In Hamburg, a major Nazi monument is being repurposed into deluxe apartments. A lesson on the luxury boom, and the way Germany faces its uncomfortable history.
HAMBURG – The Nazi eagles have haven't exactly flown away, but have been removed from the roof of the former Nazi command headquarters in Hamburg, an unmistakeable example of national-socialist architecture built in the Harvestehude quarter in 1937.
“They’ve been put into storage,” says Uwe Schmitz, CEO of Frankonia Eurobau, by telephone. There is a pause, then he continues cautiously, almost uncertainly. “The eagles, of course, we can put them back up ... or not.”
It is this “or not” that riles Alexander Krauss from the office for the protection of historic buildings in Hamburg. First he laughs in disbelief, then exclaims, “Oh God! Not that again.” Krauss recently wrote an article about the conversion of the former Nazi headquarters, a project that has sparked fierce disputes among city authorities but has gone largely unnoticed by most of the population. Normally there is far more fuss when a listed building is converted, but in this case the silence speaks volumes.
In his article, Krauss writes, “They are not shying away from confrontation with the office for the protection of historical buildings. If threats and intimidation do not work straight away, they can always resort to lawyers ... and apply political pressure in order to ensure that their ideas go through.” Although Krauss doesn’t mention him by name, the criticism is directed at Uwe Schmitz, the successful project developer who is converting the former Nazi headquarters into luxury residences.
The site is in one of the most expensive areas in Germany, where not so very long ago the Nazis drove Jewish residents out of their homes. Soon the park area and the headquarters itself will be transformed into a luxury housing complex of villas, townhouses and apartments. The most expensive apartment in the park area costs 6 million euros, while in the main building buyers are paying up to 20,000 euros per square meter. A one-bedroom apartment on the ground floor is to be sold for just under half a million euros.
“The grand listed building of the former Hamburg command headquarters is being restored carefully and sympathetically,” the developer’s website says. Krauss, on the other hand, argues that the building has been all but destroyed. The diggers have been doing their work, and now all that remains of the former headquarters is the long, thin facade, the one with the eagles. It seems that Krauss is fighting a losing battle. “What are you supposed to do when even the city authorities are prepared to accept the destruction of a historically significant building?”
Frankonia’s marketing department has posted a video about the project in which the camera pans across the impressive facade, down a pillar-flanked hall and up a luxurious staircase. The red carpet leads to a club lounge, which is to be furnished by Karl Lagerfeld. It is the former Nazi ballroom. In the video, the two massive eagles still stand on their perches, casting their shadows over the building.
Johannes Kister from the KSG architecture firm in Köln is in charge of the project and knows nothing about the divergent interests of a city seeking investment and a heritage office that wants to protect the “only significant public building from the Third Reich in Hamburg,” as art historian Hermann Hipp has put it. The firm’s motto is “Preserve the soul of the old, without dogma, with expertise,” but Krauss believes not enough of the old has been preserved. He thinks the building has been “gutted.” “We’ve lost this battle,” he says.
But who is responsible? The investor? The architect? The city authorities? Or the residents moving into the luxury apartments? It was suggested that the building could be turned into offices instead, which would have allowed it to retain more original features, but residents were against the idea. The investor has permission from the authorities. From a legal perspective, all is well. The question, however, is whether it is right. Is this how German society wants to deal with its uncomfortable heritage?
At the moment the Nazi-era facade is green. Schmitz wants it to be “gleaming white,” the white of villas in Harvestehude and pretty boats in Hamburg harbor. Why not? Plans to build a supermarket on the site of the former concentration camp in Ravensbrück have sparked outrage, but at the former Nazi headquarters in Hamburg silence reigns.