There are words with which a German immediately has specific associations. The German term “Plattenbau” (pronounce ‘pluttn-bow, meaning panel building) is one such word; I just hadn’t known that it made it into the English language. Plattenbau, often combined with the term “Siedlung” (pronounce ‘zea-dloong, meaning settlement), is the description of what is often considered dreary building complexes in connection with socially challenged inhabitants. Although, from the merely architectural standpoint, it simply describes a fascinating revolution in building houses.
When I was a little kid, large panel system building in Germany was thriving. Probably because there was a need for a lot of housing, as the baby boom had just reached its end, and the aftermath of WW II was still felt in the cities. In my home town, Stuttgart, there were still “bomb-sites”, fenced-off areas filled with the ruins and rabble of houses. Finally, everybody was back to living in apartments if not houses of their own that were up-to-date in any detail. Plattenbauten (plural!) sprang out of the ground everywhere in the suburbs, some of them shaping so-called satellite towns. For my first six years, I had been living in post-war buildings with coal stoves for heating and water boilers for hot water. Our move into a Plattenbau would change that – it was definitely not in a social flashpoint; it was a settlement reserved for federal employees. We never called it a Plattenbau either – it lacked the height, the dreariness of the surroundings, the ugly looks that were usually associated with the term. But architecturally, it certainly was every bit a Plattenbau.
The first of their kind were built in Forest Hill Gardens in Queens, NYC, in the 1920s, by the way. From there, the idea spread to Europe, especially the Netherlands and Germany, where experimental architecture celebrated its heyday. To have pipes and cables inside a poured concrete slab enabled a faster construction than one with brick and mortar, of course. The downside is obvious – if anything fails inside, it’s hard to repair. Depending on the quality of the concrete, demolition is sometimes preferred to renovation. Apparently, the house in which I grew up was built solidly – it is still standing, the trees around have grown huge, most of my childhood’s neighbors are gone. Not so the Plattenbau.
In the end, Platte is simply the noun to the adjective platt, which means flat. You can imagine that there are quite a few usages of the term, some plain abbreviations of longer words. The closest one related to the concrete panel is the German slang idiom of “Platte machen” (pronounce ‘pluttah ‘mu-hen, meaning to make flat), a sad description of having to sleep in the streets. Platte is also a colloquial term for a baldhead. There are other terms the word Platte describes. It can be the abbreviation for Schallplatte (pronounce ‘shull-pluttah, meaning sound panel) – a vinyl record. Or it is a geographic term for flatlands like the Norddeutsche Platte (pronounce ‘nor-doyt-sha ‘pluttah, meaning Northern German flats). A Seenplatte (pronounce ‘zay-yan pluttah, meaning lake flats) describes a flat lake district. Also, Platte can mean a high plateau or – in Northern Germany – an island. A Platte can be a platter as well as a hotplate or hob in the culinary world, even a spread of food on a platter. A Platte is a plate in photography and printing and a plate in armor. Even the American Platte River, which originally was called Nebraskier, a native word for flat water, derives its name from the French term “platte” (indeed, the French adjective made it into the German language!). Of course, now it’s only logical that the linguistic term Platt within a language simply describes a broad dialect (mostly a Northern German one). And if anything of this surprises a German, they might be platt.
Are you “platt” now about what associations a Germanism like Plattenbau can evoke? I certainly surprised myself …