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Reaching its goal

With the World Cup, Berlin's retooled Olympic Stadium moves beyond its Nazi past.

June 07, 2006|Christopher Hawthorne | Times Staff Writer

Berlin — SINCE winning the right six years ago to hold the 2006 World Cup, Germany has raced to build new stadiums and update old ones around the country. Some of these soccer temples have already become architectural icons, including the dazzling Allianz Arena in Munich by the Swiss firm Herzog & de Meuron, where the opening match will take place on Friday.

But none of the World Cup venues -- and few buildings of any kind in Germany, for that matter -- hold more political and cultural meaning than Berlin's Olympic Stadium. If the German capital has been filled with cranes and ghosts since the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, nowhere have they faced off as publicly as in the huge sunken stadium on the leafy western outskirts of the city, where a total of six World Cup matches will be held, including the final on July 9.

The stadium was designed by architect Werner March for the 1936 Summer Games, its stripped-down limestone forms creating an appropriately severe backdrop for Leni Riefenstahl's documentary "Olympia." At a cost of more than $250 million, the building has been restored and modernized for the World Cup, complete with a new glass and steel roof, by the Hamburg-based von Gerkan, Marg and Partners.

GMP, as the firm is known, is building all over Germany at the moment. Many of its prominent projects, including the new central train station in Berlin, which opened 10 days ago, are executed in a bland, over-scaled version of High-Tech style. But its work on the Olympic Stadium is exquisite; it ranks among the most impressive architectural balancing acts in a city that has seen quite a few of them lately.

Indeed, in the six years since it recaptured its place as Germany's single capital, Berlin has been forced to rebuild, at a breakneck pace, and reckon with the past at the same time. Its architectural impulses, as a result, have ranged wildly. They have included a desire to wipe certain prominent symbols of Communist East Berlin from the map, including the squat Palace of the Republic, a 1976 landmark of Soviet kitsch that is in the midst of a rather slow demolition.

There has also been, of course, very public penance for Nazi crimes -- producing, among other monuments, Peter Eisenman's Holocaust memorial, which opened last year on a prominent site in central Berlin -- and a seemingly bottomless demand for new construction. The building boom has brought a new generation of German architects to prominence and provided commissions for a long list of famous foreign names, including Frank Gehry, I.M. Pei, Renzo Piano, Rafael Moneo, Zaha Hadid and Rem Koolhaas.

The most hotly debated of these projects have involved renovating older landmarks with connections to the Nazi regime: Norman Foster's glass dome for the Reichstag, for example, went through seemingly endless variations, each one played out in excruciating detail in the media. Since it was finished in 1999, the new Reichstag has become the preeminent architectural symbol of 21st century Berlin. You can buy a miniature model of it in nearly every trinket shop in the city.

But the stadium, in many ways, represented a special case. To begin with, most German soccer fans -- not to mention some officials at FIFA, the sport's governing body -- were eager to get rid of it for reasons that had little to do with politics or history. Because it was designed to accommodate a range of sports, with the broad running track where Jesse Owens triumphed in 1936 dividing the field from the first row of seats like a moat, those critics consider it a relic, entirely unsuitable for a tournament devoted to soccer.

At the same time, it was difficult to get around the fact, even before the recent restoration started, that the stadium was not only better preserved but also better designed than virtually any other Nazi landmark, displaying a surprising spare elegance to go with its expected muscularity. Six decades after the end of the war, it is still something of a taboo here to judge the buildings used by Hitler on purely aesthetic grounds. After all, both Hitler's architect Albert Speer -- who according to some historians had a significant hand in the Olympic Stadium's final design -- and Riefenstahl defended themselves after the war precisely by suggesting that the art they produced for the Nazi regime could be neatly separated from its policies.

The historical record suggests something quite different: From the moment Hitler took power in 1933 he was intensely interested in the relationship between propaganda and athletic spectacle. Riefenstahl, for her part, first fell under Hitler's thrall after she heard him speak at a rally at Berlin's Sportpalast, later the site of Joseph Goebbels' 1943 "total war" speech. And Speer earned a trust unique among Hitler's advisors in large part thanks to his Nazi rally grounds in Nuremberg. Compared to that design, March's Olympic Stadium, its playing field sunk 45 feet below grade, always struck Hitler as rather too timid.

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