Updated: May 20, 2018
On my first excursion to Berlin, during a bus ride through the city, I noticed a very long, seemingly endless building, stretching across the horizon. I was told it was a former airport built by the Nazis in the 1930’s, named Tempelhof. Although I only had a few hours before my flight home, I decided to go see the building from up-close.
Ascending from the underground train station towards Tempelhof’s entrance square, it was as if time had frozen. I was standing in the midst of a Nazi square, surrounded by monumental, stone-covered buildings, decorated with eagle sculptures. My initial recoil was soon replaced with an awkward sense of awe. Curious to see more, I entered the airport terminal, a remarkable prototype of modern airports. As I continued to circle the radial building, 0.8 miles in length, I was fascinated with its tall, monotonous, repetitive façade which stood in a striking contrast to the colorful residential buildings across the street from it. Stretching along one side of the street was this permanent, almost endless structure, while along its opposite side there was a constant change in the city-scape. One side of that split street could be regarded as anti-humanistic by any measure, yet I found it to be, well… sublime.
Tempelhof is one of the few built remnants of Welthauptstadt Germania (World Capital Germania) - the mostly unrealized urban plan of Berlin’s city center, devised by Adolf Hitler and his architect Albert Speer in the years 1933-1939. The plan is a paradigm of modern urban planning that - as put by Walter Benjamin – aims at “the introduction of aesthetics into political life”1. Welthauptstadt Germania was conceived as an alternate reality to historic Berlin. By architectural means of monumentality, repetition, scale manipulations and the illusion of infinite axes and structures, Nazi urban space would have become a total virtual reality, performing as an anesthetic for the succumbed masses.
In his Essay on Kitsch and Death, historian Saul Friedländer suggests that the persuasive power of Nazism was less derived from explicit ideology, rather than the power of emotions, images and phantasms.2 Nazism’s distinguishing quality lies in its psychological dimension and the hypnotic influence it had on so many people, to the extent of altering their behavior. That quality cannot be fully theorized by historiography stemming from political, socio-economic and cultural explanations. In Friedländer’s view, there is a constant presence of an unknown factor which has not been addressed by research.3 The fascination with the architectural products of Nazi ideology has also not been fully theorized. Hitler asserted that these monumental buildings would “provide the most sublime evidence of the political strength of the German nation”4. Borrowing from the Führer’s wording, I would like to refer to the unknown factor as the “sublime”.
The sublime, alluding to the limits of representation, has played an important role in both aesthetic theory (Kant, Burke, Hegel, Ruskin and more) and praxis (Ledoux, Boullée) since the 18th-century. In the 20th-century it was also incorporated into psychoanalytical discourse (Frued, Lacan) and cultural criticism (Lyotard, Derrida, Žižek and more). While theoretical discourse has referred to the sublime in regards with modern art, technology and architecture (Jameson, Vidler and more), surprisingly there has hardly been any discussion on the sublime in fascist architecture. In this paper, I ask to use the term sublime as a philosophical framework for an interpretive reading of Nazi architecture and its modern aspects. The use of the sublime in its modern meaning as a critical tool, is intended to offer a new perspective on architecture, politics and modernism.
1 Walter Benjamin, trans. by Harry Zohn ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’, in Illuminations, ed. by Hanna Arendt (New York: Schocken Books, 1969), p.241
2 Saul Friedländer, Reflections of Nazism: An essay on Kitsch and death, trans. by Jenny Navot (Jerusalem: Keter, 1985), p.15
3 Ibid, p.110
4 Quoted in Frederic Spotts, Hitler and the Power of Aesthetics (New York: Overlook Press, 2002),.p.99