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Kulturpalast Dresden

A Modernist Palace of Culture

During the 1960s, Stalinist architecture in the Eastern bloc made way for the International Style, albeit with a socialist look & feel. Examples of this modernist style in Dresden are Prager Straße and the Kulturpalast, the palace of culture that opened two days shy of the German Democratic Republic’s 20th birthday in 1969. At the Kulturpalast, the societal ideals of the state became visible in two iconic artworks: the 45-m-long frieze Our Socialist Life in the foyer, by Heinz Drache & Walter Rehn, and the 30 × 10½-m mural on the western facade, The Path of the Red Flag, by Gerhard Bondzin & his comrades from the local Academy of Fine Arts, starring the usual suspects Marx, Engels & Lenin and featuring Ernst Thälmann, the communist martyr who was murdered by the Nazis in 1944, and Walter Ulbricht, the SED party leader from 1950 to 1971.

The concert hall at the Kulturpalast Dresden
The concert hall at the Kulturpalast

The initial design for the Kulturpalast, submitted to a competition by Leopold Wiel in 1959, was first rejected for being ‘ideologically unsound’, because it lacked a tower. However, after consultation with Moscow and docilely following its guidance, the city council accepted Wiel’s design in 1961 as ‘the only viable plan’, which was then further developed, i.e. slimmed down, by Wolfgang Hänsch. Between 2013 & 2017, the venue was renovated by Stephan Schütz & Nicolas Pomränke from GMP Architects. With great attention to detail, they restored the building to its old glory, and converted its hexagonal core from a multi-purpose hall to a dedicated concert hall with superiour acoustics. The palace also houses Dresden’s public library, which allows visitors to see the frieze in the foyer even when the Dresden Philharmonic is not on stage.

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The chief motif of Der Weg der roten Fahne is a knee-length portrait of a female standard bearer, parting the mural into a major left & minor right part, in line with the rules of the golden ratio. The figure spreads her left arm with an inviting gesture, while holding the flag’s shaft in the highly raised right hand. As an established symbol of the socialistic labour movement the flag’s drapery encloses the body of the female standard bearer and touches the national coat of arms of the GDR: hammer & sickle. Alongside her headscarf this brands the figure as a member of the working class. The theme of the red flag pervades the entire mural and contains miscellaneous minor groups of persons. Arranged in temporal order, these whole-body figures symbolize evident chapters in the working class’ fight & victory. The mural’s left part includes the history of the labour movement up until 1945; the artists postulated the insurgence in Dresden in May 1849 as its beginning. In the lower left of the image the sequence starts with three protesters that arm themselves. Above them Karl Marx stands erect holding a document in his hands. He is flanked by Friedrich Engels on his right. Scenes of fighting & repression are leading to the subject of the Russian revolution of 1914, represented by three armed supporters of the labour party & a red star, and to Ernst Thälmann, who stands elevated raising his right fist. On his left side a woman carries the flag. Then next to the great female standard bearer the sequence is interrupted by a group of figures portraying the suffering in the Second World War. The right section of the mural illustrates the post-war victory of socialism. Beginning with the picture of a soldier helping a concentration camp prisoner a series of figures in groups can be seen, showing women & men of different professions following one another. Some are either wearing weapons & flags or raising the right fist. Repeatedly figures look to the portrait of Walter Ulbricht in the middle of that section. On the left side above him Lenin’s head appears as a reduced dark-red-coloured silhouette. In the front children are playing and a young woman is holding a banderol bearing the title of the mural. Certainly Ulbricht, in his function as the First Secretary of SED, exerted a dominating influence on the mural’s composition & execution. In representing himself on a par with Marx & Thälmann as well as at a striking distance from Lenin, Ulbricht made this mural a monument to himself.


Another mural from the late 1960s, Dresden grüßt seine Gäste, by Kurt Sillack & Rudolf Lipowski, can be found on the facade of the former Restaurant Bastei at № 3 Prager Straße. Sadly, it’s now obscured by a hideous building from the 1990s.


Two notable socialist murals in Berlin are Aufbau der Republik (1952) by Max Lingner and Unser Leben (1964) by Walter Womacka, at the former Reich Aviation Ministry near Leipziger Platz and the Teachers’ House near Alexanderplatz respectively.


The 102-m-long Procession of Princes in Augustusstraße is the largest mural in Dresden. It consists of roughly 23,000 Meissen porcelain tiles, which in 1907 replaced the original sgraffito from the 1870s. A design by Wilhelm Walther, it represents the history of the House of Wettin, Saxony’s ruling family, as a procession of thirty-five margraves, electors, dukes & kings. The mural survived the bombing of Dresden in 1945 with only minimal damage.


The architectural firm GMP has released a video (7⅛ min.) of the refurbished & converted Kulturpalast:


The film Prächtiger Klang im Dresdner Kulturpalast (11⅛ min., in German) explores the new organ at the Kulturpalast, which has 67 stops with 4,013 pipes over four manuals & pedal, and the excellent acoustics of the concert hall.


Other so-called ‘vineyard-style’ concert halls are the Berliner Philharmonie (1963), designed by architect Hans Scharoun, the Gewandhaus Leipzig (1981) by Rudolf Skoda, the Copenhagen Concert Hall (2009) & the Philharmonie de Paris (2015), both by Jean Nouvel, and the Elbphilharmonie (2017) by Herzog & de Meuron architects.

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