Building a permanent home for the popular open-air Nazi secret police exhibit has taken 20 years due to design and budget problems. Work on a new exhibition space at former Gestapo headquarters began on Friday.
The open-air exhibit will remain until the museum to house it is built
A 200-meter (656-foot) strip of the Berlin Wall at Niederkirchnerstrasse marks part of the boundary between the famous Kreuzberg district and a neighborhood that was once in the eastern part of the German capital. It is one of the few remaining vestiges of the one-time symbol of a divided Europe.
But besides being the very focal point of the Cold War, it was also here that Adolf Hitler's secret police masterminded the 12-year reign of terror from 1933 to 1945 that led to the extermination of six million European Jews and countless other victims. This was the location of the headquarters of the much-feared Gestapo.
Since 1987, black-and-white photo reproductions documenting the Nazi terror have been posted in a temporary outdoor exhibit near the ruins of the former Gestapo and Reich Security Offices, which were destroyed during the war by allied bombs.
While the exhibit, called the "Topography of Terror," draws roughly 400,000 visitors a year, for two decades now efforts have been underway to create a more permanent exhibition, but the project has been plagued by expensive false starts.
On Friday, Nov. 2, a ground-breaking ceremony took place attended by Berlin Mayor Klaus Wowereit and German Culture Minister Bernd Neumann for a new "Remembrance and Documentation Center" in the German capital for victims of wartime Gestapo terror.
"It's true. We are going to build the remembrance and documentation center - finally, perhaps, some people will say," Wowereit said.
Focus on Nazi perpetrators, not victims
Other exhibits devoted to Nazi era focus on victims of Holocaust
Although Berlin is already home to exhibitions that look at the Nazi genocide, such as Daniel Libeskind's Jewish Museum and Peter Eisenman's Holocaust Memorial, the focus of the Topography of Terror foundation is different, said Executive Director Andreas Nachema.
"This is not a memorial and the focus is not on Jews and other victims, such as gypsies or Communists. We focus on the Nazi perpetrators, the secret police and the ordinary Germans who supported them," he said.
"Visitors can come to this historical site in Berlin, which was once the artery of the Third Reich, and they should walk away with a feel for the dimension of what happened," added Nachema, who pointed out that the architectural design of the building should not get in the way of, but serve the exhibits.
In 1993, Swiss architect Peter Zumthor was commissioned to design a permanent home for the "Topography of Terror" exhibition on the vacant lot between the Berlin Wall at Niederkirchnerstrasse and Wilhelmstrasse in the heart of the city.
But serious technical flaws in the design became apparent and the design itself came under fire for, for example, letting in too much natural sunlight that would make it difficult to read the text accompanying the exhibits.
"Zumthor's design concept was impossible to build," said Stefanie Endlich, the foundation's publicist and a member of the board.
In addition, there were concerns that a building and exhibit focusing on the Nazi perpetrators could lead to the site becoming a place of pilgrimage for neo-Nazis, long a quandary that urban planners in Germany have faced.
Technical and budgetary problems
A 200-meter stretch of the Berlin Wall will remain at the site
By 1999 the project, for which the city had earmarked 37 million deutschmarks (€19 million or $27.5 million), had all but collapsed. Although about two-thirds of the budget had been spent, only the foundation and a few supports had been built. Several construction companies working on the project went bankrupt.
New estimates found that another 28 million euros would be needed to complete the building and Berlin, already facing a huge budget deficit, decided in 2000 to scrap the project. The structures on the site were razed in 2004.
The next year, the city held a competition for another concept and in January 2006, a more modest design by local architect Ursula Wilms was chosen.
There has been no shortage of critics of how Berlin's urban planners handled the project. At the center of the controversy was Hans Stimmann, Berlin's building director from 1991 until 2006. He was a powerful advocate of the Zumthor design, even though it became clear early on that it was technically flawed, said Nachema.
"Stimmann was fixated on the idea that the city of Berlin had to have a building designed by Zumthor and no one dared challenge him," he said.
New building to open in 2009
Reunification in 1990 and the German parliament's decision to move the capital from Bonn to Berlin the following year became the impetus for redesigning the city on a grand scale. Big-name architects, such as Sir Norman Foster, Renzo Piano and Helmut Jahn flocked to Berlin to reinvent prominent buildings such as the Reichstag and thoroughfares such as Potsdamer Platz. It had been leveled during World War II and remained a barren no man's land during the Cold War.
Berlin architect Ursula Wilms won new competition for a less costly design
Today Potsdamer Platz is a gleaming group of high-rises and modern architecture, while the "Topography of Terror" is still basically a collection of posters amid the ruins of a cellar.
Wilms design for the Topography of Terror, a simple rectangular structure sheathed inside a metallic mesh, is now budgeted at 19 million euros.
The section of the Berlin Wall now there will remain as part of the site's landscape and a small section of the documentation center, which looks out onto Niederkirchnerstrasse, will be devoted to the individuals who, according to Andreas Nachema, "tried to scale the wall of inhumanity."