Utopia from the 30's : Welthauptstadt Germania
Welthauptstadt ("world capital") Germania was the name Adolf Hitler gave to the projected renewal of Berlin, part of his vision for the future of a Greater German Reich. Albert Speer, chief architect of the Third Reich, produced many of the plans for the rebuilt city of which only a few were realized. Some projects, such as the creation of a great city axis, which included broadening Unter den Linden and placing the Siegessäule in the center, far away from the Reichstag, where it originally stood, succeeded.
Besides the stadium built for the Summer Olympics of 1936, almost none of the other buildings planned for Germania were ever built. Berlin was to be reorganized along a central three-mile long avenue. At the north end, Speer planned to build an enormous domed building, based on St. Peter's Basilica in Rome. The dome of the building would have been impractically large–over seven hundred feet in height and eight hundred feet in diameter, sixteen times as large as the dome of the St. Peter's. At the southern end of the avenue would be an arch based on the Arc de Triumphe in Paris, but again, much larger–almost four hundred feet high, theoretically allowing the Parisian arch to stand in its opening. The outbreak of the war in 1939 caused the decision to postpone construction until after the war, to avoid material demands.
The entire north side of what was to become the Große Platz was filled by the Volkshalle. This truly enormous building, the full significance of which has not as yet been completely appreciated, was according to Albert Speer inspired by Hadrian's Pantheon, which Hitler visited privately on May 7, 1938. But Hitler's interest in and admiration for the Pantheon predated this visit, since his sketch of the Volkshalle dates from about 1925. In his book Ein Andered Hitler–Bericht Seines Architekten Erlebniss, Hermann Giesler records a conversation he had with Hitler in the winter of 1939/40, when Hitler was recalling his "Roman Impressionism".
"From the time I experienced this building–no description, picture or photograph did it justice–I became interested in its history. [...] For a short while I stood in this space (the rotunda)–what majesty! I gazed at the large open oculus and saw the universe and sensed what had given this space the name Pantheon–God and the world war one."
The sketch of the Volkshalle given by Hitler to Speer shows a traditional gabled pronaos supported by ten columns, a shallow rectangular intermediate block and behind it the dome's main building. There was, however, little about Speer's elaboration of the sketch that might be termed Doric, except perhaps for the triglyphs in the entablature, supported by the geminated red granite columns with their egyptianizing palm-leaf capitals, previously employed by Speer in the portico outside Hitler's study on the garden side of the new Reichschancellery.
Speer's Volkshalle was to be the capital's most important and impressive building in terms of size and symbolism. Visually, it was to have been the architectural masterpiece of Berlin as the world capital. Its dimensions were so large that it would have dwarfed every other structure in Berlin, include those on the north-south axis itself. The oculus of the building's dome, 46 metres in diameter, would have accommodated the entire rotunda of Hadrian's Pantheon and the dome of the St. Peter's Basilica. The dome of the Volkshalle was to rise from a massive granite podium 315 by 315 metres and 74 metres high, to a total inclusive height of 290 metres. The diameter of the dome, 250 metres, was to be exceeded, much to Speer's annoyance, with 15 metres by that of Giesler's new domed railway station at the end of Munich's east-west axis.
The resemblance of the Volkshalle to the Pantheon is far more obvious when their interiors are compared. The large niche (50 metres high by 28 metres wide) at the north end of the Volkshalle was to be surfaced with gold mosaic and to enclose an eagle 24 metres high, beneath which was situated HItler's tribunal. From here he would address 180,000 listeners, some standing in the central round arena, others seated in three concentric tiers of set crowned by one hundred marble pillars, 24 metres high, which rose to meet the base of the coffered ceiling suspended from steel girders sheathed on the exterior with copper.
The three concentric tiers of seats enclosing a circular arena 140 metres in diameter owe nothing to the Pantheon but resemble the seating arrangements in Ludwig Ruff's Congress Hall at Nuremberg, which was modeled on the Colosseum. Other featured of the Volkshalle's interior are clearly indebted to Hadrian's Pantheon: the coffered dome, the pillared zone, which here is continuous, except where it flanks the huge niche on the north side. The second zone in the Pantheon, consisting of blind windows with intervening pilasters, is represented in Speer's building by a zone above the pillars consisting of uniform, oblong shallow recesses. The coffered dome rests on this zone. The design and size of the external decoration of this Volkshalle, are all exceptional and call for explanations that do not apply to community halls planned for Nazi fora in other German cities.
Hitler's aspirations to world domination, already evident from architectural and decorative featured of the new Reichschancellery, are even more clearly expressed here. External symbols suggest that the domed hall was where Hitler as Herr der Welt would appear before his Herrenvolk: on top of the dome's lantern was an eagle grasping in its claws not the usual swastika but the globe of the Earth. This combination of eagle and globe was well known in imperial Roman iconography, for example, the restorated statue of Claudius holding a ball and eagle in his right hand. The vast dome, on which it rested, as with Hadrian's Pantheon, symbolically represented the vault of the sky spanning Hitler's world empire. The globe on the dome's lantern was enhanced and emphasized by two monumental sculptured by Arno Breker, each 15 metres high, which flanked the north façade of the building: at its west end Atlas supporting the heavens, at its east end Tellus supporting the Earth. Both mythological figured were, according to Speer, chosen by Hitler himself. According to Speer, Hitler believed "that as centuries passed, his huge domes assembly hall would acquire great holy significance and become a hallowed shrine as important to National Socialism as St. Peter's in Rome is to Roman Catholicism. Such cultism was at the root of the entire plan."
From Inside the Third Reich, Albert Speer, Chapter 11: "The buildings which were intended to frame the future Adolf Hitler Platz lay in the shadow of the great domed hall. But as if Hitler wanted by architecture alone to denigrate the whole process of popular representation, the hall had a volume fifty times greater than the proposed Reichstag building. He had asked me [Speer] to work out the designs for this hall as early as the summer of 1936. On April 20, 1937, his birthday, I gave him the renderings, ground plans, cross sections and a first model of the building. He was delighted and only quarrelled with my having signed the plans: "Developed on the basis of the Führer's ideas." I was the architect, he said, and my contribution to this building must be given greater credit than his sketch of the idea dating from 1925. I stuck to this formula, however, and Hitler was probably gratified at my refusal to claim authorship for this building. Partial models were prepared from the plans and in 1939 a detailed wooden model of the exterior some ten feet high and another model of the interior were made. The floor could be removed in order to test the future effect at eye level. In the course of his many visits to the exhibit, Hitler would unfailingly spend a long time contemplating these two models. He would point triumphantly to them as an idea that must have struck his friends fifteen years ago as a fantastic quirk.
"This structure, the greatest assembly hall in the world ever conceived up to that time, consisted of one vast hall that could hold between one hundred fifty and one hundred eighty thousand people standing. In spite of Hitler's negative attitude toward Himmler's and Rosenberg's mystical notions, the hall was essentially a place of worship. The idea was that over the course of centuries, by tradition and venerability, it would acquire an importance similar to the of St. Peter's Basilica in Rome has for Catholic Christendom. Without some such essentially pseudo-religious background the expenditure for Hitler's central building would have been pointless and incomprehensible.
"The round interior was to have the almost inconceivable diameter of eight hundred and twenty five feet. The huge dome was to begin its slightly parabolic curve as a height of three hundred and twenty three feet and rise to a height of seven hundred and twenty six feet.
"In a sense the Pantheon in Rome had served as our model. The Berlin dome was also to contain a round opening for light, but this opening alone would be one hundred and fifty two feet in diameter, larger than the entire dome of the Pantheon (142 feet) and of St. Peter's Basilica (145 feet). The interior would contain siteen times the volume of St. Peter's Basilica.
"The interior appointments were to be as simple as possible. Circling an area four hundred sixty two feet in diameter, a three tier gallery rose to a height of one hundred feet. A circle of one hundred rectangular marble pillars, still almost on a human scale, for they were only eighty feet high, was broken by a recess opposite the entrance. This recess was one hundred and sixty five feet high and ninety two feet wide and was to be clad at the rear in gold mosaic. In front of it, on a marble pedestal forty six feet in height, perched the hall's single sculptural feature: a gilded German eagle with a swastika in its claws. This symbol of sovereignty might be said to be the very fountainhead of Hitler's grand boulevard. Beneath this symbol would be the podium for the Leader of the nation; from this spot he would deliver his messages to the peoples of his future empire. I tried to give this spot suitable emphasis, but here the fatal flaw of architecture that has lost all sense of proportion was revealed. Under that vast dome Hitler dwindled to an optical zero.
"From the outside the dome would have loomed against the sky like some green mountain, for it was to be roofed with patinated plates of copper. At its peak we planned a skylight turret one hundred and thirty two feet high, of the lightest possible metal construction. The turret would be crowned by an eagle with swastika.
"Optically, the mass of the dome was to have been set off by a series of pillars sixty six feet high. I thought this effect would bring things back to scale, undoubtedly a vain hope. The mountainous dome rested upon a granite edifice two hundred and forty four feet high with sides ten hundred and forty feet long. A delicate frieze, four clustered, fluted pillars on each of the four corners and a colonnade along the front facing the square were to dramatize the size of the enormous cube. Two sculptures each fifty feet high would flank the colonnade. Hitler had already decided on the subjects of these sculptures when we were preparing our first sketches of the building. One would represent Atlas bearing the vault of the heavens, the other Tellus supporting the globe of the world. The spheres representing sky and earth were to be enamel coated with constellations and continents traced in gold.
"The volumne of this structure amounted to almost 27.5 million cubic yards; the capital in Washington, D.C., would have been contained many times in such a mass. These were dimensions of an inflationary sort.
"Yet the hall was by no means an insane project, which could in fact never be executed. Our plans did not belong to that super grandiose category envisioned by Claude Nicolas Ledoux as the swan song of the Bourbon dynasty of France, or by Etienne L. Boullée to glorify the Revolution, projects which were never meant to be carried out. Their scale, however, was by no means vaster than Hitler's. But we were seriously going ahead with our plans. As early as 1939 many old buildings in the vicinity of the Reichstag were razed to make room for our Great Hall and the other buildings that were to surround the future Adolf Hitler Platz. The characters of the underlying soil was studies. Detailed drawings were prepared and models built. Millions of marks were spend on granite for the exterior. Nor were the purchases confined to Germany. Despite the shortage of foreign exchange, Hitler had orders placed with quarries in southern Sweden and Finland. Like all the other edifices on Hitler's long grand boulevard, the Great Hall was also scheduled to be completed in eleven years, by 1950. Since the hall would take longer to build than all the rest, the ceremonial cornerstone laying was set for 1940.
"Technically, there was no special problem in constructing a dome over eight hundred feet in diameter. The bridge buildings of the thirties had no difficulty with similar spans of steel or reinforced concrete. Leading German engineers had even calculated that it would be possible to build a massive vault with such a span. In keeping with my Theory of Ruin Value I would rather have eschewed the use of stell; but in this case Hitler expressed doubts. "You know, an aerial bomb might strike the dome and damaaged the vaulting. If there were danger of collapse, how would you go about making repairs?"
"He was right and we therefore had a steel skeleton constructed, from which the inner shell of the dome would be suspended. The walls, however, were to be of solid stone like the Nuremberg buildings. Their weight, along with that of the dome, would exert tremendous pressure and would demand an enormous concrete footing, which would have had a content of 3.9 million cubic yards. According to our calculations, this would sink only a few centimetres into the sandy soil; but to test this, a sample section was built near Berlin. Except for drawings and photographs of models, it is the only thing that has remained of the projected structure.
"In the course of the planning I had gone to see St. Peter's Basilica in Rome. It was rather dashing for me to realize that its size had little to do with the impression it creates. In work on such a scale, I saw, effectiveness is no longer proportionate to the size of the building. I began to be afraid that our Great Hall would turn out disappointingly.
"Ministerial Councillor Knipfer, who was in charge of air-raid protection in the Reich Air Ministry, had heard rumours about this gigantic structure. He had just issued directives providing that all future buildings be as widely dispersed as possible in order to diminish the effect of air raids. Now, here in the centre of the city and of the Reich, a building was to be erected, which would tower above low clouds and act as an ideal navigational guide to enemy bombers. It would be virtually a signpost for the government centre. I mentioned these considerations to Hitler. But he was sanguine. "Göring has assured me, that no enemy plan will enter Germany. We will not let that sort of thing stand in the way of our plans."
"Hitler was obsessed with the idea for this dome building. We had already drawn up our designs when he heard that the Soviet Union was also planning an enormous assembly building in Moscow in honour of Lenin. He was deeply irked, feeling himself cheated of the glory of building the tallest monumental structure in the world. Along with this was an intense chagrin that he could not make Stalin stop by a simple command. But he finally consoled himself with the thought that his building would remain unique. "What does one skyscraper more or less amount to, a little higher or a little lower. The great thing about our building will be the dome!" After the war with the Soviet Union had begun, I now and then saw evidence that the idea of Moscow's rival building had preyed on Hitler's mind more than he had been willing to admit.
"The domed hall was to be surrounded on three sides by water, which would reflect it and enhance its effect. For this purpose we intended to widen the Spree river into a kind of lake. One day in early summer of 1939, he pointed to the German eagle with the swastika in its claws, which was to crown the dome nine hundred fifty seven feet in the air. "That has to be changed. Instead of the swastika, the eagle is to be perched above the globe. To crown this greatest building in the world the eagle must stand above the globe." There are photos of the models in which this revision is plainly to be seen.
"A few months later the Second World War began. As late as May 8, 1943, Joseph Goebbels noted in his diary: "The Führer expresses his unshakable conviction that the Reich will one day rule all of Europe. We will have to survive a great many conflicts, but they will doubtless lead to the most glorious triumphs. And from then on the road to world domination is practically spread out before us. For whoever rules Europe will be able to seize the leadership of the world."