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Modernism as Memory:
Building Identity in the Federal Republic of Germany

Kathleen James-Chakraborty
University of Minnesota Press

Universal truths in architectural history are seldom popular suppositions, but one that is likely uncontroversial is that memory is a potent force in public culture. This is the undergirding premise of Modernism as Memory: Building Identity in the Federal Republic of Germany by Kathleen James-Chakraborty, a book that explores the leitmotif as well as experience of memory as a lens for charting a history of architecture in the Federal Republic of Germany, which comprised West Germany from its founding in 1949 and later expanded to include Germany as we know it today from unification in 1990 to the present. The politics of memory are particularly vexed in the Federal Republic, where the legacies of the Holocaust, widespread destruction from World War II, and the Berlin Wall inevitably color so much of its civic space. Addressing these memories has been central to countless scholarly studies including Gavriel Reosenfeld and Paul Jaskot’s volume Beyond Berlin: Twelve German Cities Confront the Nazi Past (2008), Winfried Nerdinger’s Ort und Erinnerung: Nationalsozialismus in München (2006), or popular publications like Hans Wolfgang Hoffmann, Andreas Matschenz, and Philipp Meuser’s Architekturführer Berliner Mauer (2013). What is different, and refreshing, about Modernism as Memory is its recuperation of memory as something more expansive in German culture, necessarily including those traumas but also incorporating memories of modernism in architecture itself, the collective memory of the industrial and migrant worker, and the discursive priorities of architects and historians, from postmodernism and neomodernism to critical reconstruction and adaptive reuse. As such, the book is a welcome addition to the relatively large corpus of literature on architecture in Germany in the twentieth century, one with numerous points of entry and a tone strategically situated somewhere between textbook and monograph that distinguishes it from a publication like Wolfgang Pehnt’s comprehensive survey Deutsche Architektur seit 1900 (2005).

Modernism as Memory is organized into six chapters. The first chapter establishes key paradigms in architecture in pre-Republic Germany to which, James-Chakraborty argues, architects will refer as motifs of memory, not as form per se. This includes well-known works by Bruno Taut, Paul Bonatz, and the architects of the Weissenhof Siedlung, among others. Chapters 2 and 3 focus on West German churches and museums respectively, Chapter 4 on postunification Berlin, Chapter 5 on the industrial legacy of the Ruhr region, and Chapter 6 on the assimilation of new cultures, building types, and discourses into German architectural culture.

Chapters 2 and 6, as well as the Conclusion, highlight the particularly powerful (if surprising) subtheme of religion in shaping the Republic’s architectural culture. The church emerged from World War II as one of the only semicredible institutions for many West Germans and thus as the centerpiece of much of their initial investment in new construction. As perhaps the key example, James-Chakraborty highlights the process around the erection of Egon Eiermann’s Kaiser-Wilhem-Gedächtniskirche in Berlin, which is built in the shadows of the jagged spire of Franz Schwechten’s historicist (and, as we learn, largely nationalist) church of the same name from 1900, tracing the process not so much of its compelling design but of how public memory in West Berlin came to inflect the approach to the site, and how a building that most felt ambivalent about came to be a symbol of pride and fortitude in the isolated island of occupied West Berlin. This approach is the same one applied to Gottfried and Peter Böhm’s design for the DITIB mosque in Cologne in 2015, which prompted heated debate in Cologne and beyond about how much architecture could or should be able to signify the growing presence of Islam in Europe, which James-Chakraborty analyzes in depth.

Chapter 5, on the Ruhr region, is particularly compelling and forges a great deal of new scholarly territory. The densely populated region, historically the industrial backbone of the Republic, is nevertheless often forgotten as its cities—Bochum, Essen, Duisburg, Dortmund—have not been able to compete with the reputations of Berlin, Munich, Hamburg, Frankfurt, or even Düsseldorf. James-Chakraborty gives this fascinating topography its due attention, all the while demonstrating how another type of architecture—landscape architecture—emerged as the engine for remembering an entangled history of environmental degradation, Nazi complicity, and labor issues through such examples as the Internationale Bauausstellung (IBA) Emscher Park and the Zeche Zollverein. With the Zeche Zollverein in particular, James-Chakraborty masterfully untangles myths about Nazi-era responses to the Bauhaus and traditional architecture, paving the way for a middle ground of understanding of German modernism itself, one that shows that modernism could be intensely rational without being purely antifascist.

Modernism as Memory makes a point to suss out the so-called middle ground, not only of such ambiguous modernisms, but also of middle-ground architects, particularly in mid-century, who were left in the shadows of Mies van der Rohe, Walter Gropius, and Le Corbusier. To the book’s credit, this effort is not merely recuperative,; it also makes the point that national culture and national identity were labors of love that came from an intense desire by architects with less status and smaller budgets to deal with memory in a meaningful way. This helps to explain the creative sobriety that ties so many of the projects in this book (with notable exceptions by international architects) together and may explain a certain sobriety that exists in national architectural culture to this day.

A book of this scope requires the unenviable task of omitting numerous worthy works of architecture. It is noteworthy that James-Chakraborty has used geography as a primary filter, almost entirely omitting Bavaria (with the exception of a mention of Hans Döllgast’s reconstruction of the Alte Pinakothek in Munich, a progenitor of critical reconstruction) because of its “strong sense of regional autonomy and identity,” and Hamburg and Bremen as “outward looking port cities.” In omitting these regions, which include the Federal Republic’s second and third largest metropolises, James-Chakraborty makes the argument that she is more easily able to hone in on the issue of memory as a constituent of national identity. Readers interested in Germany’s regional and, even more so, international identities may consequently seek supplemental literature. It would be interesting to see how the inclusion of outward looking projects that are also conversant with issues of memory—like Frei Otto’s stunning tensile structures for the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich, the radically experimental international architecture of the Expo2000 in Hannover, or Herzog & de Meuron’s recently completed and hotly debated Elbphilharmonie in Hamburg—would have changed the register of this fine book.

Modernism as Memory will interest readers of modern German architectural, urban, cultural, political, and environmental history; readers interested in memory and identity studies; and those interested in novel interpretations of the architects it discusses, including Egon Eiermann, Paul Böhm, Zaha Hadid, Peter Zumthor, and Gottfried Böhm, among others. These same readers will also appreciate James-Chakraborty’s clear writing and critical insight, elevating a discussion of national identity by imbuing it with a global perspective that does not rely on comparisons to draw its universal conclusion.

Peter Christensen is assistant professor of art history at the University of Rochester. His specialization is modern architectural and environmental history, particularly of Germany, Central Europe, and the Middle East. While his theoretical interests center on issues of geopolitics and multiculturalism, he also maintains a strong interest in infrastructure and its history. He explores critical applications of the digital humanities in his teaching and research, which includes a major project entitled Architectural Biometrics. He is the author of the book Germany and the Ottoman Railway Network: Art, Empire, and Infrastructure (2017).

How to Cite this Article: Christensen, Peter. Review of Modernism as Memory: Building Identity in the Federal Republic of Germany, by Kathleen James-Chakraborty. JAE Online. December 17, 2018. http://www.jaeonline.org/articles/reviews-books/modernism-memory#/.