Pyramid scheme

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When Ingo Niermann looks for words to describe what’s on his mind, his eyes seek out a point somewhere in the far distance. If you could turn your head and see what it was he was imagining, you’d look twice. Niermann is a writer, an intellectual, a careful thinker. But what hovers before his mind’s eye is a massive pyramid, filled with human remains, and standing proud in, of all places, eastern Germany.

“This project could be just what the country’s been missing,” he says.

We’re sitting in Erfurt, a city not far from the site where Niermann, 38, is hoping to see the pyramid built. Niermann lives several hours away in Berlin, but comes here periodically to monitor the venture’s halting progress.

He first wrote about building a pyramid in Germany in his 2006 book, Umbauland: Zehn Deutsche Visionen [Remodel Nation: Ten German Visions]. Chapter Nine – “A German Miracle” – describes a pyramid that mirrors not only the form, but the function of its predecessors from ancient Egypt. Which is to say that it would serve as a grave. But whereas the Egyptian pyramids held the mummified remains of a single pharaoh, Niermann wants the German version to store the ashes of up to 5m people from around the world – thereby changing the everyday economic, cultural and political life of his fellow citizens.

What began as a whimsical essay has since become a serious-minded architectural project. In autumn 2006, the German federal government’s culture fund awarded nearly €100,000 to the group Friends of the Great Pyramid, co-chaired by Niermann and his friend and business partner Jens Thiel; high-profile architecture firms have submitted plans; a design jury, headed by Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas, has been recruited; and a gala has been planned for March 10, at which the winning bid will be announced.

Meanwhile, names are already being collected of people interested in interring their ashes in the giant structure – more than 700 to date, and counting.

The design competition will sort out the details of interring the remains of five million people. But the basic scheme is already in place: ashes would be brought to Germany and placed in specially designed cubic concrete urns; these would then be used as the pyramid’s building blocks, the structure comprised entirely of stacked urns.

The pyramid would thus be a constant work in progress. After dozens of years, the completed building could stand more than 500 metres high – making it among the tallest buildings in the world. Securing a place in the pyramid would cost about €700. “That’s a bargain,” Thiel tells me. “A participant would continue to live. He’d be part of an ever-changing process.”

According to the provisional plans, the pyramid would be built near Streetz, a village near the Elbe river, just outside the former East German city of Dessau. Altdorfstrasse serves as the main thoroughfare, partly by default: it’s one of the only paved roads in town. Still, the street spans the village, and a stroll along it gives a sense of the area’s attractions: the community bread oven, the volunteer fire department, the pond, the cow barn, the bus stop.

Klaus Grunheidt, the mayor of Streetz, lives on Altdorfstrasse, close to where it emerges from the forest. “I’m near the start of the road,” he had told me by phone when I asked for directions. “Or near its end. Depending.”

Grunheidt is 71, and, despite being mayor, doesn’t much like taking part in local politics. The antlers that adorn his living room and kitchen walls attest to a greater love for hunting. He is lucky in that there are ever fewer residents who might demand glad-handing: the population of Streetz, as of most towns in eastern Germany, is dwindling.

“They’ve all gone west,” Grunheidt explains over coffee and cake in his small, windowless kitchen. “And I don’t blame them,” he adds. His own children have joined the economic exodus that followed reunification: his son left for Stuttgart, his daughter for Berlin. “None of this went like we expected,” Grunheidt tells me, referring to life since then. “We used to have a factory here, coal mines … then, boom, all shut down, just like that.”

And yet for all Grunheidt and Streetz have lost, the mayor opposes the “Great Pyramid” proposal. As soon as representatives from Friends of the Great Pyramid came to visit Streetz in the spring of 2007, Grunheidt knew that “it wasn’t something for us”. He was compelled, he says, to organise a town resolution against the pyramid. He can’t recall ever having opposed a project in Streetz before, and yet the vote in the village council was unanimous: “No to 5m on dead people in Streetz.” No to the pyramid.

Grunheidt is not willing to put up with disruption just for the sake of money: the “death tourists” might bring economic opportunity, but they’d also cause noise and traffic and scare away the wild boar that he likes to hunt. That’s not to say that Grunheidt doesn’t wish he had more money. Anger edging into his voice, he says: “I just don’t understand why they” – western Germany, America, the capitalists – “didn’t just give us the sorts of jobs we wanted.”

Grunheidt’s wife, slicing raisin cake, tells me she got a good look at the people who had taken buses from Berlin to Streetz in the autumn of last year to dedicate a symbolic cornerstone for the pyramid – and she didn’t like what she saw. “They all came out of the bus barefoot,” she says with a laugh and a snort. “Hippies, all hippies! I don’t know what they want here.”

“And what sorts of people think that a Muslim would want to be buried next to a Christian,” adds Grunheidt. He suggests a conspiracy might be at work: “Have you ever heard of Scientologists?”

The Grunheidts’ reasons for opposing the pyramid might be eclectic, but even those initially receptive to the project have thought twice. Thiel and Niermann had several productive meetings with the mayor of Dessau-Rosslau before the city, which has jurisdiction over Streetz, hastily denied any interest in their idea. The German Federal Culture Foundation, sponsors of the project, has also got cold feet. Representatives from the group have been quoted referring to it as a “simulation”, implying, despite Niermann’s strenuous objections, that the pyramid is nothing more than an interesting idea.

The majority of the media coverage has been similarly sceptical, if somewhat bemused. In an article in Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Johanna Adorjan wrote that she was alarmed by the “naivete” with which Niermann overlooked historical context: “The project has some interesting aspects, but why can’t we simply content ourselves with thinking about them? Do we really need to build a giant pyramid?”

Nowhere along the Elbe’s course through Germany – from the Czech border to the port of Hamburg – would a present-day traveller be reminded of Egypt. The dense forests, refurbished baroque cityscapes and industrial ruins don’t stir recollections of far-off places so much as invite you to contemplate Germany itself – its past obsessions, recent changes and present problems.

Even in the absence of such an invitation, many Germans have a tendency to obsess about their own identity. That strain of persistent angst is what inspired Niermann to propose building a German “world wonder” in the first place. It’s the architecture-as-national-and-cultural-panacea strategy, in the tradition of Brasilia, or more recently, Bilbao, Spain, where a community’s desire to move forward, move on, was brought to life in a public building project.

But with the project stirring up so much opposition, it’s unclear if the pyramid will ever be built. The funding from the Federal Culture Foundation will only last through the end of the design competition. And Streetz and its mayor will have to be brought round. Thiel is prepared to look elsewhere for a site, even abroad; Niermann agrees half-heartedly, but admits that he still believes the pyramid ought to stand in Germany.

The March 10 gala will announce a winning bid. According to Omar Akbar, the head of the Bauhaus College and a member of the pyramid jury, the judges must not be swayed by the project’s opponents. “The point is, no one knows how cultures change,” he says in his office in the Walter Gropius-designed Bauhaus building, a short drive from Streetz. “To be more precise, no one knows how cultures get started. No one ever agrees to radical changes to collective life. But, it happens anyway; that’s how all our rituals got their start. Or rituals never do get a start and they go down in history as forgotten or mistaken.”

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