Albert Speer's "Großbelastungskörper" as the secret Center
of urban implosion
In his 1967 story "The Concentration City", the British writer J. G. Ballard evokes an extreme scenario of urban density: "Take a westbound express to 495th Avenue, cross over to a Redline elevator and go up a thousand levels to Plaza Terminal. Carry on south from there and you'll find it between 568th Avenue and 422nd Street… There's a cave-in down at KEN County! Fifty blocks by twenty by thirty levels". The city is all there is; it determines the behavior of the story's protagonist: "Franz had seen big developments before, and his own parents had died in the historic QUA County cave-in ten years earlier, when three master pillars had sheared and two hundred levels of the City had abruptly sunk ten thousand feet, squashing half a million people like flies in a concertina, but the enormous gulf of emptiness still made his imagination gape". Density reverts to emptiness in the form of an architectural catastrophe. Franz's actions are defined by the longing for open space; at first, he undertakes forbidden flight experiments, which he is unable to continue due to the high architectural density. He sets out to find the boundaries of the city, a space that would enable him to realize his dream of flying, of gliding in an endless expanse and as a result, he is examined for his mental health. He doesn't give up, and embarks on a journey of several weeks in a so-called "supersleeper" to reach the boundary of the city. The punch line of the story, however, is that there is no boundary: the beginning and end of the urban structure join together in an endless Möbius strip; the temporal dissolves into the spatial.
The story is pervaded by a subtext that makes the reader suspect that this urban structure itself is only the result of the economic exploitation of space, a sort of exaggerated "land limited supply" such as that familiar from Hong Kong. Ballard's description of extreme urban density is based on the model of the capitalistic production of things, in this case buildings and the corresponding urban infrastructure subsumed in its totalizing tendencies. It is no coincidence that the title of the story, "The Concentration City", evokes the association of the "concentration camp", the modern invention that most strikingly materializes the spatial matrix of power, the "form of containment for those within the national territory that stand outside the nation. … [the] camp incorporates the boundaries into the national space itself". As Nicos Poulantzas explains in his political Teorija, the spatial matrix of the industrial society finds its precondition in the "serial, fragmented, discontinuous, parceled, cellular, and irreversible space characteristic of the Taylorist division of assembly line labor in the factory". Segmentation and enclosure are inscribed into this modern space; its boundaries can be shifted along a serial, discontinuous grid that everywhere establishes an Inside and an Outside. As Poulantzas notes, the very setting of boundaries renders them susceptible to shifting: although this space consists "of a series of distances, gaps, and fragmentations, of enclosures and boundaries, it has no end"; it can expand indefinitely in a unceasing process. Ballard's attention is focused on the edges of this development, of this single, large-scale form of containment whose constantly shifting boundaries can only be conceived–both temporally and spatially–in the form of an endless closed loop: Inside Density – the Concentration City.
In his publications, Henri Lefèbvre repeatedly points to the central role of space in the perpetuation of capitalism. The industrial phase of capitalism, he notes, is followed by an urban one, in which the production of things gives way to the production of space. In this way, capital reproduces itself in even greater measure – a process that increasingly meets with local resistance (not least of all due to its ecological consequences). While the Fordist method of production had aimed at the mass consumption of houses, automobiles, and leisure activities and thus revealed its own spatial dimension, the flexible, post-Fordist method of production reacts to these ecological problems and the increasing resistance with "selective and flexible appropriation. The result is an accelerated process of centralization and decentralization, concentration and the multiplication of concentration, in which external constraints increasingly lead to the internal condensation of spatial functions ….". As Roger Keil points out, in order to achieve this production without resistance, a highly technologized variant is selected, one that "feels at home in proto-cyberspace, where real production symbolically merges with the medialized production of the real". What is decisive is the appearance of acting within a clean, pure, isolated sphere. At the same time, the attempt is made to merge with the invisibility of the landscape, in order to abolish the traditional distinction between natural and built environment, real space and image.
An example of condensed spatiality as a leisure activity is the Center Parc. For those unfamiliar with this phenomenon, Center Parc is a small vacation city with apartments, playgrounds, shopping mall, bar, restaurant, discotheque, and sports center, all grouped around the center of the complex, a climate-controlled, glass-enclosed dome with a swimming pool and tropical vegetation. The Center Parc materializes the medially-defined conception of a "tropical landscape". The obvious artificiality of this fictive landscape is opposed to the idea of originality and authenticity; no one is fooled by it. Moreover, the program revolves not around rest and contemplation, but around fun and recreation. The synthetic landscape sets the mood, creates an atmosphere that envelops its occupants and prepares them for the experience. The special quality of a landscape, bound to a particular place, becomes a reproducible atmosphere; the unique experience becomes a staged one. This atmospheric space can be created anywhere there is a demand for it.
The fictive realism of the Center Parc has a paradoxical effect. The imitation landscape derives its abstract identity from its relation to an Evropski world of images and signs, but also from its homogeneity. Unlike the mundane space of the visitor's everyday world, it is marked by density and enclosure. Center Parc presents itself as a whole, isolated from its surroundings and exerting a stabilizing effect. These atmospheric spaces do not acquire their significance as places in geographical space, but as resting stations in the current of time. They provide relief from the demands of modern life and serve as compensation, producing a feeling of subjective security.
Delimited, condensed spaces are found everywhere, in the inner cities and the country, whether as art museums, shopping centers, or amusement parks. The space outside these exclaves, on the other hand, is destructured, marked by the networking of global and local infrastructures, where places enter into dynamic spatial relationships, where material and immaterial spaces overlap in specific times and locations. The space of the postmodern age has lost its boundaries in the constant flow of goods, information, and persons; it has become indefinite. The excess of overlapping and separating spaces with their visual and imaginary connotations no longer permits any fixation or unequivocal localization. Events and conditions can exist apart from determinate places; place and space disintegrate. Often, all it takes is the flip of a switch to enter another spatial context. Here, space appears arbitrary and at the same time unique, characterized by lack of connection, heterogeneity, and instability. Linki are apparently possible in all directions. Density and void appear simultaneously, in changing proportions and relations.
The prerequisite for the consumption of spaces is their dissolution and evacuation. Under controlled conditions, varying relationships between affect and space can then be constituted. This specific connection is decisive for the contemporary production of space and its consumption. Fredric Jameson describes this phenomenon with the example of the Bonaventure Hotel by John Portman. He notes that the building is marked by a "peculiar and placeless dissociation … from its neighborhood". At the same time, the interior of the space is emptied: it can not longer be grasped in terms of spatial volume, its dimensions can no longer be estimated. As Jameson describes it, this spatial experience goes hand in hand with "the feeling that emptiness is here absolutely packed, that it is an element within which you yourself are immersed". Sound, color, light, signs, and images exponentially intensify this atmospheric space, causing it to seem endless: "You are in this hyperspace up to your eyes and your body". In this carefully orchestrated, tempered form of urbanity, zones of varying intensity are constituted, spheres of attraction and repulsion that produce the pleasant feeling of hallucinatory arousal: a calculated removal of boundaries.
Other forms of evacuation, however, are found in intermediate spaces. With progressive fragmentation and particularization, postmodern space disintegrates into a series of pieces, a field of parts, each of which contains its own void. Here are the "groundless points of silence" between irregularity, change, advancing, not keeping up, the collision between things and affairs that for Robert Musil already characterized urbanity. Today, the points he described can be conceived as voids, as gaps between the appearance and disappearance of a place in various spatial frames of reference. This spatial and temporal "between" becomes the fixed point of a dynamized space. What is revealed here is a new experience of reality, whose prototype was described by the American writer Don DeLillo: "With us all the way had been Sullivan's three-antenna marine-band hi-fi portable radio, a never ending squall of disc jockey babytalk, commercials for death, upstate bluegrass Jesus, and as we drove through the cloverleaf bedlams and past the morbid gray towns I perceived that all was in harmony, the stunned land feeding the convulsive radio, every acre of the night bursting with a kinetic unity, the logic beyond delirium". If we observe this perception carefully, then the experience of the incomprensible, whose only constant quantity seems to be chaos, leads to a changed relationship to the environment. The decentered world no longer seems accessible; as an environment, its disquieting strangeness does not permit it to be viewed in relation to the human being alone. In this destructured space, the parts are connected in no other way than the fact that they happen to be present at the same time. We encounter the things as a series of disparate objects; while in the artificial, atmospheric spaces their individuality and materiality evaporates, here they win back their singularity and elude control. Here a design can begin that conceives of the things it creates as prototypes, torn from the incidental, playing out their autonomy without acquiring meaning. This is the starting point for a countermovement to acceleration, flexibilization, delocalization. To speak with Francis Ponge, then, the whole secret of the viewer's happiness lies "in his refusal to view the intrusion of things into his personality as an evil".
3. Singular Density
This inaccessibility and maximum physical density characterizes the 12,500-ton "Großbelastungskörper" or "large load body", the only surviving remnant of Albert Speer's plans for the future capital of the National Socialist imperium. In Hitler's scheme, Berlin was to be "redesigned" as the future world capital and, after the completion of building, renamed "Germania" on the occasion of a world exposition in 1950. In order to attain this goal, the "General Building Inspector for the Capital City of Berlin (GBI)" was established in 1937, a state planning agency headed by Albert Speer. This agency, responsible for all major building plans, realized a few projects, the best known of which are the Tempelhof airport (architect E. Sagebiel) and the Reichssportfeld (architect W. March). Its actual goal, however, was the creation of monumental architecture for the future capital of the Germanic empire, whose proposed dimensions cause the realized buildings to appear comparatively insignificant. The inflationary dimensions of the project, often mentioned in the literature, will not be enumerated here; suffice it to recall that the projected monumental state and party architecture was to culminate in a "triumphal arch" with a height of 117 meters and a width of 170 meters, as well as a "Great Hall" with a diameter of 250 meters and a height of 220 meters.
The preliminary work on the redesign of Berlin began in 1938 with the demolition of buildings and the investigation of the construction site. In the area of the future triumphal arch, a "Großbelastungskörper", a pressure hull of concrete with a diameter of over 10 meters, was erected to test the bearing capacity of the ground. As Speer states in his memoirs, this is "the only … surviving witness" of the monumental plans. In its soul-destroying massiveness, the concrete ruin literally expresses the value of Speer's building project. Since its mechanical removal would be too time-consuming and expensive, and it is not possible to dynamite it, this witness of the "greatness" of the thousand-year Reich will long remain as a point of pressure in the collective memory: a slowly crumbling concrete mass, weighing upon the Brandenburg sand. It will continue to sink millimeter for millimeter long after the use and presence of the new, yet anachronistic, post-unification structures at Berlin's new epicentre have long vanished. The ultimate symbol of maximum density, lacking any useful or interstitional space, mundane and unhabitable, it is a compressed, and solid, negative ruin. In its awesome massivity and singular density it is the secret centre of the forthcoming urban meltdown.
J. G. Ballard, The Concentration City, 1967
Don DeLillo, Americana, 1972
Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism, or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, New Left Review, 146, (July–August) 1984
Roger Keil, Handlungsräume / Raumhandeln, in: M. Wentz (Hg.), Stadt-Räume, F/M. 1991; vgl. dazu auch im selben Band: Walter Prigge, Die Revolution der Städte Lesen
Henri Lefèbvre, Die Revolution der Städte, Frankfurt/Main 1990
Robert Musil, Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften, Reinbek 1970
Francis Ponge, Einführung in den Kieselstein, Frankfurt/Main 1986
Nicos Poulantzas, Staatstheorie, Hamburg 1978
Albert Speer, Erinnerungen, Frankfurt/Main 1969
Lecture given at the NETHCA Symposium "Inside Density", Brussels Nov. 1999