Neue Wache – neoclassical remembrance

by Hugh Thomson

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In 1967, the French literary critic Roland Barthes published his influential essay ‘The Death of the Author’. In the essay, he criticised the traditional practise of considering the intentions and biographical context of an author when interpreting their text. “To give a text an Author”, he wrote, “is to impose a limit on that text, to furnish it with a final signified, to close the writing” [1] For Barthes, it does not matter what the author is trying to say; the significance and meaning of a work, he argues, should be completely independent of the author, existing only in the connection between individual reader and text. There are obviously many ways in which books and buildings differ as artistic creations. The first relates to the different importance they place on form and function: even the most enthusiastic reader would admit that books are not necessary for society to function in the way that many buildings are. Moreover, no one forces you to read a book – you can happily live your life without picking one up – but if a building happens to be on your route to work, then unless you shut your eyes every day, you are going to have to look at it. Despite these differences, Barthes’s argument does provide a useful starting point for thinking about a building such as Karl Friedrich Schinkel’s ‘Neue Wache’, first designed in 1816, a building whose “meaning” and function have changed more than its creator could ever have imagined. Can we look at the Neue Wache today and appreciate it independently of Schinkel’s original intentions and the circumstances in which it was built?

As its name suggests, the Neue Wache was originally a guardhouse for the soldiers of the Crown Prince of Prussia. Built in the neoclassical style, its pediment shows Nike, the goddess of war, in battle, a reminder of Prussia’s role in the wars against Napoleon. The Neue Wache continued to serve as a guardhouse until the end of the First World War. In 1931, however, the architect Heinrich Tessenow was commissioned by the Weimar government to transform it into a war memorial, converting the interior into a memorial hall and adding an oculus (ein Opaion). During the GDR, the hall held the remains of an unknown soldier and an unknown concentration camp survivor. After reunification, this was replaced by Käthe Kollwitz’s sculpture ‘Mother with her Dead Son’, which was placed directly below the oculus.

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It is useful to compare the Neue Wache with other memorials in Berlin. The Neue Wache was of course not built to be a monument as such: its original purpose as a guardhouse is still apparent today as the basic external structure of the building has not changed significantly since its construction. Today, a visitor encountering the building for the first time will be immediately struck by a sense of its imposing neoclassical architecture. In this respect, the presence of the architect and his influences can be felt much more strongly than in, for example, Peter Eisenman’s ‘Holocaust Memorial’. In Eisenman’s monument, no trace of the architect can be felt: his intention is not clear (and not important) and the abstraction of the monument necessitates that everyone interprets it in their own way. It seems to exist outside of space and time, or at least our conventional senses of them. For me, it works very well. No “conventional” monument would be able to convey the tragedy of the Holocaust, and Eisenman realizes this. Instead of building a moralizing statue that tells us what we must think, he lets us form our own impressions, and in doing so creates a more thought-provoking monument.

Thinking about why the Holocaust memorial works helped me understand my feeling that the Neue Wache is not as successful as a monument. One reason, I think, results from its architecture being so firmly associated with a particular historical period. What is the connection between the neoclassicism and the purpose the monument serves? There is none. If I was being cynical, I would say that this is a classic case of a building becoming a monument simply because no other use can be found for it. Monuments should show a break with the past, to emphasize that whatever tragedy has occurred must not happen again. But in the case of the Neue Wache, it has just been a case of changing the name and making interior changes to accommodate the new groups of people who fell victim to tyranny, whether it was soldiers in the First World War, Jews and homosexuals during the Second World War, or people killed by the Stasi. For me, this makes the process of remembering become banal. If there was another war, you can imagine the name of the monument just being changed again to reflect the loss of life that occurred.

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So, to return to the original question of whether it is possible to appreciate a monument independently of its architect and the circumstances in which it was created, I would argue that in the case of the Neue Wache, it is not, and that this is why it is not as successful as the Holocaust memorial. Schinkel makes his presence felt too strongly in the neoclassicism and this does not work with the idea of a war memorial. In fact, it is ironic that when it first became a memorial in 1931, it was intended to commemorate victims of the First World War, who had actually died partly as a result of the very Prussian militarism that had led to the building’s creation in 1816.

That’s not to say that I think such buildings should necessarily be destroyed: that’ a complex debate that I don’t have time to discuss here. Realistically, it is highly unlikely that the building would be put to a different use in the future, as to do so would be seen as disrespectful to the people it commemorates. All I can say is that the original 1931 decision to use it as a war memorial was a bad one.

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[1] Roland Barthes, ‘The Death of the Author’. Available at http://www.tbook.constantvzw.org/wp-content/death_authorbarthes.pdf [Accessed: 26.01.14]

 

 

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