Sunday, February 12, 2012

Germania Redux

The 1930–31 worldwide economic collapse halted Berlin’s social housing experiment, leaving the Nazis to beat a dead horse. Just as the “Brown” cloud approached, Berlin’s 1931 Building Exhibition (titled “Dwelling of Our Time”) introduced modernism to a wider audience. Berlin’s historicist tradition of outstanding villas in suburban districts (Hermann Muthesius’s 1907–08 half-timbered Haus Freudenberg or Behrens’s 1911–12 classical Haus Wiegand) had already been updated with Hans and Wassili Luckhardt’s Le Corbusian Zwei Einfamilienhäuser (1928) and Mendelsohn’s Expressionist Haus Sternefeld (1924). Yet the 1931 Exhibition publicly interjected “Bolshevist” aesthetics into bourgeois—as opposed to proletariat—homes. Mies translated his German Pavilion at Barcelona into a lush exhibit house that the Nazis labeled a “horse stable.”

Though grand planners, Berlin’s Nazis built little. Only bits survive—such as Ernst Sagebiel’s Aviation Ministry (1936–37) and Tempelhof Airport (1936–41). Hitler impacted modernism not through buildings but inadvertently through expellant “gifts” (mostly to the United States—Gropius, Mies, and ultimately Mendelsohn). Although architecture—the “Word in Stone”—was critical to Hitler’s ideological program, it proved too costly after his war machine’s ignition. Still, until the bitter end, Hitler crouched as amateur architect over vast models with his amanuensis, Albert Speer. How sad for the profession that the 20th-century leader most architecturally impassioned was a tasteless criminal. Hitler’s architectural proclivities were vivid—a reactionary parochialism intended to resist “Bolshevist” cosmopolitanism and a perdurable monumentality in keeping with world domination. As Nazi preferences hardened, the Dessau Bauhaus was chased to Berlin (during Mies’s directorate), where the Gestapo finally padlocked it. Nazi aesthetics mirrored—with opposing predilection—the Weimar Socialists’ belief that architectural style symbolized specific political views. However, the Nazis added a destructive, racist edge. The Nazi-fomented Kristallnacht (Night of Broken Glass, 1938) saw 9 of 12 Berlin synagogues aflame, including Ehrenfried Hessel’s famed Fasanenstraße Temple (1912).

Speer’s New Chancellery expansion (1938–39) housed Hitler. Stretching an intimidating quarter mile, its 480-foot gallery doubled the length of Versailles’ Hall of Mirrors. Hypertrophy drained Speer’s classicism of all humanism (entasis, for example, disappeared). Megalomania roamed across Speer’s unrealized “Germania” Berlin Plan (1937–42). This north/south avenue connected an 825-foot-diameter rotunda and 400- foot-high triumphal arch. Contemporary praise of Speer (Krier, 1985) ignores his errors. Speer blithely muffed axial transitions any Beaux-Arts journeyman could manage. Existing conditions at the Chancellery necessitated a slight axial rotation. Speer properly positioned a “Round Hall” to resolve this, then neglected to utilize it, merely crimping the bend within the poché. Where his Berlin Plan’s axis turned, he positioned his gargantuan rotunda but again earned no profit. The existing Reichstag, which Hitler wanted incorporated into “Germania,” had been built several degrees shy of due north/south. Speer merely ignored this, causing one side of his grand plaza to warp bizarrely. Speer’s architectural goose-stepping could successfully accommodate only 4 of the 360 compass degrees.

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