An article is included to HeritageForAll Global Collaborations Program.
By Ms. Tinatin Meparishvili (email@example.com)
Ms. Tinatin is a young heritage professional from Georgia. She has recently graduated with an M.A. degree in Heritage Conservation and Site Management at Brandenburg University of Technology in Germany. Her educational background is diverse. As for her B.A., Ms. Meparishvili completed four years of studies at Tbilisi State Academy of Arts in the field of Architecture. In 2009 and 2010, she studied Urban Planning at Kansas State University in the USA. Moreover, she gained her first M.A. degree in Art Management with the concentration of Museum Management. Ms. Tinatin spent one semester at Helwan University in Cairo, studying Heritage Conservation, collaborating with the Coptic Museum and Egyptian museum.
Since 2011, Ms. Tinatin worked as an English-speaking tour guide with “Georgica Travel”. She also collaborated with Georgian National Tourism Administration and the World Bank on a seven month-project “Kakheti Regional Development”. In addition, she worked as an executive assistant to a deputy minister of Economy and Sustainable Development of Georgia from 2014 to 2015. Ms. Tinatin recently completed her internship at Adidas AG where she supported footwear manager of History Management Department.
Currently, Ms. Tinatin assists with Blue Shield Georgia, while collaborating with different NGOs in the field of Heritage Conservation in Georgia. Finally, she works at the Ministry of Education, Science, Culture and Sports of Georgia, while supporting Cultural Routes Department as an invited Heritage Specialist.
The Topography of Terror, a controversial site that is one of the most visited places in Berlin, has been a part of a lot of discussions. The history, that happened there, has shaped it into a place where gives architects and designers a lot of opportunities to interpret the site and to create events delivering the heritage knowledge to visitors. Nevertheless, it further challenges them, as they hit an issue of being objective or subjective while deciphering the meaning of the site.
This paper will overview the history, the architecture and the design of the topography of Terror, discussing whether the project meets the purpose of what the site, as historically and conceptually dense as this, is conveying. It will also compare the site with two monuments commemorating the results of the Nazi terror machine: the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe and the Jewish Museum.
Key Words: documentation, space, light, exhibition, museum
The recent events in the history of the 20th century world has left a lot of countries with dark heritage. It turned into a challenge of our contemporaries to decide how to deal with the past. It became necessary to process the facts, interpret them objectively and present them to the society as transparently as possible. Not every country with the similar heritage could withstand the test. Many republics of former Soviet Union simply buried facts and memories in silence. This seemed to be the easiest solution for them. But easy is not always right. How could the world start from a new page without overcoming the leftovers of subversive regimes?
Germany can be an exemplary in this case. There is no other language that has named the process of overcoming the terms with the past in one word. One expression says it all. “Vergangenheitsbewältigung” (Duden Wörterbuch n.d.), the route every country with the dark heritage has to go through creating healthy-minded society. To do so, many memorial sites and museums were constructed all over Germany as a testimony of conciseness about the culpability and the responsibility of the nation.
Design of memorials and museums differ from site to site. In some cases, architects and curators are more subjective than in others. The main goal of all of them remains the same: to remember the past, and to pass the history to the future generations, so that they will never allow it to be repeated.
The Topography of Terror in Berlin is an interesting representation of a synthesis of a memorial site and a documentation center. The construction site itself has a lot to retell to visitors. Several layers of history make this place unique and challenges architects and landscape designers to find consistent solutions. Here, symbolism and pragmatism have to come together and create an objective interpretation for everyone, no matter how deep their knowledge of the past history is.
Brief History of the Site
Prinz Albrecht Strasse, now known as Niederkirchnerstrasse, was first laid out in 1881. In the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th century, it housed many important buildings, such as Martin Gropious Bau, Hotel Prinz Albrecht, Ethnographical Museum and Europahaus. Museum of Decorative Arts, constructed in 1905, was converted into a Gestapo headquarter in 1933. It became a place of torture and execution off many political prisoners. It also served as a Concentration Camps Inspectorate in December 1934. In 1939, it developed additional functions and was turned into a Reich Main Security Office (Philpott 2016).
During the Second World War, the area was heavily bombed and a few building were demolished, the SS building being one of them. The street was renamed in 1951 by the East Berlin authorities in honor of a member of communist resistance against Nazis- Käthe Niederkirchner (Topographie des Terrors n.d.).
The Berlin wall was constructed along the southern side of the Niderkirchner street and it stood there from 1961 to 1989 (Encyclopaedia Britanica 2015). Nowadays, part of the wall is still preserved and it frames the area of the Topography of Terror.
Topography of Terror in Berlin
The site, where the documentation center stands today, was forgotten by the government for years. There were no conservation or interpretation measures taken. The interest of public started to slowly rise in early 1970s, when the International Building Exhibition (IBA) strongly protested the plans of constructing a street through the site and referred to the significance and the importance of it. But still, it was not until 1982, when the parliament of Berlin started to discuss the future of the site. A national competition was announced for creating the project with a following name “a design of the site of the former Prinz Albercht Palais”. 194 design projects were submitted out of which the landscape design of architects Jurgen Enzel and Nikolaus Lang were selected. However, in 1984 the Senate decide not to implement the project. The new waved of discussion started about the use and design of the site and by decision of the government the terrain was prepared for the temporary exhibition which opened for public in 1987 in the celebration of 750th anniversary of the city of Berlin. The title of the documentary exhibition was “Topography of Terror”. Gestapo, SS and Reich Security Main Office on the ‘Prinz-Albrecht-Terrain’”. The exhibits were displayed in a hall designed by architect Jurg Steiner. The excavated cellars of the SS building were equipped with the information panels introducing the history of the place. As the exhibition was very successful, the organizers decided to extend the intended time period of exposition at first for a year and later, temporarily (Topographie des Terrors n.d.).
It was in February 1989 when the Berlin Senate decide to appoint a commission of experts to develop a concept of the site use for the design project of the “Topography of Terror”. In March 1990 the commission concluded the following: The Senate was recommended to establish a documentation and visitor center at the site that, according to them, had not only national but also international importance. The remains of the excavated historic building were to be left open the way there were, as well as the traces of the postwar period. There recommendations became the foundation of the concepts of future design accepted by the Berlin House of Representatives and the Senate, as well as by the German federal government (Topographie des Terrors n.d.).
In 1992 an architectural competition for the new documentation center was announced by the state of Berlin. Twelve participants were invited to submit their projects. Peter Zumthor, a Swiss architect (the winner of the Pritzker Prize in 2009) was awarded the first prize and was commissioned to construct. The construction that began in 1997 was halted in 1999 because of financial reasons. Five years later, in 2004, the state of Berlin and German federal government decided not the sponsor the completion of the building. What was already constructed of Zumthor’s project was demolished (Topographie des Terrors n.d.).
The competition for the Topography of Terror reopened in 2005. The task was to avoid glorifying the area and concentrate on the perpetrators of the Nazi regime. The winner was chosen in January 2006. Urusla Wilms and Heinz W. Hallmann were commissioned the project. The construction started in November 2007 and opened on May 7, 2010 presenting public several exhibition spaces (Topographie des Terrors n.d.).
Influenced by the dark history of the site, Peter Zumthor claimed that he had hard time to react to the place, and reflect it in his architecture, therefore he proposed an idea of constructing a building of “pure structure that speaks no other language than the building materials, construction, and the unique purpose (of the site)” (Merin 2013). He designed a four story elongated building, aligned to the existing exhibition structure. The façades were meant to be of milk-glass framed between concrete columns creating a light, transparent rhythm (Scalco 2004).
Even though Zumthor’s project didn’t aim to be dominating, its monumentality would still stand out in the context of the surrounding. When core concrete structures were already erected in 1999 and about $18 million spent, politicians turned down Zumthor’s plan. The architect claimed, that the government didn’t have enough dedication to the project and even offered the adjustment in the budget. His project was never renewed. Already constructed parts were demolished in 2004 (Scalco 2004).
Willms and Hallmann Project
The similarity of the project of Willms and Hallmann to Zumthor’s design is that neither of them refer to symbolism. The pure meaning of the project is to provide information source. The simplicity of forms and materials are meant to be as minimalistic as possible. The two story steel and glass rectangle structure and the cracked grey stone surfaces of the site framed by the exhibition trenches were intended to be rationally neutral. They scrubby look is deliberately created to remind the public that the place was neglected for years (Divisare n.d.).
The new design of Willms and Hallmann has been discussed in many articles and publications, some relate to it negatively, others positively. Nevertheless, the place has attracted many tourist and has become one of the landmarks of Berlin.
Urban Context of the Topography of Terror
The location of the Topography of Terror is unique in many ways. Several layers of the city’s history are accumulated here. It is somewhat like a dump of Berlin’s memories awaiting to be decoded by visitors. The site is defined by the Berlin Wall that stands between the exhibition trench area and the former Prussian government building and the former Nazi Air Ministry building. Everything on the other side of the wall was reinterpreted. They found new function as the Berlin’s MP’s house and the Ministry of Finances of Germany. The monumentality of these structures are perfect representation of their power and importance, both in past and present. The Berlin Wall itself is the representative of the division of the city and the country during the Soviet times. It is the declaration that the similar events cannot be repeated in the contemporary history of Berlin. On the southern side of the Wall everything remains in ruins or traces. This huge area looks like an exposed wound in the heart of the city that has remained ajar for decades. The cellars of the Gestapo building, horrifying chambers where people were tortured and killed are open for visitors to view. The grey cracked paving stone that covers the ground surrounds the area from the outdoor exhibition trench to the very documentation center. It is striped by a path for visitors, stationed with places of significant historic meaning on the site. This monochromatic colour spectrum and the monumentality of the surrounding buildings make the emptiness of the place even more obvious. The trees that are bordering the site on the south of the it, provide inconceivable quality to the place. There is an initial feeling of sadness and fear even at the very first visit.
The site has perfect descriptors for creating an influential design, demonstrating what the terror must have been about, maybe creating a dominating structure that could mark the area as the scar, as the place is for the history of the city and the country. However, the architects decided to solve the given problem differently.
Architecture of the Topography of Terror
“Design should never say, ‘Look at me!’ It should always say, ‘Look at this!” – David Craib
The Topography of Terror consists of three important components: the documentation center, the exhibition trench and the Berlin Wall. The very last one is a frame to the whole site, unbeautified standing as a divisor representing a different story of terror. The exhibition trench that is organized along the wall, roofed by glass and metal structure, outlines the Gestapo cellar ruins that are located on a lower level. A tourist can have access to the exhibition by staircases and ramps. This part of the site is way sharper and more outspoken than a ghostlike, linear documentation center building to the south of the Wall, standing unaligned to any earlier structures or the street. Ursula Wilms and Heinz W. Hallamann have created a simple flat design, freestanding steel-reinforced concrete square, consisting of eight blocks, in the middle of the site. Its louvered façade acts as a sunscreen and also creates the effect of blurt transparency. There is no symbolism, no conceptual connection between the history of the site and the building. It is not a dominating structure drawing attention away from the place. There is no subjectivity in its slight and delicate design. It doesn’t try to impose the meaning of the site upon visitors. It creates natural environment for visitors by stand aside, not taking a lead to tell the story and let the audience interpret the meaning of the place, importance and heaviness of the events. The architects resign from orchestrating the site. They are not the narrators constructing a museum, a memorial place or a monument, but an anti-monument of the horrific events that are not to be commemorated but evaluated and disapproved. This is a places focused on the Nazi perpetrators, not the victims of the regime. Apparently they don’t deserve to have beautiful memorial, but a simple building with no ambition of impressing visitors.
The fact that the architects were trying to create an objective environment doesn’t mean that there is no organization or control over the visitor. The grey stone surrounds the pedestrian paths and restricts tourists from walking freely around the place. They are led along by this clearly defined track, marked by 15 stations and then down to the exhibition trench.
One could even think that the extreme neutrality has washed the history away and has become dominant in its own sense. This is definitely where the designers hit a controversial point. Where should an architect draw the line between being objective and giving up interpretation of the quality of the place in full? Do visitors need the freedom and neutrality to this extend, or should they be led by an architect? What is the goal, to leave the visitor with strong emotional influence, with rational understanding of events or with a bit of both? As already mentioned, Ursula Wilms and Heinz W. Hallamann try to be objective and neutral, as they simply see no other way to relate to a place as dark as the Topography of Terror (Paci 2014). Do they manage to meet the goal? Answer can be subjective, differing from an experience of one visitor to another. The architecture of the documentation center is not very inviting, neither it is intriguing by its design. Its exterior doesn’t cause curiosity in visitors, unless they come to the place specifically to learn more about the perpetrators of the Nazi regime, already knowing the function of the place. The Berlin Wall and the exhibition trench are way more dramatic and more attracting. They call tourists to take their time and explore the area, to read the information on the panels and learn more about the history that took place at the exact place. There is a strong feeling of authenticity when seeing the walls of the basements of a building that once was an author of Terror. The glass and steel structure that roofs the ruins has no additional influence over creating shrilling experience for the visitors. It simply frames the segments of ruins as pictures and presents them to the viewer with information boards as an exposition.
In contrast with the open exhibition, the documentation center is a bit undefined. It doesn’t seem to be a must see place for tourists who visit the exhibition trench. As it is meant to be ghost-like, non-dominating building, it may be perceived as less important.
Interior Space of the Documentation Center
The interior of the documentation center of the Topography of Terror is organized into eight blocks placed in a clear spatial order around a courtyard. Once having entered the building, the visitor appears in a large, universal space with information center and lockers on the right, the exhibition space on the left and a view over the reflecting pool in the courtyard. Four blocks around the courtyard are occupied by the exhibition space, the rest of the blocks are designed into an auditorium, classroom, administration rooms and a café area. The ground level is bedecked with an open grid ceiling that is merged with acoustic baffles, lights and other technical systems. The black floor tiles are in total contrast and give a feeling of a solid ground, instead of the diffusion effect that the ceiling creates. The openness of the space makes it possible to rearrange wall surfaces if needed.
A staircase on the ground floor in the foyer leads visitors downstairs. It is somewhat a ladder of curiosity that invites all persons concerned to learn more about the place. There they can find a library, conference hall, seminar rooms and facilities, the office of the Topography of Terror foundation and a memorial department, archive, plant rooms and rest rooms. All of these chambers are also arranged around the courtyard which is marked by a reflecting pool, closed and inaccessible for visitors. This can be one rare details of the design that might have something to do with symbolism. The pool can be interpreted as a place where the memories are collected, where one can mirror his past and meditate about the future. The only place in the documentation center that is associated with the victims of the Terror, not the perpetrators is in this exact courtyard.
The special characteristic of the documentation center is the transparency and openness. The louvered glass walls create the illusion of inexistence of any barriers at all. One might feel as if he is standing in the middle of the Topography of Terror, looking into the site, observing tourists rambling around, exploring a barky surface of the ground, leaning on the metal carcass of the exhibition trench, resting on benches, staring at the Berlin wall, contemplating about the past. All of a sudden a person who is in the interior appears outside, the building losses boundaries and merges with the surrounding. There is no way of escaping the visual contact with the exterior. Abruptly, the visitor becomes aware of the wholeness of the site. He is placed in the right context for being given an opportunity to learn more about the events from a different perspective. The experience is optional though, nothing in the design isforcing or orchestrating the viewer around.
Indoor Permanent Exhibition
Permanent indoor exhibition is dedicated to five main topics: The National Socialist takeover of power; the institution of terror; terror, persecution and extermination of Reich territory; the SS and the ReichSecurity Main Office in the occupied countries and the end of the war and the postwar period. It’s important to mention that none of the documents exhibited in the center are originals. Most of them are either photos, or copies of the documents, or three dimensional models. They are arranged in a chronological order and are very easy to follow. The panels are set up in the way, that they lead a visitor in a well-defined zigzag path. The exhibits are more readable than viewable. They provide facts about perpetrators of the regime, without telling the personal stories of the victims. As a visitor, one definitely feels more like in a library, where for receiving complete information it is necessary to carefully read through every explanatory panel. The interactive media, such as audio and video recordings, is scantily presented within the exhibition space. Interpretation boards are both in English and German. Free guided tours for individuals are offered in different languages every Saturday, that lasts about an hour. A tour guide tells the story of how the executors of the Nazi terror machine managed and instigated the persecution and murder of millions not only in Germany but also in Europe. The final question to be answered is how the perpetrators were treated in Germany after the war (Topographie des Terrors n.d.).
Remembering Perpetrators, Commemorating Victims
The Memorial of the Murdered Jews of Europe
The Topography of Terror is not the only site designed to interpret the events executed by the Nazi regime. Only a kilometer away from it is located one of the most visited and renowned monuments in Berlin, the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe designed by Peter Eisenmann. This place that looks like a cemetery is supposed to create the feeling of confusion. A visitor gets lost between 2711 stelae, some as high as five meters (Orte der Erinnerung 1933-1945 n.d.). They look lie gravestones, unevenly looking down at those willing to decode them. Maybe it is impossible to exactly know what the place is commemorating at the first sight, but it clearly has to do with something as tragic as death. Heavy, sinuous ground that gets people lost between its narrow alleys creates the sense of danger, instability and obscurity. Six million Jews murdered by the Nazi terror machine are remembered here without even mentioning their names. Some things can be felt without being said and they can mean more than words… The Memorial of the Murdered Jews, like the Topography of Terror, also has a documentation center. It is located underground and consists of four rooms that are arranged thematically. They are to provide information about the victims of the regime (Orte der Erinnerung 1933-1945 n.d.). The exhibitions present stories of individuals and families who suffered during the Holocaust. The interior is designed in a very theatrical way. The emphasis is made by the play of artificial lights in dark rooms, where the specific spots are illuminated to show their importance. Reading enlarged postcards on the floor surface written by the people who were about to be executed, is personal and very much emotional. As a visitor stands in a room filled by people in awkward silence, he gets virtually transported to the past, sharing fear, somewhat experiencing what it would have been like to be a Jew loaded on a vehicle, headed to a concentration camp with fellow people. The memorial also has a Room of Names, where a tourist can take a sit and listen to the readings of short biographies of the Jews executed while their names appear by projection on the four walls. The Memorial that looks like a resting place of those who were not even granted a proper burial lets visitors appear under the cemetery surface and learn personal stories of those whose names we have not even heard of.
When comparing the Topography of Terror and the Memorial of the Murdered Jews, one can find a lot of differences and similarities. The history presented in the first one is about perpetrators and in the second one, about the victims of the Nazi regime. The content of the stories and the way of displaying them in both documentation centers are totally different. At the Topography of Terror, the designers tried their best to be as emotionless as possible. Their minimalist approach to the project must have secured them the objectivity needed to process the history. When on the other hand, the Holocaust Memorial information center plays with the sentiments of visitors. The facts that are displayed develop dramatically from exhibit to exhibit, a tourist is to feel the emotional ups and downs going from one room to another. He becomes so involved that the experience is no more of an outsider. At the Topography of Terror this kind of involvement is deliberately avoided. It is important to mention that people remember facts easier, if they are connected to strong emotional experiences. Having observed tourists on both sites, it becomes clear that they relate to the Holocaust Memorial information center more than the one of the Topography of Terror.
Even though a lot is discussed about neutrality, one cannot state that either of the sites are fully objective or subjective in the relation to the history. The Topography of Terror is very much a black and white story, that only presents the facts about the perpetrators and the victims (perpetrators being in focus). There is nothing mentioned about other Germans, for example, who tried to help the victims. It is a very linear story that could be compared to a work of a chronicler. On the other hand, the history told by the Holocaust Memorial concerns itself only with the execution of Jews, the other groups of people are not mentioned. In the defense to this argument, one could say that separate monuments in Berlin commemorate those people. This is of course the truth, but the size and power of the Holocaust Memorial is definitely greater than of any others.
These two sites are a good representation of how the same period of history can be interpreted in totally different ways. Simply presented facts, or information and emotional reaction given at the same time are the ways of interpreting the past. The main difference between the two memorials is that one is located at an authentic site and the other isn’t. That is why the task of the architects are a bit different. One has to pay proper attention to the historic urban fabric and design accordingly. The other, on the other hand, has more possibilities to improvise at the place and create more theatrical scenario. In the end both serve to the purpose of remembering the events, the episode of the history that has to be revealed and never forgotten.
The Jewish Museum in Berlin
A masterpiece of Daniel Libeskind was constructed as an extension of an original Jewish Museum, a baroque building that was closed down by Nazis in 1938 (Kroll 2010). It can be referred as an artwork, a sculpture itself, every single architectural detail of which has strong, dictating influence on the emotions of visitors. This lightning looking zigzag representing a de-shaped star of David has a powerful story to tell. As the construction site is not authentic of the Jewish history in Germany, Libeskind creates it by designing three main routes, or axis and names them: “Axis of Continuity”, “Axis of Emigration” and “Axis of Holocaust” (Bianchini 2014), the routes the Jews have to go through when living in this country. To enter the building, the visitor has to first get into the old museum, go deep down to the basement and walk through a hall. This huge glowing monument with huge zinc façades, stripped with sharp windows, is not accessible form the street, standing detached, surrounded by trees. The exterior itself creates a strong statement and prepares visitors for something even more powerful. When standing at the outfall of the three routes, one can feel the suppressing influence of the simple, rough surfaces, the cutting light strips and the shades of grey. At the end of each axis an important space is to be found. The Axis of Continuity leads to the exhibition gallery, representing the history of the Jews; the Axis of Emigration takes us to the Garden of Exile, a small outdoor space filled with tall columns with plants on top of them. The ground here is undulated. Walking around makes a visitor dizzy, lost and uncomfortable. This space may be somewhat like the Holocaust Memorial, but with stronger emotional influence. The Axis of Holocaust leads to a heavy metal door. One has to push it hard to get into a tower, a very large, cold vertical space. The light is minimal there. Only very small amount of natural light gets in from narrow strips of openings that symbolically bring in some hope. Street noises can be heard from the outside and they are echoed once they enter. Here the feeling of hiding and fear is revived in the most dramatic way possible.
In the Jewish Museum the exhibits are not the main concentration. The architectural forms have become the storytellers. Emotion and experience is created by space and light and they are definitely very strong. The museum is not about who were the perpetrators and who were the victims, but what the Jews felt like living in this epoch. A visitor experiences the feelings of those people specifically.
The Jewish Museum and the Topography of Terror are two totally different institutions from the very core. Firstly, the location of both are drastically different. Libeskind has total freedom of creating the volume he wants, not having anything authentic to keep in mind. Willms, on the other hand, has to consider the Berlin wall, the ruins of the SS building and inscribe her project in the urban context. Her goal is to be objective, neutral, when Libeskind is very subjective, dictating his interpretation of the history to the visitors. The documentation center of the Topography of Terror is all about the facts. One has to read through every information panel, look at all the photos to make conclusions. In the Jewish Museum exhibits are there as a background, they are not central. The emotional experience is the focus. If the architecture of at the Niederkirchnerstrasse is light, transparent, delicate and minimalistic, the shapes and forms here are heavy and suppressing. No transparency at all, minimal contact with the outside.
These two sites are, of course, conveying two different messages, the roots of which come from the same episode of the history. Both places are controversial and attract curious individuals. The question is: leaving which of these two places make visitors think of what happened in the past? It is indeed and individual experience. One can be moved by the Jewish Museum and encouraged to learn more about the facts and the history. The other may be educated by the information provided at the documentation center and feel totally satisfied, having no need to go through subjective interpretation of specific experience. It will always be a matter of taste and personality. But once again, emotions are easier to recall than facts and this could be the reason, why the Jewish Museum would be a place to remember more.
Interpreting a historic site and designing a memorial, a museum or an education center at an authentic place is truly a challenge. Architects can be tempted to create dominant, powerful structures to influence visitors. But what is the task in the case of the Topography of Terror? Are the existing ruins of the previous structures more important than the new building? Would something more outspoken than today’s documentation center have drawn the attention away from the surrounding that has its own story to tell? We can only speculate about these issues. The fact is that the site of the Topography of Terror has become one of the most visited places in Berlin. It meets the original concept of the Foundation, conserves the ruins of the Gestapo buildings keeping them open for public viewing, presents objective documentation of the events that took place there and tells the story of the perpetrates.
It’s a different matter how other similar sites are dealt with. There is no identical case, of course, and that is why every approach varies from another. Some places are memorable because their influential architecture or the exhibition design, but in the end all of them memorialize the past events and pass important information to future generations.
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