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A Grand Design for Nazi Camp

UCLA architecture professor's plans for transforming the Sachsenhausen facility into an artistic memorial trigger a debate.

January 17, 1998|MARY WILLIAMS WALSH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Most emphatically yes, said some, particularly those living in the snug, cottage-like houses originally built for the SS guards. They saw in Libeskind an interloper who could not possibly understand how much East Germans had suffered during the Communist years and who now had the audacity to stand in their way when they tried, at long last, to do something good for themselves.

Preservationists Have Divided Reaction

Historic preservationists, meanwhile, were pleased that Libeskind did not want to build apartment buildings--but they were horrified by what he wanted to do instead.

"Libeskind's design had nothing to do with what happened here," argues Morsch of the Brandenburg Memorials Foundation.

"The problem is, there is such a gap between the terror of the Nazi dictatorship and the banality of the Nazis' buildings that artists always feel compelled to fill this gap with art," he says.

In 1994, the city of Oranienburg took a stand: The mayor thanked the Austrian architect who had won the competition but announced that Oranienburg would not be using his design after all. A long period of debate over what to do instead followed, with public forums, seminars, lectures and newspaper columns.

Some townspeople warmed to the thought that a big work of conceptual art, by a famous architect, might attract visitors and enhance local prosperity. Even some historic preservationists came around because they realized that without any agreed-upon course of action, Sachsenhausen would simply disintegrate.

"This clash has been going on for years, and meanwhile, the buildings are falling to pieces," Morsch says. "We have a word in German for this process: [translating as] 'cold demolition.' In other words, you don't destroy the buildings on purpose, you just let them rot.

"We historians want to have all our documentation, and if we get it, then we are content," he adds. "But maybe, for normal people, that's not enough. Maybe they need some works of art too."

Art and History Can Coexist at Camp Site

In this spirit of compromise, an agreement was finally reached last year: Historic preservation and artistic provocation were not mutually exclusive; they could co-exist at Sachsenhausen.

Now Libeskind is working on his final plans for Sachsenhausen, specifying which of the Nazis' tumbledown buildings are to be demolished, which should be restored, what new artistic elements should be built and what, exactly, the Hope Incision building will look like.

He has dropped his radical sunken architectural zone. If any baptism is to be achieved here in the future, it will be through the use of waters flowing demurely through a system of artistically placed canals.

"This is a strange fate," Libeskind says of his role in the Sachsenhausen affair. "It was only by chance that I was invited to do this project. And I must say, I will never again be asked to do anything by the state of Brandenburg. But if I had not been invited, today there would be a huge, 8,000-unit housing estate on this site, with bus lines running through it."

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