By Gabi Dolff-Bonekämper

Most of us would agree on the positive impact of cultural heritage preservation. Increasing people's awareness of the architectural assets in their community works to strengthen both social and cultural identity.

A general acceptance of the value of preservation does not, of course, preclude conflict over the fate of individual buildings or sites. Reasons for conflicts can range from financial considerations to—in more recent architecture—disagreement over a building's preservation worthiness. However, there are also buildings and sites that may not be included in local history and because they convey memories not welcome in mainstream society—memories of events that some prefer to forget.

Concentration camps are the most obvious examples of such sites. There are also places that one would not immediately associate with horrific events—the National Stadium in Santiago, Chile, for instance, used by the military junta of General Pinochet to imprison, interrogate, and torture political prisoners in September 1973. Or the Santa Anita racetrack in Los Angeles, where Japanese Americans were held for relocation in 1942 following Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor. And the train station in Montoire-sur-le-Loir, where Hitler in 1940 shook hands with Pétain, the president of the French Vichy government, and Pétain, submitting to the overpowering German forces, promised to collaborate—a promise kept, especially concerning the deportation of the Jews in France.

All those places were neither built for what happened in them nor essentially changed by it. There are also buildings that have been constructed or altered for horrific purposes but then neglected, partly demolished, reused, or forgotten. Why should such places be preserved? Is there only memory—or is there substance to conserve?

Why and How to Preserve

The issue of preserving sites of hurtful memory prompts three fundamental questions:
Why should places be preserved if they offend the feelings of people who don't wish to be reminded?
What kind of information do they convey that is not already available in other forms, such as books, testimonies, film, or videotape?
Why and how should these places be dealt with as material heritage to be conserved?

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With regard to the first question, we must reflect on the motivation behind the wish not to be reminded. Is it formulated by victims or their families who cannot or do not want to face the places where they suffered? Although we might believe that working through their trauma by revisiting the sites would help, we must respect their choice not to go, and we must understand their possible wish to demolish a building as a public statement of liberation.

However, the will to destroy or ignore evidence of a crime in history is more frequently put forward by those who find themselves on the side of the perpetrators, feel personally guilty, or feel guilt by identification. In these cases, it is all the more necessary to preserve the place as proof against the denial of the events that we want remembered. In reality, of course, things are often blurred. Individuals might identify with both victims and perpetrators, and communities might be uncertain about collective responsibilities. This is why newly discovered sites of unpleasant memory are often met by ambivalence, if not by blunt opposition.

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In answer to the second question, buildings, sites, and landscapes, in their shape and material substance, are precious witnesses to history. They contain answers to questions that we may not have considered but that our children might. As three-dimensional objects, they are more complex than a written source, although less easy to read. And the genius loci—the spirit of the site—is often hard to describe but doubtlessly perceptible to the open minded, and it makes people feel that they share past experiences, as if there were a direct access to history.

The third question points to the problem of how we link historic events to the material substance of the sites where they happened. This is easier if the place was created for the purpose we want to remember—like the Berlin Wall. But even then, a site's historic function may not be readily apparent. Some authors have noted their disappointment with the banality of the buildings at Auschwitz—they do not look evil. People who do not know its history would not understand. Why, then, should the substance of such places be protected?

The way out of this paradox is offered by German literary historian and philosopher Hans Robert Jauss in his theory of reception, which explains how shifting horizons of understanding permit a modern interpretation of a historic text. Although written for a definite purpose, a text does not contain transhistoric messages or questions to which we should find answers. Instead, it holds answers to questions that must be formulated by us. With regard to historic events and the places where they happened, this idea means that we need not look for an objective connection between site and event nor identify intrinsic meanings tied to buildings—ones sufficiently explicit to be understood by an uninformed visitor. The relationship between site and event exists in our own interpretation of the site. It is up to us to ask questions. The barracks in Auschwitz or the walls of the National Stadium in Santiago will answer questions about what happened there and how. Questions will be diverse, determined by individual or collectively shared horizons of understanding. Errors cannot be excluded. Those who do not ask at all will find nothing. The best didactic presentation remains mute to a public that does not want to know.

Because there will always be more than one possible interpretation of a site, the material substance of a place becomes all the more precious. If we don't care for it now, we might destroy the evidence for future inquiries. Conservation of banal-looking barracks, details of surface, principles of construction, or shapes in a landscape become crucial, no matter how ugly or nice they look. Conservators need all their skills to deal with places of painful memory.

The Topography of Terror in Berlin

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After the Second World War, local authorities in Germany helped obscure the memory of the Third Reich by demolishing buildings, by allowing or encouraging redevelopment, or simply by failing to identify sites publicly. This, we were told, was due to the necessities of reconstruction and the need to move toward a new future.

Memory and commemoration were concentrated on monuments for dead soldiers and for bombed-out cities. The deportation and murder of political prisoners and European Jews were commemorated in former German concentration camps. Honoring the victims was the main theme in documentation and sculptural symbolization. But no importance was attached to smaller places of "minor" horror. With postwar reconstruction, the topography of numerous towns changed, and many places were lost—as were traces of local responsibility. The fact that things were not mentioned for decades does not necessarily mean that they were easily forgotten. The muteness could be purposeful—a silence actively maintained through a large expenditure of social energy.

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Things changed in the early 1980s, when local initiatives undertook research into the day-to-day history of the Third Reich and sought to tie events to the places where they occurred. Around 1980, in the Kreuzberg district of Berlin, the upcoming International Building Exhibition focused attention on a wasteland area on the rim of the western sector, between Anhalter Strasse, Wilhelmstrasse, and the Berlin Wall that followed the former Prinz-Albrecht-Strasse (now Niederkirchnerstrasse). There was nothing visibly horrible there. One section was occupied by a farm that recycled rubble, and another by a parking lot; a third section was used by people learning to drive. The rest of the area was overgrown with weeds and bushes.

It was already known that Gestapo headquarters had been located in one of the bombed-out and later demolished buildings on the site. A grassroots initiative conducted more research and found that most of the Nazi offices that organized political repression, deportation, terror, murder, and genocide in Europe had been headquartered in this block in a former arts school, an 18th-century palace, and several other structures. The buildings were gone, but the memory was not—and now it could be tied to a place.

The wasteland on the border was no longer empty of meaning. Planned projects for urban development of the site were halted, and a design competition for a memorial was held in 1983. The winning design proposed covering the area with metal plates engraved with enlarged copies of significant texts out of the archives, the paperwork of terror, meant to remind visitors of the horrifying work of the "perpetrators at the desk." The design—considered too big, too violent, and probably too expensive—was not built.

Then, in 1986, a totally opposite strategy was brought forth by participants in the grassroots initiative. Instead of sealing the earth, they started to look for traces below the surface. The local administration insisted that nothing could possibly be found, since their archives indicated that total demolition and a clearing of rubble down below the level of the cellars had been paid for long ago. Yet this was obviously not true. A symbolic archaeological act performed by a mass of people uncovered remains of cellars at a depth of just 40 centimeters. This was followed by a professional excavation that discovered the remains of the cellar, which contained cells built for prisoners brought to Gestapo headquarters for interrogation and torture. The floor and an inner wall of the original cellar were found, with imprints and remains of the thin walls that separated the cells. In addition, the excavation uncovered a row of cellars following the former Prinz-Albrecht-Strasse, where the Berlin Wall had been erected in 1961.

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The uncovered walls and floor were professionally conserved and the area—now an archaeological site—was included in the program of events commemorating Berlin's 750th anniversary in 1987. A team of researchers developed a didactic walkway around the site. Signs told which building stood where, and what happened there, and gave directions on how to identify places in between the rubble, pathways, and overgrown vegetation. An exhibition was mounted in one of the excavated cellars, which was covered by a provisional shed. Under the title Topography of Terror, the installation became famous as a new way to teach history utilizing the site itself without employing additional visual elements. The exhibition extended far beyond Berlin's 750th anniversary, and today a foundation, which cares for the area and its visitors, conducts research on the history of Nazi terror—especially the history of the perpetrators and the sites of repression.

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While there is no debate about the meaning of the topography of terror, controversy has occurred at a secondary level. In 1988, when the German Historic Museum was still slated to be built next to the Reichstag, Christian Democratic politicians wanted to concentrate the presentation of Nazi terror in the new museum's program and close the Topography of Terror exhibit. At the same time, relatives of Nazi victims who did not accept this city wasteland as a commemorative site desired a sculptural memorial. Still others, among them historic building conservators, said the archaeological site in the wasteland—an urban scar—was the best symbol we could ever have.

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What was appropriate? This problem arises in all comparable cases. Every position and opposition must be seriously considered, and strategies have to be negotiated among all involved parties and groups; otherwise consensus about the meaning of the place is obscured by secondary discourse. In this case, the wasteland could be defended for only a limited time. A competition was held for a new building that would include the excavation within its structure and create working spaces for the foundation for research, teaching, and archives. Swiss architect Peter Zumthor won the competition with a simple-looking, barn-like design featuring slender beams, high columns of white concrete, and glass in the spaces between.

The design is no doubt a work of art, conveying the illusion of modesty reminiscent of medieval Cistercian architecture. But its construction has proven costly and for that reason work was halted in 2000. Now, in the summer of 2002, the project is in danger of becoming overly simplified or perhaps not completed at all. In the meantime, the Topography of Terror continues to attract about 300,000 visitors each year. It has been integrated into the historic townscape, and, as a site where history is confronted, it is an asset that strengthens Berliners' sense of identity and place.

Compared to the complexity of the Topography of Terror, the remains of the Berlin Wall, still framing the northern rim of the site, are an easy case. Although the wall was listed as a historic landmark by the city of Berlin in 1990, its preservation was much contested during the early 1990s. However, the controversy quickly died, and now citizens, politicians, and visitors are equally glad to have in place this architectural trace of what once was the materialization of the Iron Curtain in the middle of Berlin.

The Club Atlético in Buenos Aires

Somewhat comparable to the Topography of Terror is the Club Atlético in Buenos Aires, Argentina. This was no sports club, as the name suggests, but a clandestine detention center built in 1977 by the military government into the cellar of a former warehouse in the borough of San Telmo, near the center of Buenos Aires. The detention center's plan shows a row of cells, measuring 1.5 meters by 1.5 meters, with some larger rooms at one end of the building.

The Club Atlético was one of numerous clandestine detention centers in Buenos Aires and throughout the country where the military government kept people it suspected of subversive actions or beliefs. Prisoners were questioned and often tortured and killed; the bodies of the "disappeared" were frequently thrown into the Rio de la Plata. It is said that during the 1970s and early 1980s, some 30,000 people disappeared. Their families were told that the arrested person had changed his or her name, had gone abroad, or started another life—all lies. The desaparecidos were murdered by state terrorism, as human rights groups characterize it.

A major aspect of the military government's actions was their secrecy. Every site of detention had a deceptively euphemistic name, like the Club Atlético. In 1983 when the military government was overthrown, there were no corpses or tombs, and little information about who was arrested and who was killed. Since then, witnesses have been interviewed, archives built, and memories registered. The Plaza de Mayo in front of the Government House in Buenos Aires is a place emblematic of Argentina's independence and republican tradition; there the mothers of the disappeared demonstrated, always wearing white head-scarves that became the icon of resistance. It is a site of memory of national importance, a reminder of resistance.

In 1998, the city of Buenos Aires decided to dedicate an area on the coast of the Rio de la Plata, next to the University of Buenos Aires, to the memory of the disappeared. A memorial park would be created, and a monument with a group of sculptures erected. An international artists' competition was held, and over 650 sculptors sent proposals. In September 2001, the first section of the memorial park opened, and one of the sculptures was dedicated—William Tucker's Victoria, an abstract reflection on truncated lives, symbolized by truncated angular forms vaguely reminiscent of whitened bones.

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And yet, despite the significance of the memorial park, it can be argued that sites like the Club Atlético provide a more direct connection to the history of the desaparecidos. After all, the detention center's only purpose was the imprisonment of people for interrogation and torture. After its relatively brief use, it was obscured in 1978 by the construction of a freeway, which was built on columns and today rises high above the street level. However, even after the construction, the place below where the building had been was not obliterated from memory. An informal memorial was put up years ago— a large human figure, outlined on an embankment by metal tubes that can be filled with oil and set on fire to shine light far into the neighborhood.

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A project to search for the remains of the Club Atlético's cellars began in early 2002. The city commissioned a professional excavation, and by the end of May 2002, one small part had been excavated, revealing some walls and floors with the graffiti of desperate prisoners. The goal of the excavation is to find as much of the site as possible.

The archaeological campaign is accompanied by research into the history of sites of imprisonment and torture. Members of human rights groups interview people in the neighborhood about what they remember of the place—what they saw, heard, and thought. Neighbors gather below the noisy highway to share memories and to formulate statements for inscription on a kind of votive wall. Survivors who had testified early after the end of the military government are now asked to tell more about the places where they were kept. The aim is to connect memory and places and to establish a topography of events based on individual topographies of memory.

History and Identity

The military government in Argentina ended in 1983, not quite 20 years ago. Many families of victims and many survivors and perpetrators and their families are still there, choosing either to share their memories or to keep silent. And so the question arises: Will they all feel better after remembering?

Historians and philosophers have used Freud's term "working through," which appeared in his article "Erinnern, Wiederholen, und Durcharbeiten" ("Remembering, repeating, and working through"), published in 1914. Found in texts on recent history, especially on the Holocaust, the term suggests a parallel between individual trauma therapy and collective work on traumatic events in history. Once a patient has worked through the elements of his or her traumatic experience and transformed it into a narrative, the always-present and disturbing experience becomes part of the past, and the individual can live on with a relieved heart. Similarly, once a society faces a horrific period in its history—allowing the truth to be revealed, opening archives for research, marking sites where things happened, and including the painful memories in its national or regional narrative—healing seems achievable.

The resemblance is there—and not there, at the same time. A society will not be unanimous, and different groups will hold different interpretations of history. (Some would argue that in the end, the one national narrative is mostly fictional anyway.) In addition, there is no societal therapist who can help avoid unjust attacks while questioning the collective attributions of innocence, guilt, and responsibility. Positions are negotiated in public debate only.

Even so, public debate on sites of horrific and hurtful events in history can advance new research and engender new questions regarding these and other historic sites and monuments. This may rightfully be called "working through." Still, what comes in the end? Is it necessary or fruitful to include all hurtful memories in the mainstream memory of the societies involved? Or do we show more respect for these persistently ambiguous memories and sites by keeping them out of the mainstream?

There is no guarantee that anyone will feel comforted after preserving or visiting a site of hurtful memory. The agonizing experience of working through may not foster mental liberation. Nevertheless, we can reasonably maintain that a people's sense of identity is built not only by affirming the assets of a complex cultural heritage but also by facing its liabilities and sharing responsibility.

Gabi Dolff-Bonekämper is a conservator of historic buildings at the Historic Landmarks Preservation Office in Berlin. She was a guest scholar at the GCI from November 2001 through January 2002.