A Liberating Spear of Glass and Steel

A Liberating Spear of Glass and Steel

Austrian architect reflects on his Nuremberg building that documents Nazi history

Try wrapping your tongue around this one: Dokumentationszentrum Reichspsparteitagsgelande.

Leni Riefenstahl could explain it to you. She shot some pretty famous movies in the vicinity. Meanwhile, we are in the Mercer Hotel at the corner of Mercer and Prince Streets in SoHo, where a noisy, swinging scene is taking place downstairs in the Mercer Café.

But here, just above that scene, in a quiet space before a wall of books, there sits a gaunt, weathered, silken-haired man in khaki pants and leather jacket who apologizes for his inadequate English. He is an Austrian whose name is Günther Domenig, and he is an architect. Across from him is Charlotte Po¨chhacker, who will serve as translator. She is founder/ director of the Biennial for Media and Architecture at Graz, Austria.

They are here in New York City because of the exhibit titled “Günther Domenig: Structures that Fit My Nature,” through January 8 at the Austrian Cultural Forum, 11 East 52nd Street. Two of those brilliant structures, represented in models and photographs, are Domenig’s own dwelling and office called the Steinhaus, and the Documentation Center of the National Socialist Party Rally Grounds in Nuremberg, Germany.

Remember the title—“Structures that Fit My Nature.” It is the key that will unlock a drama an hour and three-quarters into a two-hour interview. A motive, if you like. A spur.

The Documentation Center—housing the archives and history of Nazi Germany, 1932-1945—is a giant steel-and-glass birdlike wing thrust clean through the deteriorating granite of the far more gigantic U-shaped coliseum that Albert Speer built to Adolf Hitler’s grandiose specifications just outside the city to which Hitler would have moved the Reichstag if things had worked out differently.

One gets the feeling, said an American journalist, that everything was once closed in, buried in granite and concrete, but that now it has been laid open, or carved open.

Domenig, through Po¨chhacker, uttered one word: “Absolutely.”

Domenig sat silent—he is a man of many silences—and then he said, through her, that his Documentation Center “cuts through the heavy stone like an arrow.” And, he slyly added, there is a “joke of words” that goes with this. “Arrow in German is Speer, so I have cut through Speer with a spear.”

Or the wing of a big bird? “Ja!”

The Documentation Center, said its architect, contains “a great diversity of films, photographs, a lot of writing, some busts of Hitler and some very small chairs brought to Nuremberg by the S.S. to sit on while they listened to Hitler.”

The Nuremberg rallies used to draw hundreds of thousands of Nazis to the Zeppelin landing area just outside the monumental U where Hitler would be delivering his tirades. In the summer of 2001, 500 neo-Nazis came to Nuremberg to make trouble, and were carted away by the police.

“This marks the big difference between Germans and Austrians,” Domenig said, with the wisp of a smile. “This obsession, this folie, is very German.”

It should not be forgotten, however, that Adolf Hitler was, at birth, Austrian.

“After the war,” said Domenig, again through Po¨chhacker, “The question arose: What to do with this huge ruin, Speer’s U? All the guidebooks, all the city maps, hid it, did not talk about it. The decision to put a Documentation Center there was made by the city and people of Nuremberg. They decided: We must work on our history, to explain to young people how such a cruel ideology happened to our society.”

There was an international competition. Another small smile. It was ten German architects against one man born July 6, 1933, in Klagenfurt, Austria. Whose well-worn hands, though small, look like those of a workman. Has Domenig in fact done hard work with them?

He stared at his hands. No, he said, he has not.

Except to draw?

“Yes,” he said in English.

The other principal building in the exhibit up on 52nd Street is the Steinhaus or Stone House, in the village of Steindorf in the Austrian province of Carinthia, in lake country down near the Italian border.

It is actually a complex of structures, all united, in Charlotte Po¨chhacker’s translation, “by a spiral of rain water descending to ground water—all kinds of water, the moving element of a building of his own in which to test the limits of his capacity, without being dependent on anybody. Financed by himself. Where he has no excuses anymore, no clients who always, always, want this and that. He as his own client.”

“To see how far I can go with my ambitions,” the architect inserted.

In short, like the Documentation Center, “a structure to fit my nature.”

And what is that nature, Mr. Domenig?

Again he stared at his hands, this time long and long before saying, through his translator, to the journalist: “Your questions are also very penetrating.” And then, bit by bit, this:

“My father was a judge. His name was Herbert Domenig. He was a radical Nazi—that is, an extreme Nazi. And I was a youth in this extreme Nazi family—something that cost me ten years of creativity, just because of it.

“So with this Documentation Center, I at last got the opportunity to free myself from this burdensome situation—a gesture of liberation not only from the past but from all the restrictions imposed by clients [schools, banks, churches, “social” housing].”

He paused, thought, then said:

“What makes the whole thing even more terrible is that my father, as a judge, had extremely good rhetorical talents, and this kept him from being in the war. Instead, he was put to using that talent to recruit new soldiers.

“Eventually he was ordered to Trieste, to be a judge there. He was a judge in cases against the partisans, and he condemned various partisans to death. Then, shortly before the end of the war, he himself was killed by partisans.”

And that, all that, is a seed in the nature of the man who put a spear of glass and steel through Albert Speer… and Adolf Hitler.

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