Hidden Traces

Architectural Practice at the Former Penitentiary in Cottbus

Climbing up the stairs, lingering in the hallways, or walking through the empty corridors evokes a feeling of time having stopped from one moment to the next. The remaining traces in the cells tell of the sad history of the active prison time. The former penitentiary in Cottbus was built in the mid-19th century as a prison. During World War ll, it was bombed and heavily destroyed. Reconstruction work was carried out in 1945 with the capacity to imprison 1,400 people. Gradually, the living conditions inside the prison cells became disastrous; the cells lacked basic facilities and held more than their standard capacity of prisoners. Moreover, the prison was sadly associated with the imprisoning of political activists in the GDR period. After nearly 150 years, the prison was closed in 2002 and the prisoners were relocated into a new building. Since 2008, the Human Rights Center (Menschenrechtszentrum e.V.) has started its activities at the former penitentiary of Cottbus located in the Bautzener Strasse 140.

Since winter semester 2013/2014, the damage mapping of the architectural surfaces of the former penitentiary structure began as part of the hands-on exercises of the architectural conservation courses. In the current winter semester (2014/2015), the Chairs of Building History and of Architectural Conservation jointly offered practical exercises in situ on architectural surveying, damage/condition assessment and mapping to the master students of World Heritage Studies, Bauen and Erhalten, and Architecture.

In the last week of October, students of History of Architecture (tutored by Dipl.-Ing. Henning Burwitz) and students of Hidden Traces (tutored by Alexandra Skedzuhn-Safir M.A.), learned the principle tools and methods in building survey as well as damage assessment of architectural surfaces through hands-on exercises in measuring, drawing, mapping, examination of paint layers (by partial uncovering with scalpels) and detailed documentation.

Students of History of Architecture worked on the second floor of the former penitentiary building, while students of the seminar Hidden Traces carried out their work on the third floor of the same building. 


Mapping is one of the basic elements of documentation in a preservation project. With mapping conservators, architects and conservation scientists can assess the current state of historic buildings including the amount and causes of damage, any previous changes or conservation treatments. Damage/condition mapping is an essential tool for planning the overall conservation projects with necessary measures. In addition, any kind of conservation measure is recorded on a separate conservation measure map. This map can be used as the basis for mapping damage/condition of architectural surfaces.


Use of graphics is one of the most common ways to present the results of a mapping. Technical drawings, a measurement image or a rectified photo can be used as the basis of mapping. After undertaking the mapping exercise, students will digitize the results using graphic computer softwares such as Adobe Indesign. Normally each type of damage is presented with a specific symbol or colour. There exist computer programs for mapping which can assist in calculating the amount of materials needed and subsequent costs for the measures required for conservation. It is worth mentioning that mapping is context-based, meaning that it should be adapted to certain site, types of damage, needs and aim of conservation.


The three-day hands-exercise from 24th to 26th of October 2014 at the former penitentiary was a model exercise per se for students to experience different methods of data collection to obtain an insight of the current condition of a building through analyzing the traces of its past history. The traces narrate fragmented stories from the active prison time, its detainees as well as its closure period. In such documenting practice, pieces of information in forms of different recordings need to be put together to create an overall image of the place in question. 

Needless to mention that climatic fluctuations, vandalism, disuse, wear and tear, and lack of maintenance, have led to distinctive types of structural damage. With the help of the damage glossary which had been drawn up in the previous winter semester, students mapped the current condition of the cells on the rectified photos previously prepared. Almost all of the cell walls are covered with flaking and partly missing paint layers. The masonry and plaster are lost in some parts of the walls, along with sanding plaster. Some traces of presumably once attached pictures or newspapers where minuscule pin holes and toothpaste marks are visible, cover a particular area of one of the walls. In addition, some walls are also covered with drawings, or graffiti – an additional “damage” resulting from the period after closure. 

To complete the glossary students documented new conditions with photos. Every photo is taken with an appropriate scale and a standard colour chart to ensure definite results and faultless interpretations.


The uncovering of paint layers is a destructive method to investigate the colour design of different time periods in the life of a building. Comparing different painted surfaces demonstrates useful information regarding colour scheme of different area(s) in a building at a given time. For instance, the results may reveal whether some architectural surfaces were painted more than others, if there were wall additions or whether some surfaces were overused, reconstructed, maintained, etc. 

Uncovering paint layers is done with scalpels by carefully scraping off minor sequential paint layers from the upper layer to the support which can be wood, stucco or plaster. This method is typically carried out on all of the different architectural surfaces such as walls, ceilings, doors or base boards. The most suitable surface is an area with an intact painting and plaster. In addition, appropriate solvents can be used to facilitate the uncovering of particular layers. Some wall sections have more paint layers than others. Ceilings usually have fewer layers than an area which is subject to daily wear and tear. Within the same wall section, a differing amount of layers may for instance be an indication for damage, or an area previously covered up by built-in furniture. Typically, uncovered areas demonstrate one or several characteristic paint layers: they aid in determining relative dates for each of the painted sections.

Every single uncovered colour is documented and photos are taken employing a standard control colour patch. Further documentation may include the recording of colours by remixing them with water colours or similar paint media, or with standard colour charts, such as the NCS chart. The binder and quality of each colour field should be described as far as possible to understand the characteristic of each colour layer, which subsequently helps in establishing the type of the binding media and ideally comparing this with findings concerning bills or similar archival material. For the identification of binding media and pigments, additional investigation methods are employed, for which it is in many cases necessary to remove a small particle of the paint layer. 

The uncovering of paint layers is one of the tools to determine previous colour schemes of a building. In order to examine the possible large decorative schemes, such as stenciled ornaments, or paintings, the larger areas of the architectural surface need to be uncovered, or in some cases additional investigation can be employed. One of the most easily applicable is to shine raking light on the surface which renders variations of surface textures visible.


Alexandra Skedzuhn-Safir M.A.