of the GDR’s industrial city planning process?
The sheer quality. It gave us high-quality industrial products. When I reviewed the results of western large-scale residential housing, I encountered construction flaws we simply did not have in the east! There is not a single crack in this building. And occupancy remains high despite going prejudice. Residents are incredibly content with their living situation.
What are you working on today?
Sustainability is a big trend, but I have always preferred the term “timelessness.” In an age of energy efficiency and senior-friendly, accessible construction, my designs remain very topical. I have researched different options for including renewable energy sources like photovoltaics or wind power in my buildings.
Right now, I am working on retrofitting balcony railings and facades with solar cells. Thanks to the GDR’s specific sunlight penetration regulations, my designs have huge potential for harnessing solar energy. Unlike the west, where the formula “building height equals building distance” applied, the GDR stipulated that each apartment had to have at least one room receiving a minimum of two hours of sunlight on February, 22nd. In comparison, this amounts to approx. twice the energy yield.
Another aspect – one that actually affects me today – is accessibility. In view of demographic change, many of the current developments seem shockingly clueless. Take the current proliferation of town houses in Berlin: A lot of them come with two or three stairs within an apartment! If we had continued development of the P2, all units would have been built to meet the needs of elderly or disabled residents.
Before my visit finally draws to a close, Mr. Stallknecht introduces me to the prototype of one of his armchairs. The fifty-year-old furniture still comes with the original upholstery – and remains in great shape. “That’s quality! No idea how they managed to do it back then,” he marvels. For our good-byes, his wife joins us in his study. “Another case of favoring longevity – we have been married for 51 years,” he grins. Thank you very much, Mr. Stallknecht!
Text: Sebastian Bührig
Header Image: View of Berlin-Marzahn showing a wide variety of WBS 70 buildings, 1985 © Federal Archives