Germany has a problem with its so-called “Nazi” Pavilion in Venice – rebuilt in approved, stripped-classical style in 1938. The itch of its history has been constantly scratched by exhibitors ever since Hans Haacke and Nam June Paik won the Art Biennale Golden Lion in 1993 for smashing its floor under enormous wall-mounted letters spelling out “Germania”. This year has been no exception, with the pavilion forced into a shotgun wedding with the 1960s bungalow of the West German Chancellor. Meanwhile a second exhibition in Venice also revisits the question of what to do about the pavilion. But, Florian Heilmeyer asks, does the constant revisiting of its history add any new insight?
If one of Koolhaas’ main claims at this years’ Venice Biennale was that modernity swept away national characteristics in favour of globally applicable solutions; he was wrong. As it turned out, most of the national contributions ended up diving straight into matters of national history, memory and identity. This is particularly true for Germany, a nation that – for obvious historical reasons – has enough trouble thinking about its national identity to start with. Germany still struggles with its past and rarely is this so apparent as when you look at the contributions to both the Art and Architecture Biennales of the last 20 years or so, where time and again, architects and artists alike have struggled to curate and exhibit within the constantly denigrated “Nazi Pavilion”.
If you stand in the Giardini and look up at the triumvirate of the British, French and German pavilions dominating an incline at the focal point of one of the little park′s main axes, you might wonder what makes the German Pavilion more “Nazi” than the others. Of the three, the German Pavilion was actually the first. It was built in 1909 as the Padiglione Bavarese, the “Bavarian Pavilion”, designed by Daniele Donghi. It became the “German Pavilion” only later after a 1938 neoclassical makeover by Munich architect Ernst Haiger, who was indeed closely linked to the Nazi regime (he also contributed to the design of Munich’s Haus der Kunst, the NSDAP’s most famous temple for the(ir) arts).
Yet while the Haus der Kunst is currently being carefully restored by David Chipperfield, continued controversies about the German Pavilion have led to serious calls for its demolition as a building not appropriate (anymore) for representing Germany. And German exhibitions in Venice this year reached a new peak with not one, but two exhibitions in Venice dealing with the building itself and its “contaminated” past.
The official German contribution, called “Bungalow Germania” and curated by Savvas Ciriacidis and Alex Lehnerer, places an impressive, almost life-sized replica of the (West German) Chancellor’s official residence in Bonn within the German Pavilion. In terms of political symbolism, the bungalow from Bonn is the most radical opposite of the pavilion. It was designed by the German modernist architect Sep Ruf and built in 1964 as one of the clearest architectural statements of the new democratic state of West Germany. Placing this very light, transparent bungalow within the bulky pavilion turns the interior space into a remarkably odd, slightly creepy mixture of two very different aesthetics. If the title hadn't already been used for the British exhibition in 2012, this could have well been called “Villa Frankenstein”.
The curators’ aim is to contrast these two very different buildings, both drenched in the political attitudes of their times, in order to create a “conversation” between the two; yet the contrast is too polemic. It’s democracy vs. dictatorship, lightness vs. bulkiness, steel and glass vs. stone. Because the curators rely completely on the power of their (precisely executed in every detail) installation, they’ve left the exhibition otherwise completely empty. And that’s what it is in the end: empty. The longer one wanders around the clean, empty rooms of this bungalow-pavilion, the conversation between the two buildings turns out to be a rather monosyllabic one. (And the polemic is as easily misunderstood as understood, as the Guardian’s Oliver Wainwright proved in naming the exhibition one of his “Top Ten Pavilions” by describing it as “a California Case Study house stuffed inside a Nazi HQ”, then compounding the error by attributing the pavilion to Hitler’s chief architect Albert Speer.)
The second exhibition dealing with the German Pavilion is happening at the other end of Venice, on San Croce inside one of Venice’s many unbelievably opulent palazzos (not, as far as one knows, a Nazi building as well!). The exhibition is curated by the Berlin section of Deutscher Werkbund, an organisation which was founded in 1907 as an almost radical and revolutionary modern movement. None of this can be seen in this exhibition, which invited 22 (German) architects to design (or rather sketch) a new pavilion for the Giardini; it was left to the participants if they wanted to use the existing building or tear it down. Not surprisingly, some proposals demand keeping the building as it is, while others add or subtract a little – and some, of course, suggest something completely new. This is simply what architects do.
And even if both exhibitions are very different in their approach, concept and design, they still seem to address the same topic: what to do with our pavilion/history? While history actually provides quite a wealth of complex answers, it seems as if our times can only come up with questions that tend to be a little too simplistic.
– Florian Heilmeyer
Until 7 November, 2014.
Giardini delle Biennale
This is Modern
Until 1 August, 2014.
Santa Croce 1957