How German architects plan to show the world walls can be overcome

The Berlin Wall fell 28 years ago. It stood for 28 years, and 28 years before it was built, the Nazis came to power. These parallels have inspired the curators of the German Pavilion at the Venice Architecture Biennale.

It was an unusual move for Berlin-based architecture firm GRAFT to partner with Marianne Birthler, a German politicians who was tasked with investigating Stasi crimes in former East Germany from 2000-2011.

Together, the team has been selected to design the German entry at next year's Architecture Biennale in Venice. They're tackling a tough topic that digs into uncomfortable aspects of Germany's history - spanning from the rise of the Nazis to the building and fall of the Berlin Wall - but is also relevant to many other countries today: "Unbuilding Walls."

DW's Stefan Dege spoke with GRAFT architect Thomas Willemeit about the plans for the upcoming show.

DW: Is now the time to build new walls?

Thomas Willemeit: In Germany, we experienced first-hand what it means to have walls that separate a country and many families. When it comes to overcoming those walls, we have had bitter experiences, but also happy ones.

We look back at the past 28 years and the long process of bringing Berlin and the country together, also considering architecture and urban planning. People from around the world can learn a lot from that.

Berlin Mauerbau 1961

The construction of the Berlin Wall, which began in 1961, was protected with barbed wire

There hasn't been a wall in Germany for 28 years, which we are all happy about. Do you remember that time?

We were shocked when we realized that the Wall has now been gone for as long as it was standing. Nearly everyone has reacted the same way: "What, really, it's been that long? I thought the Wall was there for much longer." That shows just how much can happen over the course of 28 years and how times can change.

Read more: What was it like to peer over the Berlin Wall?

Is that regrettable?

Related Subjects

No, that's not a criticism but rather a stock-taking. What happened in the last 28 years and what can we learn from that? Memories change very, very slowly. And it takes a long time to be able to look back at your own history with a certain objectivity. That's what we're attempting to do now.

"Unbuilding Walls" looks at what remains after walls have disappeared?

That, too, but even more it looks at the possibilities, chances and hopes that have arisen due to the fact that we were able to bring down a wall in this country, while there is a great sense of hopelessness in other parts of the world.

What does the German Pavilion have to do with walls? The building itself was reconstructed by the Nazis in 1938.

Well, first of all, we were interested in the time parallels - two spans of 28 years. At some point then, we realized that if we subtracted another 28 years, you would arrive in 1933 [Eds. the year the Nazis came to power in Germany]. It was another interesting time comparison that really reinforced just how quickly history can change.

Kuratoren des Deutschen Pavillons auf der Architekturbiennale 2018

The curators of the German Pavilion from left: Lars Krückeberg, Wolfram Putz, Marianne Birthler, Thomas Willemeit

The last German Pavilion was opened with a large hole in a wall, representing Germany as a barrier-free thoroughfare for refugees - at least that was the message. What is your message?

That is still a secret. It should be a nice surprise when the exhibition finally opens. But I can say that, working together with our firm, GRAFT, we won't just be dealing with the contents of an exhibition, but with creating an interesting multidimensional production within the pavilion.

What sort of ideas are you working with?

It's about provoking thought. We went into the competition with Marianne Birthler to show where the physical walls intersect with the invisible walls in our heads, and what separates societies. That will be the core of the exhibition, but just how that will look remains to be seen.

Read more: Germany remembers rise of the Berlin Wall 56 years on

Is Marianne Birthler your political figurehead?

She enriches our discussion, especially as someone who was politically active when the Wall fell. She has a lot of background, and knows well the intensive discussions that took place as well as the risks and dangers present at that time. For us, that's a sort of a reassurance and guidance, because with this kind of exhibition there is a lot of potential for faux pas.

Italien Architektur-Biennale Deutscher Pavillon in Venedig

The German Pavilion was built in 1909, but revamped by the Nazis in 1938

For example?

Like being too one-sided, or jumping to conclusions too quickly, or maybe reacting too superficially. It's important to offer a balanced representation of reality.

How can time parallels be shown in an exhibition?

We're looking at Berlin as architects. What happened as a result of the division? How did the city deal with it having to accept the border? How did urban planning develop? How was a common future discussed during the division? How were these visions overrun by reality?

How did memories develop? How did people attempt to eliminate the Wall from their memories? How did it happen that people are now looking for pieces of the Wall and want to remember? Presenting these things in the context of urban spaces and architectural projects is the core of the exhibition.

Architect Thomas Willemeit is co-founder of the Berlin architecture firm GRAFT. His colleagues Wolfram Putz and Lars Krückeberg along with Marianne Birthler, who was formerly tasked with investigating the crimes of the East German secret police, will join Willemeit in designing the German Pavilion for the next Architecture Biennale in Venice, which will take place from May 26 to November 25, 2018.

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Barbed wire divides Berlin

East German authorities began patrolling the inner-German border in 1952. Until then it had been relatively easy to pass between the two. They sealed off West Berlin in 1961. Here, soldiers keep people from crossing as the Berlin Wall is built.

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The day the wall went up

In 1961, communist East Germany was having trouble keeping its young, educated population from emigrating to the West. The Berlin Wall was erected almost to completion in a single night, without warning, on August 13.

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Escape atempt

This famous photo from September 1961 shows a woman trying to escape East Berlin through an apartment block where one side of the building faced the West. Some men try to pull her back inside while others wait underneath, hoping to aid in her escape.

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Fall of the Wall

Amidst mounting internal and international pressure, a mistaken announcement by an East German official on November 9, 1989 led to the wall being opened. Germans on both sides of the border celebrated for days. New openings were made in the wall, like here at Potsdamer Platz two days later.

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East Side Gallery

Today, some parts of the Berlin Wall still stand as a memorial to hard-won freedoms. The famous East Side Gallery allows different artists from around the world to add murals to the part of the wall that remains on Mühlenstrasse in Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg.

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Berlin remembers

Politicians for the state government of Berlin lay flowers along the site of the Berlin Wall on Bernauer Strasse, 56 years to the day after it was constructed. At least 140 people were shot dead by East German border guards at the wall from 1961 to 1989.