Project Halberstadt

Cultivating Empty Space

“Empty space” is surely a relevant theme for most of the towns and cities participating in the IBA Urban Redevelopment 2010. But in Halberstadt, it became the overriding question: How can the public spaces of the town centre be livened up? Can “empty space” be understood as a part of the townscape, and can a quality of its own result from it?

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The Lost Centre

The town can look back on a 1,200-year history as the centre of the Harz foreland region. But only a few of the half-timbered houses that gave Halberstadt its “Rothenburg of the North” tag remain. Events during the Third Reich ensured in a very different way that “empty space” became a significant part of the old town. First the Jewish community, who had played an important role in the town, were driven into exile in 1933. The large synagogue was torn down during the pogrom of November 1938. Incendiary bombs destroyed over 80% of the buildings in the town centre during one of the last heavy air raids on April 8, 1945. The remaining old buildings went to ruin in the GDR era or were demolished during the late 1980s. Empty space became a fixed component of Halberstadt’s town centre.

The Rediscovered Centre


In 1990, Halberstadt joined the “Model Town” programme: The approximately 450 remaining historic buildings were restored. New buildings in the town centre, such as the town hall, were based on the historic layout of the town. Citizens’ associations worked actively to support restoration and, for instance, collected donations for the reconstruction of the so-called “Ratslaube” from remaining fragments. The town centre was ceremoniously “reopened” in 1998. Jewish life is also slowly regaining importance. In 1995, the Moses Mendelssohn Academy for research into Jewish life in Germany was founded, and in 2001 the Berend-Lehmann-Museum opened its doors.

It has become clearer and clearer, however, over the years that it will not be possible in the foreseeable future to restore the buildings in Halberstadt’s town centre on the pre-war scale due to the declining population. There is virtually no demand. For the time being, the urban structure will remain characterised by great contrasts: empty spaces, perforated structures and long alignments alternate in cramped spaces with fragments of the historic old town. The fact that John Cage’s organ music As Slow As Possible or the “slowest piece of music in the world” is being played in Halberstadt’s St. Burchardi Church seems to be a fitting musical accompaniment—the piece will take 639 years.

The Challenge of Empty Space


Within the framework of the IBA, the town has begun to encourage a proactive and lively debate on the empty spaces. Can empty space lend an individual quality to the town if it is accepted by the general public and interpreted actively in the way it is designed? The positive and negative aspects of the unused spaces should be consciously stressed by artistic activities and involvement. Empty space should be recognised as part of the town and as a task for the whole urban community.

The diverse shapes and perceptions of empty spaces in Halberstadt’s town centre were analysed in an interdisciplinary laboratory and mapped using a “vision training track.” Since 2007, different activities have been carried out along the training track to trigger a discussion about “empty space” in its different forms and about how to deal with these spaces. These activities included events such as the Stadt(t)räume exhibition in front of the façade of an empty furniture shop at Heineplatz, the reading picnic for the Abtshof, the sound picnic on the Domplatz by the cathedral, and the film picnic at Heineplatz. In order to emphasise the openness of these public spaces, which are often only used for traffic, they were completely cleared for each of the picnics. This enabled experiencing the vastness of the spaces.

In the discussions over the future use of empty space in Halberstadt, there are no taboos about erecting new buildings. Thus a workshop was carried out for the Abtshof by students from Dresden, and the results were presented to the public. The owner now wishes to have houses built. A similar process will be carried out with the “empty space” on the Domhang. Noticeably reduced landscaping will place the cathedral on a “green tableau” and open up the view of Halberstadt’s most important monument. A new staircase now leads through this empty space directly up to the cathedral. An adjoining new building, the Domforum (cathedral forum), is planned. It will improve developments in tourism in the town and also the famous cathedral treasure.


Halberstadt is beginning to establish itself as a research centre for the subject “cultivating empty space.” Students from the HTW Dresden and the Technische Universität Braunschweig experimented in 2007 and 2009 with the possibilities of urban empty space. A musicologist’s symposium will follow in 2010. Likewise in 2010, the exhibition Endecke die Leere! (discover empty space) will be displayed in the former indoor swimming pool. Here, the strategies of the training track will be reflected on again, and with the help of a multimedia installation the aesthetic and ambient dimensions of empty space will be made accessible to the visitor. At the same time, the exhibition will be the first step in preparing the building, unused for so long, for long-term use. The corresponding exhibition 12 Jahrhunderte Umgestaltung städtischer Räume in Halberstadt—Historische Betrachtung zum Thema der IBA Stadtumbau 2010 “Kultivierung der Leere” (Twelve centuries of restructuring Halberstadt’s urban space, an historical reflection on the theme of the IBA Urban Redevelopment 2010 “Cultivating Empty Space”) in the town museum sheds light on the background.

“Halberstadt’s Toolbox”


How can unused spaces be made accessible? What does the positive vision beyond the urban concentration of the European town look like? Halberstadt has begun to discover its own spatial qualities. It is developing a “tool box” for the proactive and creative management of empty wastelands. Activities generate attention; they make issues of specific spaces and trace their historic or future roles. Activities also test tools, radicalise the issues, and possibly facilitate making decisions about the next steps.

Florian Heilmeyer, 2010

Reading picnic (Vorlesepicknick) at Abtshof in Halberstadt

A Film by Henry Mertens, in order by IBA-Büro GbR, 2009 (German, Flash-Video, 12'04)

More pictures of Halberstadt


Info: Halberstadt

(Municipal Area of 2010)
1989: 53.086
2009: 42.939
2025: 34.717 (Future Prospect)

Municipal Area: 142,97 qkm

IBA-Website of Halberstadt