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Torsten Lange

Research Subject

Critical Thinking, Complex Design: The concept of Komplexe Umweltgestaltung and the problem of complexity and quality in the production of the built environment in 1970s and 1980s East Germany

First and second supervisors


My thesis explores the issues of complexity and (artistic) quality in the production of the built environment in the German Democratic Republic (GDR) through, on the one hand, an historic analysis of the theoretical concept of Komplexe Umweltgestaltung [complex design of the environment] as developed by East German architectural theorist Bruno Flierl, and, on the other, a study of construction projects in the capital East Berlin. The aim of my research is to elucidate relationships between architectural discourse within the GDR (and beyond) and building practice during the 1970s and 1980s.

In historiographies of East German architecture thinking and debate have so far received limited attention, thus little remains known about Komplexe Umweltgestaltung, its influence on practice and its shifting role in relation to construction policies. As for architectural practice, the 1970s and 1980s are commonly associated with the construction of bleak mass-housing districts, formed of endless rows of blocks made from standardized concrete panels, as, for example, in Berlin-Marzahn. Until today it is often argued that these settlements lack both complexity and quality, that they are symbols of technocratic and administered socialism, and that their architecture corresponds to a flawed social vision of relative homogeneity. Furthermore, it is thought that, with the introduction of the panel systems, the role of architects as (creative) agents diminished.

How did theories of the built environment under socialism, above all Komplexe Umweltgestaltung, relate to wider thinking about socialist society and culture at that time? What were the relationships between theory and the design of mass-housing districts in the 1970s? How did intellectuals – theorists, critics, and sociologists – view and reflect upon the districts under construction? What were planners’, architects’, artists’ and designers’ ambitions for the new towns, and how did their goals relate to official programmatic visions and state policies? And what about the role of the user?

My research is situated within a context of current international scholarship about post-World War II modernity and about new towns and large housing complexes as specific heritage. This international perspective raises questions concerning mutual exchange and observation between the eastern and western parts of divided Germany, and with other western countries such as France and Britain in the late phase of the Cold War.


Torsten studied architecture at the Bauhaus University Weimar, Germany. He worked as an architect at ZMMA Architects in London from 2005 to 2009. In 2008 he completed a Masters in Architectural History at the Bartlett/ UCL with a thesis about public debates in architectural magazines in the GDR in the 1970s and 1980s. Since 2009 he carries out doctoral research, exploring theoretical concepts underpinning the production of the built environment in socialist East Germany and investigating the relationship between architecture and art in the design of public spaces in East Berlin’s mass-housing districts. Torsten also works as a visiting lecturer in History and Theory in Spatial Design at the University of Brighton since 2008.

Sources of funding

AHRC BGP Studentship 2009-2012

AHRC Study visit fund, June-August 2010

ARF Grant for research trip, April 2011