Tainted Architecture

By Jesse Shuman

 

In Berlin, the Reichsbahnbunker, known as Der Bunker, was constructed in 1943 to shelter up to 3,000 citizens in the event of firebombing. It is now owned by Christian and Karen Boros and houses their eponymous five-story contemporary art collection. Erected during the Third Reich as an aboveground bomb shelter, the bunker was host to a myriad of roles: Soviet prisoner-of-war camp, storage facility for exotic fruits (leading to its Bananabunker moniker), hardcore techno club, and now, the private home and exhibition space of the Boros Collection. The history of such a place cannot be fabricated. Designed by Hitler’s chief architect Albert Speer, the bunker underwent severe remodeling and rebranding over the past decade. In order to accommodate the collection, nearly 750 cubic meters – tons upon tons – of concrete was removed, diamond-sawed from the bunker’s thick, leaking, rusting, neon-dyed walls.

The current 3,000 square meter galleries now house the works of up-and-coming artists, especially those of German heritage. The works are varied. Viewers can meander through the soundscapes of Alicja Kwade, which demonstrate scientific suffusion with artistic practice; the mathematically minded installation of MIT’s Tomas Saraceno; the mechanical and immense works of Michael Sailstorfer – a tree held by its ankle, dragged in a circle and a room filled with popcorn popped by streams of hot air. Only reserved, guided tours of twelve are allowed at any given time due to safety restrictions. A relic of Germany’s dark past, the Boros Collection now houses art that looks to the future.

In an interview with Silke Hohmann, Christian and Karen Boros state that, “Foreign guests want to see how a new generation deals with the fascist legacy. No one can or would want to deny the origin of the building.” German citizenry has made undoubted strides to come to terms with its past. Since the occupation, German education has stressed civic-mindedness and, in this sense, the Boros Collection seeks to make modern lemonade from history’s lemons. But if these fascist symbols house newer institutions of modern grandeur are their majesties, in a sense, renewed?

This question becomes pertinent in light of Italian fashion house Fendi’s decision to move into the Palazzo della Civiltà. Within Rome’s wide Quadrato della Concordia stands the marble monolith of the Palazzo, which overlooks the city from a tall hill. It is composed of 216 arches aligned side by side to create a hive-looking structure that is both sleek and Classical. Around its base are 28 marble statues, each depicting a different trade of Italian industry and identity, manifesting the epigraph carved into the top of its façade: A nation of poets, of artists, of heroes, of saints, of thinkers, of scientists, of navigators, of migrants. Commissioned by Benito Mussolini in 1942, the Palazzo’s impressive architecture is complicated by its fascist origins.

Once the monumental epicenter for the fascist regime, the Palazzo is now the headquarters of Fendi as part of a 15-year residence deal costing upwards of €250,000/month (a menial cost for LVMH, which stands for Louis-Vuitton-Moët-Hennessy, the multi-billion dollar luxury goods conglomerate of which Fendi is a subsidiary). Fendi’s decision begets questions regarding the nature of tainted architecture: can we separate the darkest sides of history from the future? What baggage, if any, can space carry?

The issue is multifaceted. To deny the splendor of these buildings is impossible – they were designed with pomp in mind. But one must also understand the contexts from which their designs were conceived, and why they were conceived on such an awe-inspiring scale. As a monumental building, the Palazzo, in particular, professes an ideology in which prominent architecture can promote dangerous doctrines of ethnic superiority. By rendering these fascist buildings admirable without fear, as sources of modern power, these forms lose their pedagogical edge. If they continue to inspire, do we allow them to emanate that same fascist grandeur? If we admire these buildings in lieu of the ideals that governed their design, are we indirectly admiring those ideals without grasping the cultural bases through which they are rightfully vilified? One might argue that, at a certain point, it is unnecessary to pay tribute to the depravity of these buildings. If that is the case, then when do we deem it okay to let go of history? After all, to see the Palazzo resurrected from an empty skeleton to modern workplace – with pipes and wires and people – is affecting, but it is also wholly provocative.

The fashion world is no stranger to constructing new museums of art and culture. Last year, Frank Gehry completed the Fondation Louis-Vuitton, the center of the brand’s philanthropic ventures and art collection, which includes works by Jean-Michele Basquiat and Jeff Koons. Rem Koolhaas sheathed a century old Milanese distillery in 24-carat gold foil by as part of the three-building complex for the Fondazione Prada, an institution for contemporary art that houses works by Anish Kapoor and Louise Bourgeois. “Rome is on the verge of an explosion,” says Piero Beccari, Fendi’s chief executive. “Let’s talk about what is right and what works rather than what is not right…it is too reductive or diminishing that people should not profit or praise this [building], because people do.” Beccari concludes that, “This building is beyond a discussion of politics. It is aesthetics.”

However, the Palazzo’s aesthetics are inherently political. Whereas Der Bunker, home of the Boros Collection, differs slightly because it was not intended as a monument and is therefore not so infused with ideological power, the Palazzo is a projection of Mussolini’s vision. In fact, the Boros Collection houses art that proves to be antithetical to everything the Nazi regime stood for aesthetically; it would have been deemed degenerate and most likely destroyed. In this way, it spits in the face of its fascist past.

Refusing to acknowledge the Palazzo’s initial purpose manifests itself in Vogue’s announcement of Fendi’s move: “Fendi Relocates to a Roman Palace.” This is incredibly irresponsible and mimics the same disregard for political consequence in favor of luxury and aesthetic. Owen Hatherly for The Architectural Review makes an interesting point when he states that the building emits an image of the regime’s “good taste,” one that is traditionally shared with the fashion industry: “Shamelessly elitist, willfully sinister, hierarchical, Classical, its apparent minimalism belied by an obsession with the finest possible materials and the severest cut.” By refusing to make a lesson out of the Palazzo, Fendi allows it to be admired without context; Fendi and fascism become a part of the same amoral taste.

A gallery will soon exhibit work on the first floor of the Palazzo. Open to the public, this exhibition space should be related to the problematic nature of the building. No effort is being made to deny its past or beauty, but to become a modern entity with a unique vision, its evils must be dispelled by being acknowledged.

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Sources:

“Fendi Relocates To A Roman Palace.” Vogue UK. Web.

“Fendi Vidi Vici: When Fashion Flirts with Fascism.” Architectural Review. Web.

Kirchgaessner, Stephanie. “Fendi Rejects Criticism over New HQ in Mussolini Propaganda Building.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 2015. Web.

“Sammlung Boros.” INTERVIEW WITH SILKE HOHMANN. Web.

 

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