Two intellectuals have launched a project to build a copy of the Egyptian pyramids in the downtrodden eastern city of Dessau as a burial site not for a lone king but for five million people.
They say it would grow slowly – one concrete memorial slab at a time – but could within a couple of decades dwarf the Great Pyramid of Giza.
“You could certainly see it from space,” author Ingo Niermann told AFP. “There is no reason why it cannot reach 200 to 300 metres (650 to 980 feet) within two to three decades,” said his friend, economist Jens Thiel. “Or even 600 metres eventually,” which would be four times higher than the biggest of the Pharoahs’ tombs.
He said about a thousand people from 46 countries from Ireland to Indonesia have signed up to have their ashes or keepsakes sealed into blocks measuring nearly one cubic metre and costing some €1,000 ($1,560).
Niermann and Thiel have secured federal funding for the project and enlisted renowned Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas to vet design submissions. He in turn involved Italian fashion designer Miuccia Prada.
“Rem likes bold ideas and he liked the graphic way in which this deals with death, which is very much a neglected idea in contemporary architecture,” Thiel said.
The aim is not only to create a common resting place for Protestants, Catholics, Jews, Muslims and atheists but a towering reminder that mortality is a part of life.
Thiel calls it a “theme park” on life and death, set in a garden with an art gallery and other attractions, and hopes that “like Disneyland” it will employ thousands and turn around the economy of Dessau.
The eastern city is home to the Bauhaus centre for modernist design and close to two other UNESCO World Heritage Sites – the Garden Kingdom of Dessau-Wörlitz and the home and birthplace of theologian Martin Luther in Wittenberg. All lie in the state of Saxony-Anhalt which receives barely 200,000 foreign visitors a year and has, like the rest of former East Germany, fallen on hard times.
The Bauhaus Foundation is enthusiastically backing the pyramid project. “We are expecting a Bilbao effect … So we really hope that the people of Dessau will welcome the project,” Bauhaus collaborator Walter Prigge said, referring to the way the Guggenheim Museum revived the northern Spanish city. “There is a second important factor in that the culture of death or cemeteries is changing. We burn our dead and therefore graves have become superfluous, so a lot of things are coming together here.”
Niermann first mooted the pyramid in his 2006 book “Umbauland.” It was perhaps one of the more feasible of his 10 proposals on radically changing post-reunification Germany that included simplifying German grammar and giving the nation nuclear arms as a counter-intuitive way of fighting proliferation.
“I was wondering how you can change Germany and shake it out of its unbearable intellectual stagnation,” he said. “Pyramids are amazingly simple to build and are still the most stable
structures you can find.”
Along the way, the project became a reflection on death.
“When we started talking about building the pyramid in Dessau, there were people who said they don’t want five million dead among them – as though we are talking about garbage piling up in the street, not people,” Niermann said. “That is when I started thinking how bizarre our attitude to death has become over the last centuries.”
May will see the publication of a book dedicated to the project, which will cost an estimated 10 to €12 million to get off the ground. In April, Niermann and Thiel will pitch their plans to the municipal council in Dessau. They say the mayor is “amenable” but the residents of Streetz, the sleepy district favoured as a location for the pyramid and its surrounding park, are far from convinced.
“We are going to call an architectural competition for designs, but at the same time issue a location tender so that other regions can express interest. It can be Dessau but it could just as well be somewhere else in the world.”
In the meanwhile, tourism authorities have launched a poster campaign using pictures of Egypt’s pyramids with the slogan: “There is more in Saxony-Anhalt” to remind visitors of the region’s forgotten charms.
Niermann is not sure if this is serendipity or a message of support.
“We thought it was very funny, and then we wondered whether in fact this meant that people are already under the influence of our great pyramid.”