If you say the words “German” and “fetish” to people in English-speaking countries, they tend to think immediately of lederhosen. The more dirty-minded amongst them might then make some kind of joke involving sausages, and those who watched pornography or “South Park” as teenagers will probably start talking about stuff that really isn’t fit to be published at this web-address. Anyone who has lived in Germany long enough, though, will tell you immediately what the biggest and most widespread German fetish is.
Its primary materials are not leather, not even PVC, but bricks, stone and mortar. Its practitioners don’t wear red lipstick and high-heels, but have a penchant for wrought iron and decorative stucco. Oh, and did I mention that this fetish is carried on in broad daylight on residential streets across Germany?
That’s right, we’re talking about the German obsession with old buildings that are known out here as Altbau (literally: old-build). In terms of fetishes, it’s a subcategory of objectophilia (a love of inanimate objects) that I like to call constructophilia and that, if I were to coin a word for in German, I would have to call Altbauphilie.
So what is Altbau? And why are Germans so obsessed with it? In dictionaries and manuals, Altbau is technically defined as “buildings completed before 1949”, which is spectacularly unhelpful to non-Germans on the search for a flat confronted with estate agents, landlords and potential flatmates who use this word all the time. It certainly took me a while – and several flatsearches – to really realise what Germans actually mean when they use the word.
Essentially, Altbau in everyday speech is a certain type of desirable apartment block that most university-educated Germans want to live in. It is generally a four-to-six story building just outside of the city-centre, situated in an inner-city residential area and built between 1850 and 1920. Anything built before is technically Altbau but exceptionally rare; anything built between 1920 and 1950 is also officially Altbau but is not the style that Germans will pay extra rent to live in.
The Altbau-style people out here really go weak at the knees for is that of the Gründerzeit, a phase of immense wealth-creation immediately following industrialisation in Central Europe, lasting through until the 1870s. The rapid economic development led to swelling populations in industrial urban areas and to a construction boom; whole districts were built overnight in what is known as the historicist style. That means lovingly decorated exteriors – think intricate stucco around the windows and columns beside them, balconies with wrought-iron railings, arches above doorways and such like. Similar tendencies emerged in other industrial countries like Britain and France, but Gründerzeit architecture is recognisably different and is what tells German and mid-European cities apart.
This distinctive, attractive style is one reason for the enduring popularity of these buildings. Another is a matter of historical luck: by the 1920s, housing shortages and slum clearances were pressing and innovative but cheaper styles of building came into use – buildings became bigger but compacter, and less attractive to today’s taste. The development of electric lighting and central heating, for example, allowed architects to drop the height of ceilings from the 3.5 metres found in Altbau to 2.5 or so. This saved space but made the rooms – which were becoming smaller as it was – feel cramped.
The Second World War further contributed to Altbau’s popularity by making it somewhat scarce in several heavily bombed German cities. On the eastern side of Hamburg, for example, the whole Altbau stock was destroyed, making the remaining buildings in the West – richer as it already was – all the more sought after. The War also marks the official end of Altbau and the beginning of Neubau, or new-build. Designed with the idea of rebuilding Germany’s shattered urban areas as quickly as possible, Neubau in the 1950s and 60s was cheap, plentiful and not particularly attractive; like so much in Germany before the reunification, it was never intended to last. Since it was seen as little more than a temporary solution until a new and better style of architecture came along, Neubau is aesthetically uninteresting, as well as often quite slapdash and wasteful in terms of energy consumption.
This is probably, more than anything, the root of the Altbau fetish. In the decades of trauma, change and insecurity following the Second World War, Germans longed for the old world they knew where buildings where built to last and neighbours still knew each other’s name. After all, psychologists will tell you that fetish objects are there to offer a sense of security. They’ll also tell you that fetishes are all about focussing on certain parts of an object or person, and that’s what comes into my mind when I hear Altbau-loving German eagerly swapping intimate details about their curvaceous stucco finishings and hardwood floors.