October 1, 2010
At the Venice Architecture Biennale, German architects call for the demolition of a controversial national symbol.
On the second day of the Venice Architecture Biennale’s opening weekend, a blur of cocktail parties, panel discussions, and architecture-world gossip known as the vernissage, a sizable crowd gathered in the late-August heat for a press conference at the German pavilion. Reporters, architects, and a few Italian and German dignitaries sipped mineral water from plastic champagne flutes on the stone steps of the building, one of two dozen national pavilions that dot the leafy Biennale grounds. Inside, a performance artist named Ida-Marie Corell strummed a guitar and sang in an arch, presumably ironic warble. Hanging on the walls behind her was a collection of drawings by dozens of German and foreign architects commissioned by the pavilion’s curators, Cordula Rau and Eberhard Tröger, on the rather vague subject of “what architects desire.”
The scene was typical of the Biennale, where the curators of the national pavilions compete to see who can produce the most buzz. The difference for the Germans was that much of the chatter about their pavilion this year had to do with the fate of the building itself. In June, Arno Sighard Schmid, the head of the Federal Chamber of German Architects, called for the German pavilion to be torn down because of its connections to Nazi history. The building was designed in 1909 by the Italian architect Daniele Donghi to resemble a Greek temple, but in 1939 it was revamped in a matter of weeks by the German architect Ernst Haiger to give it a more imposing and muscular style. Haiger replaced Donghi’s slender Ionic columns with heavy, squared-off Teutonic ones. The sculptor Arno Breker, meanwhile, added busts of Hitler and Mussolini to the exterior. (They have since been removed.) For Schmid, the building is an embarrassment and, as he told London’s Independent newspaper, “is neither suitable for art nor architecture.”
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The German pavilion has long been controversial, but Schmid’s comments have given concerns about its Nazi links fresh momentum, thrusting the story into the European media over the summer and attracting similar sentiments from a number of other architects and artists. But his view is by no means universal. Just as the opening press conference was winding down, Rau and Tröger, both architects, sat in the pavilion’s high-ceilinged main room and said calls to knock it down were shortsighted. Rather than discussing the Nazi period in frank, open terms, Rau says, “there is often this tendency to erase these issues from German history.”
As it happens, open-mindedness about architectural history is a key theme of this year’s Biennale, which was curated by the Japanese architect Kazuyo Sejima, of the Tokyo firm SANAA. Instead of showing one spectacular digital rendering after another, Sejima tried a more tactile and restrained approach. Her implicit argument was that architects, before they rush to create anything new, should spend some time con-templating the buildings and cities we already have. Tröger tends to agree. “There is still a legacy of modernist thinking that says we have to renew everything all the time,” he says. “But this is an awkward understanding of architecture, which is also about history and layers. Architecture must grow not by removing what came before but confronting it or adding to it.”