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Cultural Fantasies, Ideological Goals, and Political Economic Realities: The Built Environment at Auschwitz

Paul B. Jaskot, DePaul University
Ailsa Mellon Bruce Visiting Senior Fellow, September 1 – October 31, 2012

Few subjects are less suited to the aesthetic and intellectual considerations of art-historical debate than the banal everyday architecture of the SS concentration camp at Auschwitz. Although the camp has had a central position in historical studies, it has, with rare exceptions, rated no more than a mention in art history as a backdrop to postwar memorialization. And yet, the archive of the camp’s architectural office is one of the largest depositories of evidence we have of a single building office’s activity during the Nazi regime. Looking at both the archival record and a digital reconstruction of the design of the space that also visualizes construction patterns over time, my project asks what these varied spaces and structures, which may be considered to represent an urban vernacular, tell us about the perpetrators and their architectural goals as well as the victims and their experience of the built environment.

To get to this question, the study focuses particularly on the relatively little-analyzed period after the finalization of what the SS considered its ideal comprehensive plan in early 1943. Much of Auschwitz-Birkenau and other key sites of the Auschwitz environment were vast construction zones at this time. Building activity shifted between the long-term goals of the ideal plan and the short-term needs of both genocide and forced labor. This project uses the analysis of architectural plans related to Auschwitz, changes in what may be considered its urban design, and realized SS structures to investigate spatial relationships, cultural values, and political realities as they developed both before and after spring 1943. In addition, with my collaborator, the historical geographer Anne Kelly Knowles, I will investigate these problems not only through archival evidence but also through the visualization of that archive through geographic information systems (GIS) and other digital means.

At CASVA, I was able to further this work by expanding my historical analysis in two ways. First, I had access through the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum to the archival record of the SS Zentralbauleitung (central building administration), which extended the primary source materials at the base of our study. Second, I began to synthesize these results with fundamental aspects of art-historical thought. In broad terms, the question was, how can digital-humanities concepts of scale and a systemwide (network) analysis be suggestively brought into dialogue with art history? The work of Arnold Hauser (1892 – 1978) on the social history of art proved especially fruitful in exploring this question. Hauser’s key book, The Philosophy of Art History, as well as his myriad essays, both well known and obscure, available in the National Gallery of Art Library, provided a crucial means of expanding on what is art historical in the digital humanities and relating this new subfield to specific questions in architectural history. Hauser emphasized thinking relationally about social historical evidence and attending to granular detail as well as to a systemic perspective. His works grapple particularly with the role of mediation between the artistic and the social, a problem that has been at the center of both defenses and critiques of the social history of art. These terms and issues can be pushed and analyzed through digital tools, which can model the use of vast quantities of social art-historical evidence at different scales.

Scalar analysis is important for understanding the architecture of Auschwitz and the place of construction more generally within the SS camp system, as it helps us to articulate the relationship of the individual building and site to the systemic thinking underlying the whole plan. In addition, it highlights the many kinds of vernacular buildings at the site, from barracks to common single-family houses, from saunas and industrial facilities to schools and barbershops. Dell Upton has frequently argued that such structures have remained mostly unanalyzed in architectural history. As such an analysis my project could be usefully extended into other urban-scaled examples. GIS and the 3D rendering of buildings allow us to see how the temporal scale of constructioon and the spatial scale of its distribution as a forced-labor activity through the camp system at times formed the dominant expression of the built environment. In the digital mode, the vernacular (as opposed to one-of-a-kind, architect-designed buildings) comes to the fore as the dominant visual component of the building process — that is, at the experiential level of architecture. This result is hard to see in the archival evidence but comes out clearly with these new tools, above all in our visualizations. Hence, the digital exploration of the built environment leads us to emphasize different art-historical subjects — in this case, vernacular structures — and, indeed, leads us to conclude that the object of art history changes with the scale of our analysis. In so doing, it allows us to rethink the social art-historical project.


Center 33 (includes image not shown here)

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