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Tracing fascinating architecture in Leipzig

Gründerzeit in Leipzig

With around 15,600 cultural monuments, 80 per cent of which were built in the 19th century during the Gründerzeit era, Leipzig is Germany’s capital of listed monuments, boasting the greatest wealth of buildings from the Gründerzeit and art nouveau periods not just in terms of quantity, but also quality.

Until recently, however, this wealth was at risk: in 1989 a television report asked the question: “Can Leipzig still be saved?” People around the world were shown shocking images of a crumbling city with dreary streets and dilapidated Gründerzeit houses. Of the 257,000 apartments, in 1990 around 196,000 were in need of renovation, 103,000 of them from the Gründerzeit. Despite the lack of housing in GDR times, around 25,000 apartments in old buildings were empty and uninhabitable. Today, more than 80 per cent of all Gründerzeit apartments have now been completely renovated. Drab districts have become desirable, vibrant neighbourhoods. Public green spaces have grown by 30 per cent.

But how did it come to be that today Leipzig’s urban landscape is dominated by large, intact Gründerzeit districts – more so than almost any other city? Leipzig owes this architectural wealth to the city’s astonishing growth between 1871 and 1914, a time when the population swelled from around 100,000 to some 625,000. Besides extensive residential areas and villa districts, the resulting construction boom gave rise to completely new infrastructure: town halls, post offices, banks and hospitals. The architectural masterpieces of this period include the New Town Hall, the former Imperial Court of Justice and the University Library.

The actual growth in major industry began in around 1865, after the restrictive guild system was abolished in 1861 and freedom of trade was introduced in Saxony the following year. Private individuals, stock corporations and housing associations all contributed to industrialisation. With the influx of immigrants caused by this industrialisation, the demand for housing increased. This time was known as the Gründerzeit, literally the ‘founders’ period’. The era’s answer to this shortage of homes was standardised development plans and the construction of apartment blocks by the private sector. Planners ensured social diversity in these new residential districts by incorporating shop floors and apartments for merchants in the front buildings, apartments for employees and craftsmen on the upper storeys, and workers’ quarters in the rear courtyards. Legislation passed in 1889 made it attractive for insurance companies to invest in cooperatives, which in turn triggered a boom in this type of housing construction. By 1929 there were about 30 construction cooperatives.

After the First World War, the local authorities took charge of providing housing for the many homeless people: the city built small, functional apartments, simple, uniformly sized building complexes, and communal amenities such as washhouses and green spaces.

Fortunately, the Second World War did not bring as much destruction to Leipzig as other major cities. The post-war period was characterised by neglect of the surviving building stock, and only a few areas were demolished entirely. Today, former upper-class residential areas, such as in the Südvorstadt, the Musikviertel and the Waldstraßenviertel, have already been extensively renovated. Districts full of old buildings in Connewitz, Plagwitz and Reudnitz have become popular residential locations for students and young families. These Gründerzeit neighbourhoods are close to the city centre and for the most part surrounded by floodplain forests and large landscaped parks. In good locations, supply is now outstripped by demand.

But this wasn’t always the case. After German reunification, many people from Leipzig moved away, with the population dwindling to 437,000 by the end of the 1990s. Due to the high vacancy rate and the end of special fiscal incentives that had been introduced to boost the former East German economy, prices and rents plunged.

Today Leipzig is the fastest growing city in Germany. Its population currently stands at around 600,000 inhabitants. The city is at the heart of the economic region of Central Germany and has excellent prospects. With this in mind, it is little wonder that both international and private investors have discovered Leipzig.

There are many ways to trace fascinating Gründerzeit architecture in Leipzig, such as at the annual Neustädter Frühstück event in the district of Neustadt-Neuschönefeld and the Funkenburgfest in the Waldstraßenviertel.