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The last resort

Hitler's legacy weighs heavily on the ex-Nazi 'holiday camp' of Prora, standing as a monument to a time many would wish to forget. Andrea Wulf feels Atelier Kempe Thill's new youth hostel is a chance for change that must not be wasted

It sounds like a property developer's dream: more than 100ha of land along one of the most beautiful beaches on the Baltic holiday island of R³gen at a fraction of the going rate.

But instead of being inundated with offers, the owner - the German government - has been desperately trying to get rid of Prora. Also called the 'Colossus of the Baltic', it is reputedly the longest concrete building in the world. Last month the German government succeeded in selling one small part of it, but there seem to be few other takers as it is saddled with a dark legacy and riddled with controversy.

Prora was Hitler's brainchild and part of the Nazi movement KdF (Kraft durch Freude - 'Strength through Joy') where, Hitler envisaged, the Germans would experience total holidays in order to be prepared for 'total war'. Once a year, each German was meant to gather energy for their factory jobs and the battlefield. Hitler declared that its purpose was the 'strengthening of people's nerves' - the same nerves that had, according to him, lost Germany the First World War. In Prora and in four other planned seaside resorts, people would be 'overhauled' as if they were machinery - a suitable metaphor for the cogs in Hitler's war machine.

The architect Clemens Klotz, whose surname appropriately means 'lump' or 'massive' in German, designed a building that followed the curve of the sandy beach for 4.5km. It consisted of eight dormitory buildings, each more than 500m long and six storeys high, connected by large 'community houses'. Ten thousand identical rooms provided sea views, two beds, a cupboard, seating, a table and a sink - all in 10m 2. To ensure that the 20,000 holidaymakers had no time to think, they were to be entertained continuously with cinemas, gyms, indoor swimming pools with wave machines, shops and restaurants. In the centre of the complex, Hitler, with his penchant for architecture, requested a festival hall that would hold all 20,000 visitors. In front of it was the quay for the KdF cruisers that would bring the visitors. As such, Prora was the sinister precursor of mass tourism.

Unlike much other Nazi architecture, Prora was designed in a Modernistic style rather than in the typical 'Heimatstil' vernacular or monumental Neo-Classicism. The only 'decoration' of the enormous facade comprised more than 10,000 identical windows. Based on a modular system, the building repeated the same elements endlessly: corridors, stairwells, rooms, communal parts and so on. Only the 'community houses' would - had they been built - have softened the hard line of the main building, with their semicircular sea-side glazed facades that extended to the beach, looking like Art Deco ocean liners. Prora was a 'linear city' and its design was so innovative that it won the Grand Prix at the World Fair in Paris in 1937.

The foundation stone was laid in 1936.

Work came to a halt with the beginning of the war in 1939. The 10 'community houses', the swimming pools and the festival hall were never built. No holidaymaker ever stayed at Prora; instead, it housed refugees and wounded soldiers after the bombing of Hamburg. After the war, the Soviet Army blew up one of the dormitory blocks but failed to destroy the two most northern blocks. Their ghostly skeletons have become the home of rare birds and bats.

Buying times Since 23 September the blocks have a new owner. An anonymous bidder paid .625,000 (£438,000) - five times the reserve price - for the two ruins and the surrounding land.

Although a similar-sized plot would probably have cost three times as much along this beach, it was pricy for a property with which the new owner will be able to do little, as the ruins have been listed as historical monuments and declared a nature reserve. Neither will the new owner be able to build anything new, as the local council refuses planning permission.

Selling Prora in bits is part of the piecemeal approach the German government has adopted after failing to find a purchaser for the whole complex. During the past decade investors have talked of golf courses, aqua parks, holiday apartments and old people's homes, but most projects have become embroiled in political disputes on a national and regional level. The local hotel lobby, for example, has done everything to stop investors turning Prora into a hotel, as this would increase the number of beds on the island by one-third. The two competing museums in Block 3, which claim to be the most popular visitor attractions on the island, are equally at loggerheads, and their fierce internal competition has stopped a fruitful cooperation several times.

When I visited Prora this summer, I thought it was one of the most fascinating buildings I had ever seen. For some reason I had expected that I would be able to see the whole complex with one glance, as in the aerial photographs, but the real thing was much creepier. It was possible to walk for an hour beside the same building without ever seeing its end. Somehow the totalitarian state Hitler had created still seemed to emanate from the walls. Inside, the shock was all the more intensified by the uncritical way in which history was addressed in the museums in Block 3. A crude cabinet of curiosities, which the proprietor Kurt Meyer calls an 'all-in-one experience', pretends to inform. Six storeys are crammed with exhibitions about the Nazi heritage, the time when the East German Army (NVA) occupied the building, the island of R³gen and some art from local artists. Sports achievements, such as 'hand-grenade throwing', are proudly presented alongside videos of tanks racing up and down the property. Elsewhere, a caption to a life-sized photo of the man who had the idea for the 'museum' celebrates him as 'our Denker and Lenker' (our thinker and leader). It is a place where East Germans eulogise their past and Nazi-sympathisers have filled visitor books with comments such as: 'It wasn't all bad in the Third Reich, at least they had holidays for all' or 'For the first time we hummed our national anthem again'. Proudly laid out, thousands of these remarks testify that many Germans have yet to learn to deal with their history.

Youth on its side Only one other project is on the drawing board: the planned conversion of Block 5 into a 700-bed youth hostel. Rotterdam-based Atelier Kempe Thill won the competition for this sensitive architectural project, having to respect the building without glorifying it. Instead of working against the enormous size of Prora, the architect exploits it, turning, for example, the 500m-long corridors into central features or reinstating the original idea of the Liegehallen - open loggias on the ground floor designed for relaxation. Both partners of Atelier Kempe Thill are East Germans who left the country in the early 1990s to study and work abroad. This is their first major commission in Germany and, as Oliver Thill explains, their 'hottest'.

Together with the N³rnberg party rally grounds and the Olympic stadium in Berlin, Prora is the biggest architectural relic of the Nazi era. It is brutal and difficult but also one of the most important architectural monuments in Germany. Whatever happens to the remaining blocks, the new owners will have to address this legacy. Prora is an icon of the past but it also reveals much about contemporary Germany and how the nation still often fails to confront its past.

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