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Although Plattenbauten are often considered to be typical of East Germany, the prefabricated construction method was used extensively in West Germany and elsewhere, particularly in public housing (see tower block). In English the building method is also called large-panel system building or LPS.
Prefabrication was pioneered in the Netherlands following World War I, based on construction methods developed in the United States. The first German use of plattenbau construction is what is now known as the Splanemann-Siedlung in Berlin's Lichtenberg district, constructed in 1926–1930. These two- and three-story apartment houses were assembled of locally cast slabs, inspired by the Dutch Betondorp in Watergraafsmeer, a suburb of Amsterdam.
In East Germany, Plattenbau areas have been designated as Neubaugebiet (“New development area”). Virtually all new residential buildings since the 1960s were built in this style, as it was a quick and relatively cheap way to solve the country's severe housing shortage, which had been caused by wartime bombing raids and the large influx of German refugees from further east.
There were several common plattenbau designs. The most common series was the P2, followed by the WBS 70. the WHH GT 18, and Q3A. The designs were flexible and could be built as towers or rows of apartments of various heights.
There have been projects with low rise "plattenbauten" such as the town of Bernau just north of Berlin. This town had an almost complete historic center of mainly wooden framed buildings within its preserved city walls. Most of these were torn down after 1975 and during the eighties to be replaced by 2–4 story buildings constructed of prefabricated concrete slabs.
To fit in with the medieval church and the almost complete city wall, the houses used rather small design units and decreased in height the farther away they were from the Church and the nearer the came to the city wall. A similar project was the Nikolaiviertel around the historic Nikolai church in Berlin's old center. In the case of the Nikolaiviertel the buildings were made to look more historic.
Plattenbau apartments were considered highly desirable in East Germany, the main alternative being overcrowded, deteriorating prewar housing, often with wartime damage still visible. Since reunification a combination of decreasing population, renovation of older buildings, and construction of modern alternative housing has led to high vacancy rates, with some estimates placing the number of unoccupied units at around a million. Many plattenbau apartments were built in giant settlements, often on the edge of cities (such as Marzahn and Hellersdorf in Berlin and Halle-Neustadt), making them inconveniently located.
While many plattenbau apartments have been renovated to a high standard, some are being torn down, although a lack of funds means many have been left to become derelict. Because of the modular construction some are dismantled and moved to a new location.
See also 
Media related to Plattenbau at Wikimedia Commons
Eastern bloc housing:
- Panelák (Czechoslovakia)
- Panelház (Hungary)
- Systematization (Romania)
- Ugsarmal bair (Mongolian People's Republic)
- Khrushchyovka (Soviet Union)