Friday, August 15, 2008
Reichstag Berlin, Germany
The restored Reichstag in Berlin, designed by the London architectural firm of Foster and Partners, epitomizes a new kind of architecture—one that respects the physical and cultural environment and takes account of the past while assuming responsibility for the future.
The institution known as the Reichstag was set up in 1867 by the German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck to allow the bourgeoisie to have a role in the politics of the new empire, a confederation of princely states under the King of Prussia. From 1871 the Reichstag met in a disused factory until a neo-Renaissance building (1882–1894) was created for it by the Frankfurt architect Paul Wallot. After the reunification in 1990, the new Germany’s Parliament, comprising the two houses known as the Bundestag and Bundestat, made Berlin the capital of the Federal Republic of Germany in June 1991. It also voted, by a small majority, to move its own seat from Bonn to Berlin, locating it in the historic building.
The monument was in a sorry state and held memories of the failure of the Weimar Republic and the disastrous Third Reich. Before the notorious Berlin Wall came down, it was cut off from the old center, just outside the boundary; now it is in the middle of the city. The Reichstag building had been patched up in the cold war years, and the facades and the interior underwent desultory restoration in the 1960s. It was used as a historical museum between 1958 and 1972, and spasmodically for meetings of the West German Parliament. In June 1992 an international architectural competition was held to restore the Reichstag, and eighty architects submitted proposals.
Following some debate and a second stage of the competition among the three shortlisted entries, Foster and Partners were awarded the commission in July 1993. The consulting engineers were Leonhardt Andra and Partner, the Ove Arup Partnership, and Schlaich Bergermann and Partner. The Foster partnership originally proposed a huge mesh canopy supported on columns to enclose Wallot’s building and extend it into the Platz der Republik. Axel Schultes and Charlotte Frank’s urban plan for the Spreebogen district of Berlin, the result of a contemporary competition, set the framework for new buildings and called for a rebriefing and consequent changes to the design. Building work began in July 1995 and the new Reichstag was opened in April 1999; it cost DM 600 million (approximately U.S.$330 million).
According to the architects, their final design was constrained by four factors: the history of the Reichstag, which in its earliest days had symbolized liberty; the day-to-day processes of the Parliament; questions of ecology and energy: and (naturally) the economics of the project. Because Wallot’s building was to be preserved as far as possible, the Reichstag is a living historical museum that frankly shows the scars of its past—pockmarks caused by shells, charred timber, and Russian graffiti from the post–World War II occupation are all left visible. Because it was believed that the processes of democracy should be transparent, Wallot’s formal west entrance was reopened to serve for all users of the building, politicians and public alike. The great steps lead to a tall, top-lit narthex; on entering, the visitor is confronted by a glass wall that defines the lobby; beyond that, another transparent partition gives a view into the parliamentary chamber. Members of the public may occupy public balconies or follow interlocking spiral ramps to a viewing deck that looks down into the chamber from within the cupola. The functional needs of the Parliament required the demolition of many of the accretions of the earlier refurbishment.
Visually and structurally, the design is dominated by a new glass-and-steel hemispherical cupola at the center of the restored building, which replaces and evokes the war-damaged original dome, removed in 1954. But the cupola is more than an esthetic or symbolic choice. At its center a curving, inverted cone of mirrors reflects daylight into the plenary chamber. The cupola is fitted with a movable sunscreen: in summer it tracks and blocks the sun to prevent overheating of the interior; in winter it is set aside to allow warming sunshine to penetrate into the building. The cone also acts as a convection chimney; fresh air enters the building through air shafts and rises through the floor of the chamber. As it heats up it is drawn into the cone, and an extractor expels it from the building. An aquifer at a depth of 100 feet (30 meters) stores cold water that is circulated through pipes in the Reichstag’s floors and ceilings in the summer. Warmed in the process, the water is then pumped into another subterranean lake, 1,000 feet (300 meters) beneath Berlin. At that depth it retains its heat, and in winter the process is reversed to heat the building. The Reichstag power plant that drives the pumps is fueled by renewable grape seed oil. In the 1960s the restored Reichstag emitted 7,700 tons (7,000 tonnes) of carbon dioxide a year; the new building emits 440 tons. Germany has been a world leader in energy conservation, and the building that now symbolizes national unity fittingly exemplifies that mind-set.