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Berlin, Germany – Topography of Terror has washed away too much dirt in presenting Nazi history

Berlin’s Topography of Terror pristinely presents its Nazi history

Some buildings polarise opinion. Such is the case with Berlin’s newly opened Topography of Terror Documentation Centre, on the former Prinz Albrecht Strasse, next to the Martin-Gropius-Bau exhibition centre. On this block, in 1932, Joseph Goebbels opened his National Socialist newspaper, Der Angriff.

Today’s Topography of Terror site once housed the Gestapo headquarters, offices of Heinrich Himmler, Reinhard Heydrich and other Nazi officials. From 1933 to 1945 the Gestapo had their in-house prison on the site. But by 1956, the West Berlin authorities had cleared away the bombed ruins in which all the Nazi concentration camps were planned and organised.

It took just over 40 years for the site to be presented as an open-air museum, during Berlin’s 750th anniversary celebrations of 1987. It was given the name Topography of Terror and the excavated remains of prison cells put on show.

Visitors scrambled over rubble and gazed at the glazed brick walls, originally designed for the 1901 School of Applied Arts.

Wooden stands open to the weather provided information on torturers and victims. In early 1989, historians were asked to design a long-term plan for the memorial site.

They were still deliberating as the Berlin Wall fell and when the two German regimes merged, it was decided that the site should have a mainly educational function and include post-1945 history.

In 1992, 12 designers were invited to take part in a limited competition and Swiss architect Peter Zumthor was declared the winner. Site work started in 1997, but ground to a halt in 1999. Officially, spiralling costs and Zumthor’s experimental techniques were cited as reasons, though the failure of this scheme says more about the inability of the clients to prepare their project, than the quality of the architecture.

A new phase began, searching not only for a building, but also for a brief. In 2005, another competition was staged, this time with a €26 million (£21.5 million) budget. Competitors had to work with landscape architects and design a documentation centre, with exhibition and conference rooms, library and offices.

Despite this extra loading of the brief, the historical remains were still to be prominent. But how could a few excavated bricks and walls compete with a major new building? 309 architectural teams participated and from a shortlist of 23, the winners were Ursula Wilms, of Heinle, Wischer und Partner, Berlin, and landscape architect Heinz W Hallmann from Aachen.

At the opening on 5 May, the 65th anniversary of the war’s end, the architect was unwilling to talk about her concept, saying that the building spoke for itself. When asked why everything was grey, the landscape architect’s answer was equally enlightening: ‘What else could it be?’

Ringed with a high mesh fence, the site is now a fortified enclave. At its centre sits the low, square new building. Clad in a double metal skin, it is a grey, horizontal gash in the landscape, obscuring one side of the neo-classical Martin Gropius building. The previously open site of rough grass slopes leading to the cells has been sealed with concrete paths, ramps and beds of anthracite and sharp-edged clinker.

Visitors are commandeered between 15 ‘stations’. The cells have been sanitised, as if for military inspection. The building interior is revealed as a light-filled, glazed box on two levels, with high ceilings. A reference library, conference and educational rooms, and the administration overseeing Germany’s WWII memorials are all dug into the site.

A courtyard at the centre of the block has a symmetrically placed, black-paved square of shallow water. Anyone who has studied the architecture of concentration camps might be reminded of the ash swamps on the edge of Auschwitz.

Should a ‘dirty’ history be cleaned-up to this extent? The imprisoned, tortured and murdered, once held in the cellars, have been relegated to minor roles. However well-meaning its intentions, this architecture projects an obsession with order, control and, ultimately, a lack of humanity.

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