The bell, Olympiastadion, Berlin
An artefact is an ideology made manifest. The bell in this picture is the one made for the Reichssportfeld in Berlin, installed in the bell tower you can see behind it, brought crashing down when the damaged tower was demolished shortly after the second world war, repaired, and eventually rededicated as a monument “against war and violence”. But it’s not only that.
The bell was forged by the Gussstahlfabrik in Bochum, the heart of the Krupp steelworks, and the plant which made the Prussian and German armies’ gun barrels. Its owners and top managers were a crucial influence in German politics, from the turn away from Bismarckian conservatism in the 1890s all the way to 1933. It was there that the revolutionary centrifugal casting process – spinning molten steel from a tube turning at thousands of RPM outwards like candy floss – was invented in the 1930s, that made the Nazi army’s 88mm long-range antitank guns. Ordering the bell from them was political architecture in many ways – not only did it please the heavy industry lobby, it explicitly reminded everyone of the real sources of the state power the whole master plan was meant to celebrate. The bell tower itself grows out of a war monument; but the bell grew out of the military-industrial complex.
Even its later history is telling. Despite the RAF bombing, which damaged the structure, it was still standing when the Olympic stadium was taken over by the British army, just as the bombers could never really finish off the steelworks that made it. The British blew it up for fear it would fall down unpredictably. Later, in the 1960s, it was restored – by none other than Werner March, the original architect of the project. No wonder people worried about faschisticher Kontinuitat. The bell itself was then, rather uneasily, plonked in its current position with its new and vaguely glib, but undeniably well-meaning mission; it’s hard to escape the feeling that it’s been a lot like Germany.
Strangely enough, the Reichssportfeld is the only stone building that scares me. All my associations for it are wrong; I’m used to the stuff as a material which weathers, grows moss, turns black with industrial smoke, gets sandblasted back to its original colour by ambitious mayors. Although the stadium is limestone, like a Yorkshire hill, it’s still terrifyingly perfect.
Not much light