Sachsenhausen Memorial, Station Z

Sachsenhausen Memorial, Station Z

HG Merz
Straße der Nationen 22, 16515 Oranienburg, Germany | View Map
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Sachsenhausen Memorial, Station Z

HG Merz as Architects

Planning of the memorial for the extermination station for Sachsenhausen concentration camp, planning for the entire site client: Stiftung Brandenburgische Gedenkstätte

Between 1936 and 1945, Sachsenhausen was used to train concentration camp commandants and SS soldiers, and to experiment on and 'finetune' the concentration camp system. Located just outside Berlin, Sachsenhausen is an important place of remembrance. The concept behind the Sachsenhausen Memorial won first prize at an international competition in 1998. It aims to make the harrowing reality of the camp tangible, and to illustrate its totalitarian geometry, without engulfing visitors in information, and instead enabling them to arrive at their own conclusions. As such, it provides a fitting and dignified memorial that encourages intense reflection. The abstract shell that shrouds Station Z emphasises the intentional, artificial emptiness of the site, amplifying the hopeless situation of the prisoners.

Sachsenhausen Memorial, Station Z The Sachsenhausen Memorial is an open-air museum of a very special kind. The very few atmospheric relics and artefacts to have survived the last 70 years need to be treated with care, and any construction work must be performed with great sensitivity to the place and its history. Sachsenhausen camp in Oranienburg, the headquarters of SS operations, was a training centre for all concentration-camp commandants and other senior camp personnel. It had been designed as the “ideal camp” in the early 30s by Bernhard Kuiper. Its triangular layout enabled a single machine gun to fire on the whole camp from the main tower. Station Z was established by the SS outside the camp perimeters. It was employed to test methods of annihilation later applied in extermination camps in the East.

Following liberation in 1945, Sachsenhausen was initially used by the Russian military occupying powers as an internment facility. The East German Volkspolizei (KVP), who took over the site in 1953, razed all remaining buildings, apart from the infirmary and the washhouse, and blew up Station Z.

It was not until 1961, shortly before the camp was due to be turned into a Volkspolizei shooting range, and after huge protests from the ex-prisoners’ associations acting through the Buchenwald Collective, that the site was converted into a national memorial. The Buchenwald Collective rebuilt the two Jewish prisoner blocks 38 and 39 and installed low stone plinths to indicate the position of missing prisoner blocks. A roof of monumental character was erected over the remaining foundations of Station Z. A huge obelisk crowned the entire arrangement, reducing it to a place for simply laying wreaths.

The everyday nature of the holocaust, the banal, petty-bourgeois character of concentration-camp architecture, its extermination facilities, and furnaces, was cancelled out and sanitised through the picturesque, park-like nature of conversion. The goal of the new concept was to reveal the true, underlying nature of the place by casting off the elements created by the Buchenwald Collective that had rendered this perspective impossible. The new concept called for a change in the significance attached to the various historical layers, with a shift in focus towards the very few original relics of the Nazi concentration camp era — in as far as this was feasible without resorting to reconstruction. The totalitarian layout, as it exists and existed beneath the superficial reality of the well-kempt lawns, was exposed. The grass that had grown inside the camp was removed, without, however, eroding the original ground. The entire camp surface was covered with gravel, and sparse, low-growing vegetation, such as sedum and saxifrage, is taking hold naturally. The ground where the prisoner blocks stood was lowered slightly, and kept clear of all vegetation; with the exception of these sunken areas, the ground is fully accessible to visitors. They are free to make their own way through the site in accordance with their personal interests. Over time, a network of natural trails will form, superimposing a free structure on the original totalitarian layout.

The artificial emptiness inherent to this concept, and the conscious gaps and spaces it leaves, engender a feeling of historical detachment, and encourage the visitor to make personal interpretations. The distinctive obelisk and the two corresponding sculptures will be left intact to document the way East Germany dealt with fascist history.

The Buchenwald Collective decided to create an opening in the camp wall close to Station Z, and to create a link to the camp interior that did not originally exist. This, and the installation of a high roof over the remaining foundations, distorted the prisoner experience and rendered it impossible for the visitor to envisage the real-life situation. These ill-considered changes to and around Station Z shielded visitors from personal confrontation with, and contemplation of, the events that took place here. In the course of the implementation of the new concept, thin concrete slabs — each set slightly apart from the next — were installed in the gaps in the camp wall. On the side facing the camp, they are used to display information on and pictures of Station Z. It was important to use architectural means to define and protect these relicts as a place of remembrance, to avoid treating these walls, associated with unimaginable horrors, as normal ruins in the sense of archaeological finds.

The new structure created for Station Z is more enclosed, encouraging visitors to focus on the significance of the site, and on dignified, contemplative remembrance, and, on a more practical level, protecting the relics against the elements. These various goals are achieved by means of a highly abstract shell-like structure that eludes architectural classification and symbolic interpretation. The ground plan of this shell, whose design deliberately avoids any “house-like” associations, mirrors the pattern of the ruins, but avoids exactly reconstructing the dimensions of the original building. Headroom is restricted to 2.6 metres, to achieve the desired claustrophobic atmosphere. There are no views of the surroundings; they can only be imagined. This concentration on the interior evokes the hopelessness of the prisoners incarcerated in Station Z.

The shell is supported via just a few points, ensuring the structure remains at a distance, disconnected from the ground below. There is a large aperture at the centre, where there are no ruins to protect. This allows memorial services to take place in the open air. There are stark contrasts between light and dark within the shell, underlining the dramatic tension that exists at this site as a place of mourning and remembrance.

The framework of steel girders that support the shell is consciously unobtrusive. This framework is covered by steel mats, and these in turn by a translucent PTFE glass-fibre membrane. The sharply defined edges and corners of the membrane are maintained by an artificial vacuum.

The interior and exterior appearance of the shell is of a homogeneous structure, whose translucency and radiance are entirely dependent upon natural light.

Awards: Intern. Architecture Award 2007 Best architects 07 award 2006 Deutscher Stahlbaupreis 2006 Balthasar-Neumann-Preis 2006 Kritikerpreis für Architektur 2006 ADC Europe Awards 2006, Gold ADC Wettbewerb 2006, Goldener Nagel Preis des DDC 2006, Silber

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