The organization of spaces and the creation of places is not left to chance. On the contrary: As social and geographic beings people always tend to arrange spaces for different reasons and purposes. So different the purposes and reasons are so different are the architectual arrangements and creations. Prof Dr Dean Joshua Hagen from the Northern State University in South Dakota is doing a lot of research on the changing practices in the engagement with space and place. His approach is linked with many political and historical questions, e.g.: How does architecture establish national and cultural identities? We asked Dean Joshua Hagen our questions with a view on the national-socialist regime in Germany.
"Organizing space, creating places"
Interview with Joshua Hagen on the architecture of the Nazi regime
"Spatial strategies and architectural styles to build a new Nazi Germany"
L.I.S.A.: Professor Hagen, you are doing research on geography and history. In this context one of your main approaches concentrates on places, spaces, architecture, and ideology. Could you explain to us how you deal with these concepts?
Prof Hagen: People are inherently geographic beings. We are predisposed to organize space. In the process, we create places. The archeological record strongly suggests that humans have done this from the beginning, well before written history or civilization, so it seems an intrinsic part of human nature. In the most basic sense, the organization of space is a defining characteristic of human social behavior. This does not mean that people organize space in the same fashion. On the contrary, humans have demonstrated a wide range of strategies and practices over time, place, and scale. Despite these differences, the production of space is inherently value-laden; it reflects our needs, wants, priorities, and beliefs. In that sense, human engagement with space and place is easily intertwined with ideology in ways, ranging from the mundane to the extraordinary. Architecture is one of the many ways we engage and organize our surroundings into the places and spaces we call everything from home and community to homeland and state. Architecture helps make visible the ideological basis and biases of our engagement with space and place.
"The Nazis hoped to achieve many of its goals through a calculated spatial re-organization"
L.I.S.A.: You have published several books and articles on Germany’s Nazi past in which you focus on architecture and building history. What is your main point of departure in regard to this subject?
Prof Hagen: The policy aims of the Nazi regime have been well documented, as well as the horrific consequences of those actions. We have tended to overlook how nearly every policy advanced by the regime entailed some sort of building program. As a result, nearly every government and party agency embarked on some type of building program to advance its specific agenda, with varying degrees of success. For example, the Hitler Youth organization wanted to build Hitler Youth meeting houses for every local Nazi Party chapter. In short, the Nazi regime hoped to achieve many of its goals through a calculated spatial re-organization of the places and spaces where Germans and non-Germans lived, worked, relaxed, and interacted with each other and with the regime. My interest has been to examine how the regime used specific spatial strategies and architectural styles to literally and figuratively build a new Nazi Germany. And each new endeavor began to take shape when some architect, planner, or engineer put pencil to paper to build Hitler’s Third Reich.
"Impossible to reduce to a specific style or type of structures"
L.I.S.A.: What were the key elements of NS-architecture? Which was the most important reference point in regard to the German past?
Prof Hagen: Scholars have debated exactly what constitutes ‘Nazi’ architecture for many years. Quite often, these debates have focused on specific styles, forms, or other basic architectural elements. This topic was also widely discussed among Nazi Party members during the Nazi period. There was never a clear consensus either then or now, partly because Hitler and his followers tended to speak in rather vague terms. For example, the idea of ‘heroic’ architecture was often praised but what exactly made a specific structure or style heroic was unclear. Many have tended to reduce Nazi architecture to those projects most closely associated with Hitler and his chief architect Albert Speer, most famously the Nuremberg Rally Grounds. Yet, the Nazi building program was much more varied and impossible to reduce to a specific style or type of structures. In addition to the modern neo-classicist buildings associated with Hitler-Speer, Nazi architecture also encompassed everything from rather homey-looking, half-timbered suburban homes to rather sleek industrial facilities for producing modern weapons of war, as well as the camps, barracks, and enclosures of the concentration camp system. In different but very real ways, they were all part and parcel to the processes of building Nazi Germany. Perhaps Albert Speer put it best in a post-war interview when describing Nazi architecture as essentially focused on the ‘manipulation of people.’
"All traditions were at some point new and novel"
L.I.S.A.: In which way are buildings, architecture and the construction of public places part of nation-building processes and the invention of national traditions and identities?
Prof Hagen: The invention of tradition is a well-known phrase among scholars in the social sciences and humanities. It is probably most associated with a volume of that title edited by Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger from 1983. Contributors generally focused on the invention of traditions intended to advance the formation of national identities during the nineteenth century. All traditions are invented in the sense that they must have originated with some individual or group at some point in time. In other words, all traditions were at some point new and novel. The invention of tradition as used by Hobsbawm and Ranger was slightly different in that the process simultaneously involved investing those new traditions with a largely fictitious history stretching back centuries in some cases. Buildings and architecture did not figure prominently in that volume, but there are numerous instances of them playing prominent roles. One example from Germany is the importance placed on half-timbered (Fachwerk) buildings in historic towns and major tourist destinations, like Rothenburg ob der Tauber in Franconia. Although medieval in origin, most medieval timbering would have been covered in plaster, partly because it suggested the property owner was relatively poor and therefore unable to afford a stone structure. It was not until the nineteenth century and the ‘discovery’ of Rothenburg by the traveling public that locals began to reveal the underlying timbering systematically, largely to create an ‘old Germany’ aesthetic. The impulse went so far as to even build new half-timbered-looking buildings during the twentieth century. Today, Rothenburg is just as much an example of how nineteenth and twentieth century Germans have thought about the Middle Ages as of the Middle Ages themselves.
"Many of those buildings, spaces, and places are still with us today"
L.I.S.A.: Did the urban concepts of the Nazis become obsolete in 1945? Or was there a continuity in inventing and building new spaces afterwards?
Prof Hagen: Many of the concepts of urban planning and architecture promoted by the Nazi regime existed well before 1933 and continued well beyond 1945. Popular history books and television shows generally treat 1933 and 1945 as dramatic turning points, but that was not the case in terms of urban planning and architecture. Many of the main ‘builders’ of Nazi Germany continued to practice their professions into the post-war years with little scrutiny. Partly this was because those professions were regarded as largely technocratic. Urban planners and architects also promoted that view, often arguing that they were simply building what they were ordered to build. Germany during the immediate post-war years also faced the huge challenge of reconstruction, so there was little incentive to thoroughly investigate a professional class that possessed desperately needed skills yet was so thoroughly and willingly misappropriated by the Nazi regime. The types of gargantuan, neo-classicist structures that fired Hitler’s imagination for the reconstruction of Berlin as a new world capital, for Linz as a world capital of art, etc. were thoroughly discredited, as were the oppressive camp architectures. A few structures like Hitler’s badly damaged Reich Chancellery were demolished; Speer was imprisoned. Most of the other builders and buildings of the Third Reich survived into the post-war years in relative obscurity. Many of those buildings, spaces, and places are still with us today.
Prof Dr Joshua Hagen answered the questions in written form.