Thinking About Shrinkage

Dessau is one of several German cities testing creative solutions for urban depopulation.

Dessau is a strange little town in the former East Germany that appears to have been built by several different societies working at cross-purposes—as indeed it was. Once an outpost of the Holy Roman Empire, the city later became famous as the home of the Bauhaus School of Design. But after the Allies reduced Dessau to rubble in 1945, the Russians swooped in with masses of ridiculously oversize prefabricated apartment blocks. Today it’s one of a growing number of places around the world suffering from the “shrinking cities” phenomenon, having lost more than 20,000 residents since the reunification of Germany in 1990.

In response to the demographic decline, the Bauhaus Dessau Foundation has launched a dramatic urban-reclamation effort, one of several pilot projects under way in the Saxony-Anhalt region that attempt to readjust cities’ built environments to their current economic, political, and social conditions. The results so far are on display until the end of the month at the Venice Architecture Biennale’s Updating Germany exhibition and through December at Archilab, in Orléans, France.

These two shows offer a preliminary look at six years of bold experimentation by the International Building Exhibition: Urban Redevelopment 2010, or IBA, an initiative launched in parallel to the Bauhaus-­sponsored Shrinking Cities exhibition that toured several U.S. cities last year. But whereas Shrinking Cities was intentionally artistic and academic, the IBA has been testing and applying strategies for addressing urban ­shrinkage on a large scale. “Artists, architects, and designers always reacted to circumstances of growth,” says Omar Akbar, director of the Bauhaus Dessau Foundation since 1998. “Now we have stagnation. We have to think in another way.”

Each of the IBA’s 19 demonstration projects has adopted a different tack in response to local conditions. The cities of Bitterfeld and Wolfen were restructured into one administrative entity. Eisleben is boosting tourism efforts to highlight its history as Martin Luther’s birthplace. But the most radical strategy was tried in Dessau; to date, 2,642 units of largely abandoned housing have been demolished to create open spaces, surrounded by dense islands of ­activity, that can be reclaimed by citizens. “It’s the clearest idea of the transformation of a city,” says Sonja Beeck, the project manager for the Dessau intervention. “Shrinking a little bit at the edges is pretty obvious, but finding strategies to cut out big landscape zones in the middle is a big idea.”

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