Reaching its goal

Times Staff Writer

SINCE winning the right six years ago to hold the 2006 World Cup, Germany has raced to build new stadiums and update old ones around the country. Some of these soccer temples have already become architectural icons, including the dazzling Allianz Arena in Munich by the Swiss firm Herzog & de Meuron, where the opening match will take place on Friday.

But none of the World Cup venues -- and few buildings of any kind in Germany, for that matter -- hold more political and cultural meaning than Berlin’s Olympic Stadium. If the German capital has been filled with cranes and ghosts since the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, nowhere have they faced off as publicly as in the huge sunken stadium on the leafy western outskirts of the city, where a total of six World Cup matches will be held, including the final on July 9.

The stadium was designed by architect Werner March for the 1936 Summer Games, its stripped-down limestone forms creating an appropriately severe backdrop for Leni Riefenstahl’s documentary “Olympia.” At a cost of more than $250 million, the building has been restored and modernized for the World Cup, complete with a new glass and steel roof, by the Hamburg-based von Gerkan, Marg and Partners.

GMP, as the firm is known, is building all over Germany at the moment. Many of its prominent projects, including the new central train station in Berlin, which opened 10 days ago, are executed in a bland, over-scaled version of High-Tech style. But its work on the Olympic Stadium is exquisite; it ranks among the most impressive architectural balancing acts in a city that has seen quite a few of them lately.

Indeed, in the six years since it recaptured its place as Germany’s single capital, Berlin has been forced to rebuild, at a breakneck pace, and reckon with the past at the same time. Its architectural impulses, as a result, have ranged wildly. They have included a desire to wipe certain prominent symbols of Communist East Berlin from the map, including the squat Palace of the Republic, a 1976 landmark of Soviet kitsch that is in the midst of a rather slow demolition.


There has also been, of course, very public penance for Nazi crimes -- producing, among other monuments, Peter Eisenman’s Holocaust memorial, which opened last year on a prominent site in central Berlin -- and a seemingly bottomless demand for new construction. The building boom has brought a new generation of German architects to prominence and provided commissions for a long list of famous foreign names, including Frank Gehry, I.M. Pei, Renzo Piano, Rafael Moneo, Zaha Hadid and Rem Koolhaas.

The most hotly debated of these projects have involved renovating older landmarks with connections to the Nazi regime: Norman Foster’s glass dome for the Reichstag, for example, went through seemingly endless variations, each one played out in excruciating detail in the media. Since it was finished in 1999, the new Reichstag has become the preeminent architectural symbol of 21st century Berlin. You can buy a miniature model of it in nearly every trinket shop in the city.

But the stadium, in many ways, represented a special case. To begin with, most German soccer fans -- not to mention some officials at FIFA, the sport’s governing body -- were eager to get rid of it for reasons that had little to do with politics or history. Because it was designed to accommodate a range of sports, with the broad running track where Jesse Owens triumphed in 1936 dividing the field from the first row of seats like a moat, those critics consider it a relic, entirely unsuitable for a tournament devoted to soccer.

At the same time, it was difficult to get around the fact, even before the recent restoration started, that the stadium was not only better preserved but also better designed than virtually any other Nazi landmark, displaying a surprising spare elegance to go with its expected muscularity. Six decades after the end of the war, it is still something of a taboo here to judge the buildings used by Hitler on purely aesthetic grounds. After all, both Hitler’s architect Albert Speer -- who according to some historians had a significant hand in the Olympic Stadium’s final design -- and Riefenstahl defended themselves after the war precisely by suggesting that the art they produced for the Nazi regime could be neatly separated from its policies.

The historical record suggests something quite different: From the moment Hitler took power in 1933 he was intensely interested in the relationship between propaganda and athletic spectacle. Riefenstahl, for her part, first fell under Hitler’s thrall after she heard him speak at a rally at Berlin’s Sportpalast, later the site of Joseph Goebbels’ 1943 “total war” speech. And Speer earned a trust unique among Hitler’s advisors in large part thanks to his Nazi rally grounds in Nuremberg. Compared to that design, March’s Olympic Stadium, its playing field sunk 45 feet below grade, always struck Hitler as rather too timid.

The links among politics, race and sports have been laid bare once again in recent months here, with reports of fans all over Europe taunting African and African American players with racial epithets or tossing peanuts and bananas on the field. Nazi flags were unfurled in the stands during a match in Italy. One African immigrant support organization has warned that certain parts of East Berlin may be unsafe during the World Cup for non-Germans. It remains impossible to say that the Olympic Stadium is a striking piece of architecture, or has been made more so by its modernization, and end the conversation there.

Still, GMP’s design is among Berlin’s bravest attempts to make a Nazi landmark relevant to the contemporary city. The stadium’s new roof, framed in steel and covered in translucent fabric and glass panels, pulls off the trick of rhyming with and also playing against the existing stadium. It matches the original in its rigor and clarity. But where March’s design is imposing and unmistakably martial, with its ring of stripped stone pillars running in lock-step around the exterior, the new construction feels buoyant and modern.

The roof is not fully circular but has a notched opening directly above the Marathon Gate, the ceremonial entrance to the stadium that figures so prominently in Riefenstahl’s film. The notch made the roof more complicated and expensive to build, but the gesture keeps intact the surrounding site’s strong east-west axis, which culminates in the west with a tall bell tower from which Hitler oversaw massive rallies.

GMP has also added extensive facilities to the stadium, including the halls and parking for VIPs and corporate sponsors that are a requirement in any new sports facility, but for the most part these are buried underground. The result is that spectators will see the interplay between the nimble roof and the muscular original stadium without realizing that a good deal of new architecture lies below their feet.

That sense of restraint has become a defining feature of German architecture since the end of World War II. Particularly in the 1950s and ‘60s, the nation’s architects carefully avoided any gestures that could be seen as symbols of German pride or ambition. During the Cold War, when the West German government was located in Bonn -- a city chosen for its sleepy provincialism and utter lack of history -- the head of state lived in an unassuming building known as the Kanzlerbungalow, or “chancellor’s bungalow.”

Perhaps the single greatest piece of postwar architecture in Germany, Hans Scharoun’s 1963 concert hall for the Berlin Philharmonic, belongs to the same category: While colorful and energetic, it is also asymmetrical, loosely informal and anti-monumental. Frei Otto and Gunter Behnisch used a similar approach in their design for the 1972 Olympic Stadium in Munich, with its lightweight, tented roof.

Both buildings were clearly inspirations for Herzog & de Meuron’s Allianz Arena in Munich. With its pillowy facade of ETFE panels, the stadium can alter its color depending on which of the two soccer clubs that share it is playing on a particular night. The building is soft and changeable -- in great contrast to the sense of timeless strength March and Speer aimed for in their designs.

In that sense, World Cup organizers couldn’t have picked more meaningful architectural bookends for the tournament than the stadiums in Munich and Berlin. When the opening match begins Friday night at the Allianz Arena, television viewers around the world will see a Germany comfortably fluent in the language of futuristic design. And when they tune in for the final a month later, they’ll see a country still shouldering the tremendous weight of its past.