Reconstructing the spirit of an age

Rebuilding the Reichstag
July 6, 2001

The late 19th century had a great passion for public architecture. London's Houses of Parliament, the Paris Opera and the Ringstrasse Ensemble in Vienna all came to be seen as icons of their age and objects of national pride. Some criticised their flamboyant historicism, yet few questioned the necessity of such buildings. However, after 1918, grand public architecture was out of touch with the spirit of the times in Europe. The great architectural schools of classical modernism produced utopian housing developments for the workers of a new industrial age, not grand public buildings. Yet the fin-de-siècle of the 20th century has seen the pendulum swing back again. Spectacular public buildings, most typically museums such as Frank Gehry's Bilbao Guggenheim, have become the pilgrimage sites of our postmodern age.

Norman Foster's Berlin Reichstag conversion falls into this category. It cost just over £200 million, largely because it also serves as a historical museum, a national memorial and a work of art in its own right. It also happens to be the national parliament. The old Reichstag, into the shell of which Foster has built, was also a showpiece, a product of the previous fin-de-siècle 's passion for public architectural displays - as a proportion of the GDP of that period, it was two-and-a-half times more expensive than Foster's scheme.

Then as today, however, grandeur was not at odds with the democratic spirit. On the contrary, the sumptuous historicism of the original Reichstag was seen by the MPs of the recently unified nation states as an expression of the elected assembly's self-confidence and a challenge to imperial authority. Kaiser Wilhelm I despised this appropriation of monarchical splendour by parliamentarians and delayed the construction by 13 years, starting in 1884. Wilhelm II called it an "imperial monkey cage". Few Germans are now conscious of this - many see the Reichstag as an example of pompous "Wilhelminism". So did Foster.

Rebuilding the Reichstag chronicles the architect's changing attitudes to the remains of Paul Wallot's building, from contempt to admiration. What was left of the old interior after the Reichstag fire of 1933, the Allied bombing of Berlin and the Russian invasion of 1945 fell victim to an unsympathetic reconstruction in the 1960s. In 1992, Foster proposed that the surviving exterior (all walls except the dome and some decoration) should be encased by a high-tech structure and gigantic glass-and-steel roof: Wallot's building was to be superseded by a new, modern and truly democratic structure.

Today, the outcome looks very different. In the long process of negotiation with the political authorities, Foster came to appreciate the qualities of Wallot's Reichstag. Much of the original structure was brought to light when the 1960s additions were torn down and, increasingly, Foster began to work with rather than against the building. Perhaps architects are not always best placed to describe what is significant about their work, but Foster does a good job here. Where his descriptions remain a little vague at times, with occasional lapses into a Blairite jargon of transparency and access, these ideas are brought to life by the close correlation of text and illustrations.

Historicist buildings such as the Reichstag have long been derided by the apostles of modernism for randomly applying fake historical styles to stereotypical building-blocks. As Foster discovered, Wallot's architecture was much more exciting. The restoration, while using hyper-modern materials, opened up vistas and revived the daring spatial dynamics of the original, now unimpeded by the overflowing historicist decor, thus bringing the 19th-century spirit back to life. History also came to shape the Reichstag's new appearance through the traces of historical events inscribed into the fabric. Most prominent is the graffiti left by Russian soldiers in 1945, the subject of one of five expert chapters interspersed in Foster's narrative.

The Reichstag's fortunes have always depended on a compromise with conservative forces, first with Bismarck and the emperor, and later, in the inter-war period, with the old Reichswehr, which helped quash the threat of socialism during the Weimar years. In 1919, the Social Democrat Philipp Scheidemann announced the birth of a "democratic republic" in the Reichstag, only hours before the Bolshevik leader Karl Liebknecht proclaimed a rival "socialist republic" from the occupied imperial palace. He was executed soon afterwards. The Reichstag, a symbol of parliamentary democracy, was at once a symbol of the suppression of communism in Germany.

Visually, the Reichstag's most striking feature was the dome. Not only was the glass and cast-iron construction considered innovative at the time, but by placing it above the chamber instead of the entrance hall, Wallot celebrated the glory of the parliamentary process at work. In Foster's scheme, the dome has re-emerged, albeit in a radically altered shape. Curiously, this is a debt to Wallot that Foster is reluctant to acknowledge, perhaps because a cupola had also been the centrepiece of the Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava's rival design. Calatrava later sued Foster for stealing his idea. Foster was annoyed: the two designs had next to nothing in common. Foster's cupola is more modern than Wallot's. Not only a masterpiece of technical engineering, it is also politically radical for Foster's cupola is publicly accessible. As visitors are placed above the parliamentary chamber, they look down on the MPs as the executors of the people's will.

Wallot had envisaged a large inscription dedicating the Reichstag "To the German people". This was banned by the Kaiser till the huge sacrifices of the first world war seemed to make such a gesture prudent - the letters were installed in 1916. Yet perhaps it is only now, with Foster's cupola, that this public building has become "the public's" in the true sense of the word.

Maiken Umbach is lecturer in modern European history, University of Manchester.

Rebuilding the Reichstag

Author - Norman Foster
ISBN - 0 297 82506 2
Publisher - Cassell
Price - £35.00
Pages - 256

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