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Berlin: Building a New Architecture of Democracy

April 19, 1998|Michael Z. Wise | Michael Z. Wise is the author of "Capital Dilemma: Germany's Search for a New Architecture of Democracy," to be published next month

NEW YORK — Be it the Mall in Washington, the Kremlin in Moscow or the Forbidden City in Beijing, the architecture of capital cities has the power to awe, to alienate, to inspire and to intimidate. But possibly no nation is more attuned to the political manipulation of built imagery than Germany. The decision to move its government seat from Bonn to Berlin by the year 2000 has set off a remarkable debate about what kind of official architecture is appropriate for a country whose past has made patriotism suspect and whose expressions of national pride have, as a result, been consigned to the soccer field.

Germany historically has assigned architecture a pivotal role. Before its successive rule by Nazism and communism, the country gave birth to the Bauhaus movement, whose founders contended that their revolutionary designs could shape human destiny. Convulsive events such as the fall of the monarchy in 1918; Adolf Hitler's rise to power in 1933, and the defeat of his Third Reich in 1945 have all left their mark on German architecture and design.

When the dome of Germany's imperial Parliament was completed more than a century ago, Kaiser Wilhelm II derided it as "the height of tastelessness." The swashbuckling emperor saw the glass and steel cupola as a symbolic challenge to his autocratic power since it loomed slightly higher than that of the royal palace. Today, as another Reichstag dome rises on the Berlin skyline, the crowning feature of the future home of the federal legislature is drawing renewed scrutiny.

Shortly after the 1991 decision to move to Berlin, the Bundestag quietly and with little controversy voted to use the notorious Reichstag as its new base. The consensus proved short-lived. At a 1992 Bundestag colloquium to discuss overhauling the building, it was depicted as a bombastic, war-scarred fossil, the scene of Germany's darkest hours, an unwelcome symbol of democracy's failure to grow deep roots under either the monarchy or the succeeding Weimar Republic. Pressure from conservative parliamentarians to restore the cupola only inflamed censure of the Reichstag, for critics saw the grandiose pinnacle as an enlarged version of the spiked military helmet worn by the kaiser's troops in World War I.

The building's history often has been misconstrued. When the Red Army conquered Berlin in 1945, its soldiers signaled the German enemy's defeat by unfurling the Soviet flag--not atop the Chancellery, from which Hitler controlled much of Europe, but over the battered Reichstag. For the Soviets, and many others who fought Nazism, the Reichstag had come to embody fascist terror ever since Hitler used a 1933 fire that engulfed the building as a pretext to impose emergency rule.

Advocates of reusing the Reichstag have tried to set the record straight, pointing out that Nazi atrocities were planned not there but at other Berlin sites. In fact, Hitler only once set foot inside the building as Germany's chancellor.

The ultimate failure of parliamentarianism in Germany between the wars lends a poignancy to the Reichstag, which can perhaps best be viewed as embodying the country's thwarted democratic hopes and the belated remorse felt by many who acquiesced in their suppression. "The arsonists of Feb. 27, 1933, should not have the last word," argued former building minister Oscar Schneider, who pushed for a faithful restoration of the cupola and charged its opponents with distorting a symbol of democratic sovereignty into an architectural mark of Cain.

Comparing the Reichstag with the austere modernist Parliament building used in recent decades in Bonn is like weighing a penitent's pup tent against a potentate's palace. In 1949, West German politicians intentionally located the Bundestag inside a prime example of the Bauhaus architecture reviled by the Nazis, a former teachers' college built of pure white planes. Turning this structure into a Parliament was a signal of contrition and, like the decision to site the capital in bucolic Bonn, a demonstrated desire for a new start.

In the wake of the 1995 wrapping of the Reichstag by the artist Christo, as a way of reconsecrating this sandstone hulk for a better future, British architect Sir Norman Foster has been called in to supply new symbolic meaning. The choice of Foster was itself a symbolic gesture. For it would be hard to imagine France, Britain or the United States hiring a foreign citizen to design a new national legislature. Foster, architect of skyscraping banks in Hong Kong and Frankfurt, has gutted the Reichstag to retrofit the place in his high-tech machine aesthetic. Translucent roofing, glass elevators and enlarged windows will flood as much light as possible into the heavy stone building, part of his effort to "make democracy visible."

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