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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.

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

Topography of Terror

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

Topography of Terror

Wilms’s design is not the first. Berlin scrapped Swiss architect PeterZumthor‘s plans to plant a structure on the old Gestapo headquarters after $18 million was spent onconstruction, partly because of budget overruns and partly, onesuspects, because the design had some powerful detractors. One memberof 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 amakeshift outdoor exhibit with informational placards thrown up hereand there. The SS and Gestapo buildings were badly damaged in the warthen razed (though some scraps remain and have been incorporatedinto an informal walking tour). Over the years, the site has been bothhome to construction companies and a place to practice for yourdriver’s license. The Berlin Wall rose, then fell, just feet away.

Berlin has done an excellent job commemorating the victims of NaziGermany, 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. Butarchitecture for perpetrators is in many ways a trickier feat. Wilms’sdesign manages to point at a dark period of history without prettying it up.

[Photos courtesy of the Topography of Terror]

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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

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