Thoughts at the House of the Wannsee Conference by Ilana Burshtein

The House of the Wannsee Conference is a manor of rough beige stucco, a World War I-era country home with an Art Nouveau-curved façade pared down by a certain German sobriety. In July, the neighbourhood is shaded by a deep green tree canopy threaded with fine white pencils of birch. Across the street from the House are elegant mansions and oversized “cottages” whose red piped roofing and trapezoidal gables remind me of porcelain salt-and-pepper shakers. The most beautiful houses are most screened by walls and trees.

Some of these homes don’t seem to have been repainted in eighty years. By that, I mean that the doors and trim are brown, khaki and mustard. At home, this colour scheme would remind me of every wood-panelled 1970s rec room. Here, it clearly references the uniforms of Hitler Youth.

Our tour bus seemed to stop and someone asked if we had arrived. I said that we were only waiting for traffic to pass because we were clearly on a suburban street of people’s personal homes, and no one would live across the street from the house where top Cabinet members of Hitler planned and agreed on the foundation of the Final Solution to the Jewish Question. But then again, the House of the Wannsee Conference is also located on Wannsee Lake, where sailboats float by at pastoral 45-second intervals. This, I viewed through the spacious windows overlooking a patio with café-style tables and chairs. It’s the kind of view that engages Ontarians in polite bidding wars over scarce lakefront real estate. I recognized the same sumac trees present in the ravine behind my house in Toronto.

I wondered if it costs more or less to buy a lakefront fin-de-siècle manor immediately adjacent to the museum that once served as a hotel for S. S. officers like to enjoy R&R from the strenuous labour of perpetuating mass homicide.

There was a 2013 art exhibition by the Scottish painter Lucy McKenzie called, “Something They Have to Live With.” Using trompe l’oeuil faux-marble panels, she recreated the Villa Muller, a home designed by the Austrian/Czech architect and critic Adolf Loos. Loos is best known for stating that “ornament is crime,” advocating for functionalism and the reduction of architectural forms and furniture to the bare essentials necessary for their function. While some of the furniture and architecture of functionalism is beautiful, the movement advocates an eery dehumanization of craft by removing the human impulse to beautify, to add a personal touch. Loos’ ideas were very much adopted and embraced by Nazis and Nazi sympathizers, even though they also embraced older, 19th century Romantic aesthetics associated with myth-building and nationalism. In her exhibition, McKenzie presents the marble substructure of the Villa Muller as a commentary on the architecture and art that Germans have to “live with'”–in harmony, in disharmony, in memoriam or by purposeful forgetting.

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