The accountability of architecture: how do you manage historic buildings where terrible things have happened?


How should one generally treat architecture that represents the horrors of the past but at the same time keeps the memories alive? In Germany, with its history dating back to Nazi and GDR times, there are enough examples of different approaches: from the restored Haus der Kunst in Munich and the demolished and preserved concentration camps to the demolished Palace of the Republic in Berlin. Should memory always be structurally preserved?

A general answer cannot be given, if only because “memory” does not exist: memory, even collective memory, is always the result of negotiation processes and value attributions. This makes the “remembering” fluid: many historically encumbered places have not been in the collective consciousness as such for a long time, either because of their geographical location, or through ignorance, or because their former function has been actively suppressed. It’s not uncommon for people to take the initiative to campaign for a historic site and draw attention to its importance. However, in order to translate these insights into concrete policy action and ultimately into state budget planning as well, a functioning civil society is needed.

What does it mean specifically? Is it necessary to turn such buildings into a museum, or rather into a modern building? How do you bring buildings to the present day while still honoring their history?

In general, there are many ways to deal with these historically burdened places. In many cases they are displayed in museums with municipal or state patronage and therefore made accessible to the public, so the structural traces must be documented and suitably preserved. In Germany, the question arose of how to deal appropriately with structural relics, especially from the National Socialist era. In the post-war period, the concept of coping with demolition often prevailed: where there were no more buildings, the question of their history and meaning no longer seemed to arise. This is obviously a mistake, as the past cannot be destroyed with the wrecking ball.

The Olympic Stadium in Berlin, completed in 1936, is one of several successful examples of how a historically charged place retains its testimony value through information panels or guided tours and at the same time can be used daily and also commercially. one place can throw up.

And sometimes it takes years to find the right solution…

Correct. An essential factor that can contribute to adequately addressing historically burdened places is time: in many cases it takes decades before an awakened awareness of the importance of a place can lead to a good solution. In Berlin, for example, the former location of buildings used by the Gestapo and the SS had been denied for decades. Since the 1980s, public awareness has grown that this place needed explanation and comment, and it was only in 2010 that today’s “Topography of Terror” documentation center was opened.

In Mamula it was the decision of the Montenegrin government, despite many protests, to lease the island to the billionaire Samih Sawiris for 49 years. What is the responsibility of politics?

Politicians are responsible for those decisions. At the same time, civil society has a duty, because in such cases politicians often choose the path of supposedly less public resistance. Apparently, when the decision was made, it was expected that there would be no resistance to letting the problematic property and revenue could be generated for the public sector. Or that at least the costs for securing and the possible change of use of the island and the fortress could be outsourced by renting them. A different way of managing the island and the former fortress of Mamula would probably have been financed with tax money. This would also have been a prerequisite for a wider public debate about whether this facility could be used and what it might look like. Criticism of the commercialization of the island should begin with the question of whether such prime properties – even without a problematic history – should be commercialized and then withdrawn from public use.

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