The exhibition Munich 1972: The Design of a Democratic Body explores how the organisers of the 1972 Olympics in Munich employed the full range of design disciplines to present West Germany as an open, friendly and democratic society. Curator Marten Kuijpers and graphic designer David Bennewith are impressed by this faith in the power of design, but Munich 1972 also shows how this carefully created image was destroyed overnight.
Marten Kuijpers: ‘The organisers’ aims stemmed from a desire to erase the dark memory of the Nazi Olympics of 1936 in Berlin. They wanted to share an optimistic image of Germany with the world. Graphic designer Otl Aicher, head of the design team for the 1972 games and responsible for the entire visual identity, had an ambivalent stance in relation to the 1936 Olympics. He loathed the image that Hitler had created but embraced the strategy of the gesamtkunstwerk. Together with other designers, he developed a total design for Munich that can be seen as the mirror image of Berlin in 1936.’
‘Aicher designed a colour scheme inspired by the Bavarian landscape: the clear blue and white of the sky, green for the meadows and silver for Bavaria’s many lakes. The colours red and gold, which played an important role in 1936, were strictly forbidden. The architect Günther Behnisch designed a wonderful, light “non-architecture” that merged seamlessly with the landscape: a clear example of the quest for an image that was the polar opposite of the monumental architecture of 1936. The designers talked about the games as an enormous open-air theatre in which “life could play itself” and the athletes and visitors could mingle freely irrespective of their nationality, origins or beliefs.’
‘However, this idealistic, democratic image of an open society was completely undermined when, during the night of 4-5 September, members of the Black September organisation managed to infiltrate the Olympic Village and took the Israeli team hostage with the aim of drawing attention to the Palestinian cause. As one of them later explained: “It was like painting the name of Palestine on a mountain that can be seen from the four corners of the earth”. Black September demanded the release of 234 prisoners from Israeli and German prisons. The attack ended in a bloodbath in which eleven Israeli athletes and officials, a policeman and five members of Black September were killed. In the exhibition we look at the reversal of the image of Munich 1972 from the perspective of design.’
David Bennewith: ‘This moment, in which the carefully considered design system was completely undermined, is, for me as a designer, very confronting but also fascinating. It has strongly influenced my approach to graphic design. No matter how hard you work to produce a perfect design, it can always be misunderstood or even used to promote an entirely different message.’
How do you tell this story in the exhibition?
MK: ‘There is an image of the attack that sums everything up and which has a central place in the exhibition. It is a photo of a conversation that took place outside the door of the apartment where Black September was holding the Israeli team hostage. We see Anneliese Graes, a female police officer, speaking with Issa, the Black September spokesman. The police delegate represents the laidback ideals of the organisers of the Olympics: a woman, dressed in the light blue of Aicher’s colour scheme. Opposite her is a man with a blacked-up face: an outsider who has infiltrated the “open and inclusive” world of the Olympic terrain.’
‘In the exhibition, spatially designed by Bart Guldemond, we explore in depth the elements that made up the visual identity of the Munich Olympics. For example, in addition to the colour scheme, Aicher was also responsible for the famous pictograms that went on to be used in later editions of the games. With help from Frei Otto, the architecture firm Behnisch & Partner designed an enormous glass roof for the architecture imbedded in the landscape. That landscape was designed by landscape architect Günter Grzimek. His design was very open: visitors were allowed to move freely across the terrain. People were invited to create their own paths, a system that was obviously completely designed.’
Were the designs for the 1972 Olympics typical of the 1970s and an example of what design was capable of at that moment in time?
MK: ‘In fact I think it marked the end of an era.’
DB: ‘Of modernist design. It was modernist in its rationality and extremism.’
MK: ‘You could say that their enormous faith in the power of design was naïve, but it also expressed great beauty, which is in stark contrast to how these sorts of events are designed today. When the police psychologist advised them to make the fences higher and to top them with barbed wire, the organisers refused. They believed firmly in the pacifying effect of their open and inclusive strategy. The police didn’t carry weapons and were kitted out in light-blue uniforms. They were trained to respond to possible threats in a non-aggressive manner and to avoid conflicts.’
DB: ‘The security dog was a dachshund, which was also the mascot for the games.’
The exhibition’s subtitle is The Design of a Democratic Body. How does this relate to the story of Munich 1972?
DB: ‘Both parties were looking for a form of democracy. And both sides used abstraction. For me as a designer, this is nicely represented by the pictograms that Aicher designed to represent the different Olympic sports equally within a system. Equality is one of the core values of the Olympics. These pictograms were abstracted images of the body. We recognise ourselves in them, but also others.’
‘Issa, the spokesman for Black September, painted his face black. For me, there is a connection between his blacked-up face and the pictogram. He gave up his identity for a higher goal. But in the end we are all looking for the hero of the story. We look to individuals, to the Aichers and the Issas, and to the gold medal-winning athletes.
MK: In 1974 Yasser Arafat gave an address to the United Nations. Despite the dramatic end to the attack, it had succeeded in gaining attention for the Palestinian cause.
Interview by Lotte Haagsma