Podcasts, as of late, have become increasingly engaging and convenient sources of knowledge and/or entertainment. They are the perfect medium of content consumption, for professionals specifically – given how well they facilitate multi-tasking. A particular podcast oriented towards architecture and design has been gaining a lot of traction recently – called the AD Aesthete. The AD Aesthete is a podcast from the Architectural Digest team that analyses the work of iconic artisans, architects and designers throughout history, and also explores modern trends in the world of design. Hosted by the superlatively knowledgable AD decorative arts director Mitchell Owens, the podcast offers intriguing conversation and insight into all things aesthetic.
A recent episode of the podcast deals with a very controversial topic (to say the least) – The Politics of Architecture in Nazi Germany. The podcast begins by introducing the listener to a startling title – “Hitler at Home”. This book, authored by historian Despina Stratigakos rattled the architecture and design community. The book takes a closer look at the home of fascist dictator Adolf Hitler, and examines how interior design was used as a medium to cultivate an identity for the ruler. Contrary to Hitler’s authoritarian beliefs, his home was profusely adorned with fine art and craftsmanship, to paint the portrait of the man as one of culture and refinement.
Further, during the podcast, Owens and Stratigakos discuss the gradual reconstruction of Norway – a country that till date remains the largest repository of national socialist architecture. Propaganda was essentially imbibed in the design and construction of these spaces. The intention was to create a model Aryan society in Hitler’s “Northern Utopia”. They wanted to reshape Norwegian society and bind the country closer to Germany. Their conversation emphasises on the regime’s departure from the monumental architecture of Berlin or Nuremberg, and highlights how subtly the authoritarian front became a part of everyday life through design. Owens argues that “A cigar may just be a cigar, but a building is rarely ever just a building.” implying that the subliminal messaging conveyed through the style and articulation was an extremely intentional public relations vehicle; an extremely terrifying notion.
Stratigakos explains how the relationship between architecture and the messaging it conveys works analogous to the problem of the chicken and the egg. On the one hand, you may argue that architecture is shaped by the society it is constructed in, by the people who design it. On the other, you may say that societies themselves are cultivated by the built environments that they are situated in, making it extremely difficult to decipher the role that architects should, rather can, play. In the words of Winston Churchill – “We shape our buildings, and afterwards, our buildings shape us.”
In the minds of Nazis, the Norwegian public outranked the Germans in terms of race, if not culture. Hitler intended to appeal to this Nordic brotherhood of the citizenry of Norway, in stark contrast to his invasive and genocidal policies while occupying Eastern Europe. In Norway there was a new order established – with the Nazis attempting to blend into an existing environment. The new cities incorporated Norwegian traditions, despite being inherently ideological.
The kind of buildings constructed accentuated the focal points of 25 odd different Norwegian towns. Planners discovered that the existing physical centres were weak and lacked distinctive character, and hence they began their plans to reshape the entire physical landscape from the centres, then outwards. They established that Norwegian citizens were too independently minded – there was a lack of a well-developed community that focused on solidarity. To enforce the ideals the party constructed what came to be known as the Nazi party building, marching grounds and parade grounds. Factors like building heights and the form of the buildings also became important while establishing these ideals in the Norwegian society.
Stratigakos compares the newly constructed towns to stage sets for the racial ideology. While moving into Norway, the planners from Germany collaborated with the planner from Norway to keep some modicum of traditional Norwegian town planning intact, while further extending these so-called “stage sets” to the Northern urban landscape. The architects and planner in charge of implementing these strategies in Norway were handpicked by the Nazi party and did comprehensive studies on existing Nazi towns and cities like Nuremberg, and brought those learnings back to Norway with them.
The selection of architects was a mixed bag – traditionalist architects and newer, ambitious architects – the latter being far more enticed by the idea of these new towns.
While the German occupation of Norway remains well studied and researched, the impact of the physical built environment on the societies still offers a large scope for further investigation. The most important takeaway, from the entire political-cum-architectural endeavour remains the fact that a building is never just a building. All architecture is speculative – even when you think a building is saying nothing, its very existence speaks volumes.