How to Build a Monument to Nazi Evil Without Celebrating It

Berlin’s new “Topography of Terror” exhibition center documents, doesn’t honor, the Gestapo and the SS.

Topography of Terror


 These were some of the most evil 11 acres in Germany, a place where Nazi leaders hatched plans to terrorize millions as casually as you might send an email. Heinrich Himmler had an office there. So did Adolf Eichmann, the “architect of the Holocaust.” It was there that, in a matter of months, German democracy began to crumble.

Sixty-five years on, Berlin has transformed the Topography of Terror, a
cluster of buildings that housed the Gestapo, the SS, and other police
agencies from 1933 to 1945, into an exhibition space trained on the
elaborate workings and aftermath of the Third Reich. The center opens
this week
. It’s the site’s first permanent landmark, after more than 20
years of fits and starts, and the problem it confronts is a vexing one
for architects: How do you document evil without building a monument to

Topography of Terror


Ursula Wilms with Heinle, Wischer und Partner has designed an anti-monument of
sorts. A box ensconced in a gunmetal gray skin, it crouches low to the
earth, ghost-like, practically fading into the Berlin landscape. Save a
reflecting pool in the inner courtyard, it’s minimal to the point of
being utilitarian, and that’s precisely the point. There’s nothing to
consecrate, no one to adulate, nothing to be proud of. In the great
tradition of Maya Lin’s Vietnam Memorial, it exists for the sake of

Topography of Terror

Wilms’s design is not the first. Berlin scrapped Swiss architect Peter
‘s plans to plant a structure on the old Gestapo headquarters after $18 million was spent on
construction, partly because of budget overruns and partly, one
suspects, because the design had some powerful detractors. One member
of the German government’s media and culture department called it,
rather disparagingly, a “very complicated and a very artificial plan.”

Topography of Terror

Until now, visitors to the Topography of Terror snaked along a
makeshift outdoor exhibit with informational placards thrown up here
and there. The SS and Gestapo buildings were badly damaged in the war
then razed (though some scraps remain and have been incorporated
into an informal walking tour). Over the years, the site has been both
home to construction companies and a place to practice for your
driver’s license. The Berlin Wall rose, then fell, just feet away.

Berlin has done an excellent job commemorating the victims of Nazi
Germany, unlike some cities
(subscription required). Daniel Libeskind unveiled his Jewish Museum Berlin in 2001,
and Peter Eisenman‘s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe opened four years later. But
architecture for perpetrators is in many ways a trickier feat. Wilms’s
design manages to point at a dark period of history without prettying it up.


[Photos courtesy of the Topography of Terror]


About the author

Suzanne LaBarre is the editor of Co.Design. Previously, she was the online content director of Popular Science and has written for the New York Times, the New York Observer, Newsday, I.D