Rebuilding the German Past

The Politics of Public Architecture in Berlin

By
Reichstag, Berlin
Rebuilding the German Past : The Politics of Public Architecture in Berlin - Jennifer Göppert

At the beginning of this year a reunified Germany gave up its beloved Deutschmark, the "totem of post-war German prosperity, stability and identity."' Now Germany's parliamentarians are about to make another major political move, this time a physical one: to the new capital Berlin. The farewell to Bonn signifies the beginning of a new "Berlin Republic."2 Although no one who uses the term now knows exactly what it means,3 we do have some idea of the public architecture that will be the "Berlin Republic's" visual backdrop. Governmental buildings are not brought into existence casually or at random. They have the power both to inspire and to intimidate, and their image can become the very epitome of the state they represent. Be it the Mall in Washington, D.C., the Kremlin in Moscow or the designs for the new Scottish and Welsh Parliament Buildings, they, as if stories written in stone, embody "national identity and historical consciousness."4 Their creation is a sensitive issue. It causes a reconfiguration of national identity and, as a crucial part of this process, a reconsideration of national history.5

"Bonn was a beginning, a city without a past", recalled West Germany's founding Chancellor Konrad Adenauer. This lack of history was the characteristic feature of the post-war capital of the Federal Republic.6 Bonn stood for cosmopolitanism, for the cultivation of ties with the West and for a certain modesty of presence in international affairs.7 This distinctive post-national or ahistorical identity8 was reflected in the explicitly modernist glass facades of the government buildings in Bonn. With the return to Berlin, German history is also returning unambiguously to the forefront of political stage. Berlin is a city haunted by German history.9 It was the font of Prussian militarism, seat of the failed democracy of the Weimar Republic, headquarters of genocidal Nazi rule and the fault line during the Cold War between East and West. Its architecture tells us an "urban story of the continuities and discontinuities of German history."10 With the move to Berlin, Germany has reunited political power and history for the first time since Hitler. It appears that the decision to move the seat of government from Bonn to Berlin by the year 2000-close though the Bundestag vote was -has given enormous impetus to a new, historically reconstructed, German identity.11

The journalists Sigrid Loffler and Thomas Mießgang argue that, "in Berlin, the example of architectural symbols is used as a way of metaphorically negotiating over the identity of the future Germany."12 The choice of Berlin as the new capital has set off a remarkable debate over what kind of official architecture is appropriate for a country whose past has rendered patriotism suspect and whose expressions of national pride have been consigned to the soccer field. There have been other major projects launched in national capitals in this century.13 According to the author Michael Wise, though, never before has an endeavour of this kind been carried out with such "anxiety about architectural symbolism."14 The impassioned public discussion,15 following the fall of the 'Berlin Wall, about the redesign of Berlin offers a valuable lens through which to consider Germany's future direction and its relationship to the past. How does the German state intend to present itself through the public architecture of the new capital? What perspective of German history does it adopt? What imperatives have dominated the architectural designs and who has been most influential in its direction? Does a history as burdened as Germany's allow the reuse of architecture from an earlier era or is the wreckers' ball the only solution for fascist and communist legacies? To illustrate these questions this essay will focus on Norman Foster's designs for the renovation of the Reichstag, which is to resume its role as the German parliament building from May 1999.

In Albert Speer's proposal for the "World capital Germania,"16 the Reichstag was to face the Brandenburg Gate17 at opposite ends of a planned hundred and twenty meter long north-south axis, the only historical buildings to survive the Nazi reconstruction of the Prachtstraße (Street of Pomp or Magnificence).18 Recalling the exaggerated nature of Nazi architectural standards19 this fact illustrates Michael Wise's remark that "no structure in Germany has a more potent or turbulent presence than the Reichstag."20 Indeed, even after the original cupola was torn down as a safety hazard in 1954 and a simple renovation in the 1960s opened up its interior,21 the pompous Victorian structure raised on a stone pedestal still resembled anything but the glass architecture that was characteristic of Bonn's official buildings.22 Therefore it appears all the more surprising that, shortly after the Bundestag's decision to move back to Berlin, the parliamentary body "quietly and with little controversy" voted to use the notorious building as its new home.23 Yet, the consensus surrounding the plan was short-lived. In the wake of the international competition in 1992-1993 to transform it into a "modern working parliament,"24 the building was depicted as a war-scarred fossil. It was seen as the scene of Germany's darkest hours, as well as an unwelcome symbol of democracy's failure to grow deeper roots under either the monarchy or the succeeding Weimar republic.25

As in the case of the new chancellery,26 the jury was unable to select a clear winner, since it was uncertain which design would best meet the Bundestag's needs at the same time as turning the Reichstag into a new and convincing emblem of parliamentary democracy. The fact that the competition ended in the awarding of three first prizes to foreign architects (the Spaniard Santiago Calatrava, the Dutchman Pi de Bruijin and the Briton Sir Norman Foster) reflects the intense anxiety over the building's image and reputation.27 The common feature of all three winning designs was a radical change to the original structure of the building, in tune with German ambivalence about it. The three winning proposals implied that the notion of democracy embodied in the original building was inadequate to provide an open democratic forum for a unified Germany. Calatrava redefined the Reichstag's silhouette by crowning it with a delicate glass dome that opened up like a flower. Pi de Bruijn preserved the building in its original form yet housed the legislature's plenary chamber completely outside the Reichstag in a new bowl-like structure placed on an adjacent terrace. The British high-tech architect Foster, like Pi de Bruijn, preserved the exterior of the building yet changed its appearance dramatically by placing an enormous transparent canopy supported by twenty slender pillars over the building. This solution he said corresponded to the "need for a new symbol (...) a new image of an open future." It rendered the building's original structure "present but void."28 Furthermore, Foster proposed a public piazza or forum around the perimeter of the Reichstag at the same elevation as the plenary chamber, placing the government on the same level and under the same roof as the people it served.

Foster's design, the one finally chosen, had to undergo various changes before it was accepted by the German legislature. The final design bore little resemblance to the original idea, most importantly because Foster was forced to abandon the plan for a translucent canopy which had been the defining feature of his initial proposal. He experienced how difficult it was to work with a legislative body as a patron. It meant having ministers and hundreds of deputies peering over his shoulder as he drafted.

The discussion over Foster's Reichstag design mirrored the extent to which the debate over Berlin's new public architecture was intertwined with the reinterpretation of German history after unification. The debate about the legitimacy and form of the reconstruction of the Reichstag was saturated with references to the past. Pressure from conservative parliamentarians to replicate the Reichstag cupola inflamed censure of the building, as critics saw it as a full blown-version of the Pickelhaube -the spiked military helmet worn by the Kaiser's troops in World War I.29 Disagreement over the cupola went along party-lines and was also related to the different interpretations of the past that the cupola was supposed to represent. Ex-Chancellor Kohl's Christian Democratic Union urged the reconstruction of the dome. The liberal Free Democrats, then the minority partner in the CDU-led government, wanted a modem rounded dome; the environmentalist Greens saw no need at all for any elevated roof structure and the Social Democratic Party supported one of Foster's proposals for a large glass cylinder.

Conservative advocates of the reconstruction of the original cupola stressed the fact that the cupola had initially been considered modem and progressive. When it was unveiled, architects hailed it as a form of "design liberation." It differed substantially in material and form from the rounded domes of the past, using a square vaulted shape with a clearly visible steel framework. Moreover, the cupola, which rose slightly higher than the dome of the Royal Palace, joined the domes of the Berlin cathedral as one of the dominant elements of the tum-of-the-century skyline. Supporters of its reconstruction argued that the cupola was intended to be as much a political statement as a decorative element, claiming that the dome of the Reichstag was an explicitly "democratic construction."30 Historians backed these arguments with a decisive reinterpretation of the nation-state and its place in German history after unification.31 In the pre-unification narrative, Bismarck's creation of a German nation-state in 1871 had mostly been seen as the starting-point of German peculiarity, or Sonderweg. Though approaches differed markedly, historians in both the Federal Republic of Germany and the GDR highlighted the failings of the unified Germany as it had existed from 1871 to 1945 and moved to revise the concept of the nation-state in their work.32 According to Konrad Jarausch it was only after unification that the rehabilitation of the nation-state, both as a concept and as a positive historical reference-point, offered the possibility of a historically reconstructed national identity that gave the German Empire a more positive role: Instead of continuing to function as a structural precursor of the Third Reich in the sense of Fischer or Wehler the German Empire of 1871-1918 is restored as a norm of German nation-hood.33

Critics of the cupola's reconstruction, however, stuck to the earlier interpretation of the imperial past as the beginning of the German Sonderweg. For them the cupola was no more than an authoritarian symbol.34 Notwithstanding the architect's intentions and the pediment inscribed "to the German people,"35 the Reichstag building had become home to a legislature that Bismarck repeatedly ignored. Apart from the proclamation of a German Republic from its balcony by Scheidemann in 1918, the Reichstag - both the institution and the building - had failed to balance the power of crown and church. Although Wilhelm II dedicated the finished edifice in 1894, (nearly a quarter of a century after the founding of the unified Empire in 1871) he sneered at the building and described the institution it housed as the "imperial monkey house."36 Even after its construction had been completed, the formal opening of parliamentary sessions continued to take place at the palace. Referring to the allegedly democratic exterior of the building, opponents of the cupola emphasised that the Reichstag's architect Paul Wallot used ornate decorations that glorified not parliamentary democracy but the successful military campaigns of Prussia's Hohenzollern dynasty and their role in unifying the Reich. Above the main entrance, for example, there was imagery from the medieval Holy Roman Empire, a part of which, a relief of the dragon-slaying St. George, bore the face of the Reich's founding chancellor Otto von Bismarck.37 Thus, in trying to explain the Nazi regime, post-war German historians established the idea of a continuing German peculiarity from Wilhelm II and Bismarck to Hitler. They argued that the cupola was Wilhelmine and therefore that it represented the starting point for everything that was to go wrong in German history.38

The actual history of the Reichstag has been misunderstood at times. When the Red Army conquered Berlin at the end of World War II, its soldiers signaled the defeat of Germany by unfurling the Soviet flag not on top of the Reich Chancellery, from which Hitler had controlled much of Europe, but over the battered Reichstag. For the Soviets and many others, the Reichstag had come to embody fsacist terror ever since Hitler had used the famed 1933 Reichstag fire as a pretext to impose emergency rule. Advocates of the building's reuse tried to set the record straight, pointing out that Nazi crimes and atrocities were planned not in the parliament but elsewhere and that Hitler, as Germany's chancellor, only once set foot inside the Reichstag.39 But, be it a historical misconception or not, the Reichstag embodied-in the minds of foreigners and Germans alike- the atrocities of Nazi rule. It was exactly this extremely negative image that turned the 'wrapping of the Reichstag, by the artist Christo, his wife and collaborator Jeanne Claude in June and July of 1995, into the biggest national Volksfest since the fall of the wall in 1989.

Everyone, happy like children, was overjoyed that the Reichstag had ceased to exist and the whole reunited nation celebrated the wish (that) it had never happened and that the murder story of the century had never taken place.40

Indeed the wrapping of the Reichstag in specially woven silver nyl6n cloth with blue ropes made the massive late Victorian building look smaller and lighter. It seemed almost possible that the building underneath might have disappeared. The effect was one of "bulk without weight,"41 the blue rope and silver fabrics turning the Reichstag into a "precious gift."42 Until late 1989, the building had been enclosed in the West by the border that ran just behind it. Now crowds poured in from the former East Berlin, crossing the Spree or strolling north from Unter den Linden. For them the artistic accomplishment absolved the Reichstag from its previous history.

As soon as Christo's wrapping was removed, construction began on Foster's design to remodel the building for the 672 member Bundestag. The design that the Bundestag eventually approved and that was built was the result of countless compromises with what had been in effect a multi-headed client.43 It was not so much the clear conception of one architect, as the "partly muddled outcome of conflicting crosscurrents of the democratic political process."44 Foster's initial design had included an enormous translucent canopy suspended over the building. His second, while still opposed to artificially raising the roof above the skyline of the original building to build a new dome for symbolic purposes, discarded the "original umbrella."45 However, despite his initial resistance to the idea of designing a new dome this is exactly what Foster ended up doing. Trying to justify the design he had previously opposed, Foster did not leave it empty, but filled it with a pair of spiral viewing ramps intertwined in a double helix. Scheduled to be open to visitors even when the Bundestag is in session, the dome aims to place the public above the politicians answerable to them. Furthermore, translucent roofing, glass elevators and enlarged windows will flood the heavy stone building with as much light as possible in an effort to make "democracy visible."46

Foster also tried to recapture the majesty of the interior spaces of the old Reichstag while attempting to preserve their magnificence for visitors rather than parliamentarians. For example, the main entrance, which in the 1960s had been moved to the less prominent north facade of the building, has been shifted back to the grand western portal with its six towering Corinthian columns. Whereas parliamentarians will enter mainly from the new administrative buildings via a side door from the east of the facade,47 visitors will be able to mount Wallot' s grand central steps. Foster's final design means that the modifications of the 1960s will disappear almost entirely. However the reconstruction of the building's interior grandeur has not come at the cost of neglecting the building's past; rather, it consciously exposes it. Some old raw stone surfaces, including shell and bullet marks, will remain. In the process of uncovering the sandstone walls, hundreds of graffiti messages left by the Red Army soldiers who helped conquer Nazism were revealed. Many of these will also be preserved, constantly confronting the German legislature with evidence of national defeat and humiliation as well as paying tribute to the former Soviet power.48

Foster's design was a radical one and to many it showed that Bonn's politicians were bent on transforming Wallot' s relic into a contemporary glass house echoing the architectural restraint of Bonn. There, in reaction to Speer's overblown neoclassicism, the Federal Republic conspicuously downplayed architectural grandeur. Government ministries embarked upon a new era by operating from unassuming, makeshift quarters. West German chancellors from Ludwig Erhard to Kohl occupied a squat, clean-lined official residence with the lowly label of the Kanzlerbungalow (Chancellor's Bungalow) 49 and the modern Parliament was designed with similar restraint in mind. Throughout the decades when Bonn served as a provisional capital, planners asked whether there was an official architectural style best suited to open societies, and how architecture in a democracy differed from that under totalitarianism.50In Berlin, where dictatorial rule held sway for much of this century, these questions are being posed with a new urgency. Against the remnants of its Prussian, Nazi and Communist pasts, Germany's desire to embody an image of a "liberal democratic polity" in Berlin's new buildings has proven to be a difficult challenge. The German authorities have been trying to find a design vocabulary that will tum its back on the monumentality typical of the country's most worrisome periods. Symbolic equations- such as the notion that glass facades imply political transparency -- have been pursued with exaggerated rigor. German politicians have often displayed a tendency to mistake symbols for reality itself, the debate over the cupola of the Reichstag being only one example of many.51 Officials have weighed many concerns -among them, budgetary constraints, environmental protection, efficiency, and comfort- but it seems fair to conclude that the most crucial of these was that there should be no revival of Speer's exaggerated designs, of the grandiose air of the old Prussian ministries, or of Wilhelmine pomposity.

Although a look at history and comparisons of state buildings under highly disparate political systems makes it difficult to sustain an automatic congruence between architectural form and ideological content, it is clear that architecture can express political meaning.52 The vigorous discussion over the reconstruction of the Reichstag's cupola was clearly based on the notion that specific architectural forms convey ideological content. Yet, when considering the arguments closely, it seems that it was the form as representative of a specific past rather than the form itself that rendered its re-use impossible. Likewise, the reconstruction of the cupola went hand in hand with a reinterpretation of the imperial past that historians have embarked on since unification. Above all, unification raised the possibility of employing history again to establish an identity for anew, united Germany. From the perspective of October 1990, the history of a unified Germany no longer looks quite so abnormal.53

The Bundestag's move into the renovated Reichstag will bring parliament and Germany at large back into physical contact with its burdened history. However, the farewell to the "Bonn Republic" provides the "Berlin Republic" with a democratic history to look back on proudly. In Bonn the idea of a master-plan for the government district was dismissed. In Berlin, although Speer's designs ruled out proposals for a north-south axis, there has been a reconsideration of the value of comprehensive architectural planning. When the Reichstag first became the home of the legislature in 1894, its site was well away from the geographical centre of political power. The winning entry of Axel Schultes and Charlotte Frank places the Reichstag at the centre of a "brave self-description of a democratic state."54 Likewise, the decisions taken over the redesign of the Reichstag building have reflected the need for images worthy of a cosmopolitan capital. Such images were meant to be commensurate with the urban scale and traditions of Berlin and more demonstrative than the post-war West German government seat in Bonn. The goal of many conservative politicians and intellectuals was for present-day Berlin to become the focal point for national sentiment like the 'normal' and historically less burdened capitals of other countries.55 After unification they envisaged Germany attaining a more distanced relationship to its Nazi past. This perspective seems to have shaped the decisions taken over the design of the Reichstag. Whether the reuse of the Reichstag building will transform Foster's illuminated high-tech cupola into a symbol of liberal democracy will depend largely on the politics conducted beneath it.

Notes