A Place of Learning and Warning – The Topography of Terror

by Irene Aurora Paci

The Topographie des Terrors has been inaugurated in 1987 as a temporary exhibition, and found only at the reopening in May 2010 its actual form. It rises up on the site where the Secret State Police Office, the Reich Security Main Office, the Security Service of the SS and the Gestapo Offices were standing. From that place the persecution of the political opponents of the Nazi regime and of persons stamped as “racial enemies” was controlled; genocide was planned and organized; the Einsatzgruppen were set up and the “house prisons” were built.topography of terror fence

After 1945, some buildings have been destroyed, some simply severely damaged, and then demolished. This erasion spoke clearly of the wish to cancel its function from the place and to forget its history – which was unbearable. During the ’60s the area became a leveled open space. The Prinz-Albrecht-Straße changed its name into Niederkirchnerstr. (in honor of a Communist fighter). That contributed to the loss of memory, because the former name commemorated the ancient seat of the Nazis. During those years land-use plans have been thought, for example as a site for the new Philharmonic Hall or for a helicopter landing pad, but in the end a construction recycling firm and an Autodrom found its place there.


In 2006 the competition for the Topography of Terror was won by the architect Ursula Wilms and the urban planner Heinz Hallmann. In some ways, it integrated the project of Peter Zumthor, which won the first competition in 1993, but was stopped after eleven years because of technical and financial problems (funding and risky cost explosion). They share the concrete parallel barrels/towers as walls of the structure, its general squared, very regular form, the semi-visibility from the outside and from the inside and the use of glass.But, in the end, the result is something totally different, no more than the context in which the Documentation Center emerges.The Topographie des Terrors is shorter, slighter and more delicate than the Zumthor’s project.

The relation between the architecture of the building and its contents is easy to see: it’s transparent, there are virtual links and correspondences between the outside and the inner space, there are no grand urban planning gestures, no obvious symbolism and no pretentious museum character. Indeed, the aim is not to be a “memorial” site (like the Berlin Jewish Museum or the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe), it is rather a place of scholarly and educational work and information.

The Documentation Center and the library as ensemble, a clear cube with a delicate metallic façade, allow the full expressiveness of the historic site itself: desolation and the disruption to the familiar are shown. The site presents itself as an “open wound” in the heart of the city and in Germany, and the building has neither to reshape nor to dominate the site: that’s why the Jury liked the Wilms and Hallmann’s idea, which contains an intervention of the design into the landscape, where “relics and cells are suitably emphasized and integrated into the network of paths” (comments of the Jury in January 2006 in occasion of the announcement of the competition winner).

Topography of Terror Main Building

It appears as a whole, with the remains of the Wall, the 15 panels of information and the 3 permanent exhibitions: one portrays the terror by the Gestapo from 1933 on and by the Reich Security Main Office from 1939 on, from different narrative perspectives, to bring the visitor closer to the crimes conceived in this place (explains Prof. Andreas Nachama in the Site Tour Catalogue, 2010); another one is the circular walking tour along the material traces of the site’s history and the third one is dedicated to Berlin during the 3rd Reich, with a description of the SS state, the biographies of the Nazi perpetrators, the documents of Nazi crimes in Germany and in Europe, and with a panorama of how such history has been studied and dealt with from 1945 to the present. The goal is to bring the visitor to the critical confrontation with the Nazism and their social and political preconditions: the site is in the end not only a place of learning, but also of warning.

The director and the administrators claim that the Topographie des Terrors aims “to promote a better understanding of human and civil right, rule of law, democracy and tolerance today”. Even if one can find these words rhetorical, the building succeeds in its intent: it is built detached from the ground and that gives lightness to it; the glass roof gives transparency and accessibility to the exhibition; the interrelationship between various material traces is visible on the terrain (ground layer of broken gray natural stone, walkways, trees..), and from the sidewalk of the Niederkirchnerstr., looking at the building, you have the impression of the original urban layout (history is also here always present).

It is remarkable that everyone can completely see the site from the inside of the building: from the foyer you can see the glass elements to the north and the remains of the cellar walls of the Gestapo headquarters; to the south there’s a bunch of locust trees: that big green space is a contrast to the sparseness of the rest of the terrain and a witness of the former use as Autodrom.

In conclusion, architecture talks very well for itself and for the content in the case of the Topographie des Terrors: the site is a “primary object”, open to public in its entirety (from simple visitors to scholars passing by school groups) through public events, seminars, educational programs, and rendered accessible and commented (via audioguides and panels). The sober character keeps always alive the serious reflection on the causes and structures of Nazi dictatorship and its consequences for past and present.

Topography of Terror through Wall



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