Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Hitlertown


In German art, a battle of death and life is raging,” Eric von Vessen quotes Paul Schultze-Naumburg, who was director of the Weimar art academy in the 1930s and coined the maxim ‘Art must be created from blood and soil.’ Von Vessen has a high forehead, fine, sand colored hair and thin mustache. He is good-looking in a ruggedly intellectual way. He’d be able to blend in on a construction site as well as at a conference on European architecture, which he both does regularly.

Born in 1948, von Vessen, after a career as architect with Eber and Carp in South Florida, where he developed shopping plazas and residential areas, found himself “longing for a challenge.” He’d made a fortune in his profession, his wife Elise inherited her father’s pharmacy empire, and his life at age fifty could not have been more comfortable. “It was deadening,” he exclaims, “absolutely deadening.”

He confesses that the approaching new millennium made him review his work of twenty-five years. He concluded that everything he’d built had been built “for today, and therefore was already crumbling. It was as if I had planned and built ruins. Dozens of the malls I designed have been torn down, the developments have turned into slums.” Von Vessen had to build for the future if he wanted to be remembered. He dreamed of an architecture that was large, well-crafted and everlasting, imagined monuments of pride.

Von Vessen, who had acquainted himself with Hitler’s favorite architect Albert Speer’s work during college, found that Speer had answers for his questions.

“I understood,” he says and laughs, “that Speer was maybe the last architect who had the imagination and the power to transform an entire country. What he didn’t have,” von Vessen adds wistfully, “was time.”

In 1999, the architect sold his stakes in Eber and Carp and bought the estate of John Erring, “a vast piece of nothingness,” in Southeast Nevada. “It was ideal,” von Vessen notes. Speer, if the Nazis had stayed in power, would have had to tear down large parts of Berlin to create what he and Hitler envisioned for the German capital. “Tear down the old, erect the new. For us, it was much easier. We were able to start from scratch.”

Just in time to celebrate the new millennium, von Vessen and his crew of 640 started work on Germania, the city Hitler and Speer could not finish. “Oh yes,” the architect says, “we had plenty of champagne ready for the occasion.”

During research for what von Vessen simply calls “his life,” he had a lucky strike of monumental proportions. “Speer built a model of Germania, 1:50, back in the 1930s. There were photos, of course, but the model was thought to have been lost during air raids on Berlin in ’45.” One day back in the spring of ’99, von Vessen received a call from New England. “This guy, Albert Leary, he had heard of my plans for building Germania through the press. We had tried to keep a low profile, but a project of that scale...He had an old barn, he said on the phone, but refused to tell me what he kept in there. He just said I’d be a fool if I wouldn’t make the trip.” Von Vessen, after receiving a second call, decided to give it a shot. In May of that same year, he arrived in Entport, New Hampshire.

“So we go to his barn, and this guy is behaving like an insane magician. We have to pull away tons of straw and wood, and I’m starting to curse my curiosity when we finally pull out this gigantic wooden crate.” Von Vessen stretches his arms like an angler to indicate how big his find was. “We have to work half an hour to open the front of the crate: more straw – I was going crazy.” But he stayed and after another hour, “there, in the middle of this red New England barn, stood the Great Hall, Albert Speer’s model of Germania’s centerpiece.”

Leary’s father, a major in the U.S. army, had shipped his souvenir to America after ’45, in a transaction that, von Vessen claims, “took guts and a good deal of bribery.”

The architect bought Speer’s Kuppelhalle, and today, weeks after his own Great Hall has been opened to the public, it occupies a special place in Germania’s Reichskanzlei. “The model helped me through all the tough times, it was a source of inspiration, it kept up my faith.”

Some of the hard times arrived when outraged citizens organized a protest tour and arrived in Nevada with banners demanding ‘Down with the Nazis,’ and ‘Stop Facism.’

“They smeared buildings and monuments, left their garbage everywhere, and threatened to hurt workers. The police wouldn’t do a thing,” von Vessen remembers, and after the first wave of angry opponents, he brought in security. “I didn’t imagine Germania with watchmen and fences. It was a city I wanted to give to my people, to all citizens of this country. But policing Germania was the only way to protect my vision.”

His vision has been called ‘neo-fascist,’ a ‘Triumph of the Ill Will,’ and a “monument to Hitler and his genocidal politics.” But von Vessen won’t have any of that. He claims that condemning Speer’s architecture is an act that confuses politics and aesthetics. “His ideas are judged by Hitler’s killings.” This view, von Vessen claims, doesn’t do justice to the architecture realized in 1930s Germany. “We look at Speer’s buildings and think, Ooh, how shocking, these buildings breathe Nazism, breath murder and death, when really, all over Europe, you see the same style of neo-classicism, and think nothing of it. The evil people associate with Germania is a false interpretation. Hitler also built the autobahn, and people use highways without thinking, Oh my God, this asphalt is absolutely terrifying.”

Yet so far, he hasn’t convinced the growing lobby of people who want Germania to be shut down. The state of Nevada has tried to stop work on Hitlertown, as Germania is widely known in the region. After an unfavorable court decision, von Vessen had to let construction rest for several weeks, but the architect won the appeal. And although his case still awaits hearing in front of the Supreme Court, in the meantime, “Germania is growing, definitely.”

The new Great Hall seats 234,000, is 250 meters wide, and 290 high. Stone was imported from all over the Americas, Italy, and Germany. “We ran into problems early on,” von Vessen admits. “More than 200,000 people breathing and perspirating under a dome – it seemed impossible to avoid fog rendering the interior invisible.” But the installation of an intricate ventilation system – each of the green plush seats is vented and can be cooled or heated – was a giant step in the right direction. “It shrank seating capacity, but something had to give.” In the end, the problem was solved by breaking with Speer’s original plans. “We made the dome retractable.” Von Vessen says, and adds with a smirk, “Who knows? We may be awarded an NFL expansion team one day.”

Yet, as of today, Germania’s population is a meager 5,823, half of them construction workers and security guards. The rest are small entrepreneurs who supply the town with food and other daily necessities. When Hitler made plans to build his new Reichshauptstadt, Berlin was a thriving metropolis. Life would have been altered and redirected by vast reconstruction projects – the Spree River was to be re-routed to accommodate the ambitious North South axis -- but four million people were ready to make Germania their own.

Who will walk and drive along the 38.5 kilometer-long Paradestrasse, the North South axis Hitler was dreaming of? Who will promenade under the 117 meter high, 170 meter wide, and 119 meter deep Triumphbogen? Paris’ Arc de Triomphe could be placed within von Vessen’s monument. As of yet, only workers and security guards in their black and blue uniforms are regulars on Germania’s streets.

“We take our clues from Vegas,” Elise von Vessen says in front of the Great Hall. She is ten years younger than her husband, tanned and in good shape. She’s wearing a light Armani suit and likes to show new visitors around. She’s also in charge of a national advertising campaign that tries to bring new businesses and hotel chains to Germania. “You build it, they come. It’s not as easy as in the movies, but we will achieve our goals. It’s a matter of imagination and daring.” In 2001, more than 50,000 Americans and tourists from overseas flocked to Germania. Elise von Vessen plans to quadruple the numbers each year. “The city is growing, and we will keep the public interested in our wonderful buildings,” she promises. “People are already coming. Now we have to convince them to stay.”

Her husband of twenty years can only shake his head at questions about his city’s future. One day in his office at the Reichskanzlei, comfortably dressed in a blue sweat suit – he is an avid jogger and ran with both Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton -- he tries to answer them nevertheless. “However much I hated doing malls, the knowledge I gained comes in handy. You don’t build where the infrastructure is too weak to support you. The time of our forefathers who built settlements in the desert and hoped the railroad might lay tracks through their town are over.” Work on a highway connecting Germania with Interstate 80 has been underway since the previous year and is close to completion. An airport reminiscent of Berlin Tempelhof will open soon.

Also planned for the immediate future is the Soldatenhalle, a gargantuan building that, in Hitler’s plans, was supposed to house a Hall of Honor with sarcophagi holding the remains of high ranking military officers. Now it will house a casino with more than 600 first class rooms. The Reichskanzlei too will invite visitors to gamble. The extravagant marble moasaics and tapestries were once said to document the fascists’ drive toward power. Now the offices Hitler imagined will be turned into five-star restaurants and about 300 high-end luxury suites.

Without investors, even a rich man such as von Vessen would not have been able to erect “a single wall of the Kuppelhalle.” But support has been steady and is growing nation and worldwide. “Our sources won’t dry up any time soon.” As proof, developments, townhouses, and several signature high-rises are going up in Germania. “Our workers; they need modern housing, they need stores. Trailers will be outlawed soon around here. We have created 2,500 jobs, long-term, more will be created each year.” Certain sections of Germania, starting with the area close to the Triumphbogen, will see luxury mansions. “It will be as desirable as Beverly Hills, Paris and Venice taken together. We have a unique opportunity here, and we won’t let it slip away.”

Others seem to share von Vessen’s optimism. “You see,” Ernest B., a construction worker putting the finishing touches on a row of pseudo-Gründerzeit apartment houses, says, “we’re developing the West all over again.” Isn’t he concerned about the public’s often hostile reaction to Germania? Don’t the security guards scare off tourists? “No,” he says. “When the people come, the guards will be gone. This is just the kind of project that thrives in this country. Yeah, you might have some rough stretches, but the sky’s the limit for your imagination.”

Many of the newly built apartments are still empty. Does that worry him? “They’re real nice. Wait till the casino and the girls come. We have jobs here. I mean, there’ll be jobs for the next fifty, sixty years. And it doesn’t matter where you find a job, not even what job it is. It’s important you have one.” He points to the slogan on his dirty-white T-shirt, ‘Germania – I’ve seen the future.’ “We’re in the right place at the right time.”

A state official who speaks on the condition of anonymity explains, “In Idaho or Montana – this guy would have fallen on his face, but this is Nevada. Once the court gives him green light, there’ll be nothing to stop him. Casinos and prostitution – Hitlertown is well equipped for the challenge. This is a place to die for. It will be a hip place to live, party, and spend lots of money.”

But von Vessen wants more than a fun place. “This project is bigger than myself, my money, influence. It’s bigger than anyone can imagine right now. Yes, the city has to grow, take its time, but however long that will take, the Great Hall will be here when it’s needed. Hitler was the last visionary leader, a leader who was willing to form a country after his ideas.” Von Vessen keeps a photo of the Führer in his desk. “Totalitarian, yes, cruel, yes again, but visionary nonetheless. Take Napoleon or Caesar. They were despots, yet were – and still are – revered. We still go to Europe to look at the remains of what they created. With Germania, I give people the chance to experience what Hitler intended them to see. His vision was once cut short, but is now here to stay.”

2 comments: