Removing the trees that hide Munich’s historic art gallery will force visitors to confront everything the building represents, including its guilty past, says Christine Murray
Can architecture be divorced from politics? And, if not, is there a period after which a building is exonerated?
In the UK, so many buildings – most of historic Liverpool, the British Museum and the fortune that built the Tate galleries – sprang from the wealth of the slave trade and colonialism, legitimising and dignifying past wrongs. One could argue that this is not sufficiently made clear in our contemporary institutions, which should be educating the public about their history through daily talks or exhibitions. But at the very least, the buildings themselves stand in testament as proof that these events happened, because they haven’t been demolished and erased.
The buildings themselves stand in testament as proof that these events happened
Much of the same argument exists for the preservation of the architecture of genocide, from Auschwitz to Cambodia’s Killing Fields Museum, so that we can’t deny or forget what happened there. And memorials – such as London’s holocaust memorial, for which shortlisted designs will be revealed this week – are also there to insist we remember.
In the case of Munich’s Haus der Kunst – an art gallery built by the Nazis to promote ‘authentic German art’ and now set to be refurbished by David Chipperfield, the building was not destroyed for being a symbol of the Third Reich, but hidden instead behind a row of trees, its grand entrance shifted around the corner in an attempt to soften its authority.
Surely this arboreal ‘fig leaf’, as Chipperfield describes it, is more shameful than his proposed landscaping strategy, which, by cutting down the trees, forces the city to confront its past. This has proved challenging to some, as they see it crediting an architecture associated with the horrific acts of the holocaust. But now that the building has existed for more than 30 years as a centre for contemporary art, this forward-looking approach does not glorify the past, nor attempt to hide it, but grants authority to a better future.
The moral maze of what to do with Nazi architecture is a debate that has raged since the Second World War. In 1946 The Architectural Review published ‘The Architecture of Authority’ on Nazi building, stating ‘this chapter of architectural history exists, and must be reckoned with’. But you can’t reckon with a building that you can’t see. By suggesting the architecture be put back on show, Chipperfield has taken a brave leap in reclaiming this building for the city. This will force visitors to confront everything the building represents, including its guilty associations, as part of its story. This is an opportunity to educate. Its history should be spelled out in the museum literature, however, because without that narrative, the Haus der Kunst is just a building.