Munich 1972 – The Design of a democratic Body

Munich 1972 – The Design of a democratic Body

Olympic Games Munich 1972. Foto BR Foto Sessner
Olympic Games Munich, 1972 © BR/ Sessner

The 1972 Olympic Games offered the host country, West Germany, an unrivalled opportunity to portray itself to the world as a modern, democratic and culturally aware nation. Various design disciplines played a central role in the preparations for the games. Architecture, design and landscape architecture were integrated into a total design intended to exude openness and inclusivity. This carefully constructed image was marred two weeks into the games when eight members of the Black September Organisation infiltrated the Olympic Village and took the Israeli team hostage. The exhibition Munich 1972. The Design of a Democratic Body tells this controversial story through the lens of design, by contrasting the narratives and aesthetic strategies of the organisers with the tactics deployed for their disruption. The exhibition at Het Nieuwe Instituut also examines the role of the media in spreading these stories.

The Olympics as calling card

With the 1972 Olympics, West Germany wanted to draw a line under its tainted history and erase the memory of Hitler’s ‘Nazi Games’ of 1936 in Berlin. The organisers were keen to avoid any possible association with authority and monumentality. This created an exceptional situation – with broad political and social support – in which a model could emerge for a democratic society without borders and violence. Otl Aicher, the head of the design team, saw the Olympic Games as a great open-air spectacle, ‘an opera without theatre and orchestra’, in which ‘life itself played’, where spectators and athletes could associate freely regardless of their nationality, origin and ideology.

Hijacking a world stage

On the eleventh day of the Games, it became apparent how fragile this ideal was. Heavily armed members of the Black September organisation took the Israeli team hostage. Although the attack replicated in detail one of the terrorist scenarios envisaged by the organisers, few security measures were in place as they would have conflicted with the image the organisers wished to promote. Black September fedayeen hijacked the podium and wrested control of the international event via the media. Hundreds of cameras recorded how Luttif Afif, or Issa, the leader of the operation, orchestrated a spectacle in order to gain international attention for the Palestinian cause. Eventually, eleven Israelis, a German policeman and five fedayeen were killed. The incident ushered in a new era. Many have commented that Munich 1972 marked the ‘birth of modern terror,’ in which the camera is used as an effective weapon. It initiated an irreversible process in which guaranteeing security has played an increasingly large role in each subsequent edition of the Games, with Rio de Janeiro as the high point to date.

Strategy versus tactics

The exhibition shines a light on the aesthetic ideals of the designers involved in the conceptualisation of the Olympic Games and their fervent hope to create an image of a democratic and open society. This is illustrated by the work of architects Günther Behnisch, Hans Hollein and Frei Otto, landscape architect Günther Grzimek and designer Otl Aicher. By deconstructing the design of ‘die Heitere Spiele’ (the serene games), as the 1972 Olympics were frequently referred to, the exhibition exposes the relationships between design, politics and other forces and powers that play a part in such international events. In similar fashion, the exhibition dissects the actions that hijacked the Olympic’s total design. What were the motivations for the attack and which means did they deploy? How have their actions altered perceptions of these Olympic Games? As Willi Daume, president of the German Olympic Committee said to Aicher in the lead-up to the games: ‘People will soon forget the sporting achievements; it is the experience that counts.’


Munich 1972. The Design of a Democratic Body

until 08/01/2017

Het Nieuwe Instituut
Museumpark 25
3015 CB Rotterdam
The Netherlands

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