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Berlin: The Lost Opportunity

More celebrated than Gehry’s DG Bank is Daniel Libeskind’s Jewish Museum of 1992–1998, which reopened to the public in early September after the long-debated and long-delayed installation of its exhibits. This is an intentionally difficult and inhospitable building, which makes its surprising popular appeal—having attracted approximately 400,000 visitors even before any displays were installed—all the more remarkable. The factory-like appearance of the museum’s jagged exterior, surfaced in vertical panels of zinc and scored with a web of violent angular openings, clearly alludes to the Nazis’ industrialization of mass murder. (However, one need not know that Libeskind derived his irregular ground plan from the smashed and fragmented points of the Star of David.) The feeling of impending doom is accentuated by the menacing new building’s proximity to the graceful Baroque courthouse that formerly housed the Berlin Museum and that one now enters before moving into Libeskind’s chamber of modern horrors, the Enlightenment calm before the Third Reich deluge.

The marche—the carefully directed route through a building’s sequence of spaces—was one of the cherished principles of Beaux-Arts architecture. Transformed in quite different ways by such modernist geniuses as Wright, Le Corbusier, and Aalto, it has been insufficiently exploited of late, a paradoxical lapse in a period of so-called destination architecture. At the Jewish Museum, however, Libeskind conducts a virtual master class in movement through his building, and in effect turns that journey into an implied narrative on the Holocaust. That he had done so without any of the artifacts or words or symbols that other such memorials depend on to prompt an emotional response—until the recent and entirely unnecessary addition of wall labels telling visitors precisely what they should be feeling at various points in the interior—is the clearest proof that he has created a great work of architecture.

The subterranean passage that links the old and new buildings announces a departure from the usual conventions of arrival, and serves as an effective disorienting device. Reemerging within the Libeskind building, one is quickly confronted by a multiplicity of possible routes, at first seemingly random, then revealed as diabolically premeditated, like the Nazi genocide itself. In this network of concrete-walled, fluorescent-lighted corridors, the architect has imposed a series of seven “voids” to emphasize entrapment within his metaphorical construct, forcing the visitor to retrace steps, double back again, and quickly feel like an animal lost in a maze. Two exits then present themselves. The steep, narrow, and oppressive Stair of Continuity leads up to two floors of gallery space, but in essence it goes nowhere, terminating at the very top in a blank wall, a scala regia from hell.

The second apparent escape route is also not that at all, but leads to the museum’s holy of holies, the Holocaust Void. The need to memorialize incomprehensible tragedies is becoming a commonplace of the modern world, and here Libeskind rises to that challenge by suggesting the very depths of grief. Beyond a heavy door lies a dimly lighted space, sunk in such crepuscular gloom that one’s eyes instinctively rise to the small sliver of daylight overhead. This angular four-sided concrete chamber, its long, narrow footprint far smaller than the room’s ninety-foot height, gives one the sensation of being sunk at the bottom of a mineshaft. There is nothing to grasp onto emotionally here—this is the abject minimalism of existential despair—and even the bracket-like service ladder that climbs one wall commences far above human reach. Rarely has architecture conveyed nothingness with more visceral impact, and Libeskind’s triumph is to have done so in a way that the general public has felt just as deeply, even before they were directed to feel this or that, here or there.


If one concern of post-reunification Berlin is to make new places that come to terms with Germany’s troubled history, another is how to deal with the surviving monuments of the past. Carl Gotthard Langhans’s neoclassical Brandenburg Gate of 1788–1791, as much the emblem of Berlin as the Eiffel Tower is of Paris or Big Ben of London, is one of the city’s few iconic structures without loaded political associations. Not particularly identified with any one regime, it has the further benefit of dating from well before the rise of Prussian militarism in its expansionist Bismarckian phase. That of course is not the case with Paul Wallot’s Reichstag of 1884–1894, at first the very embodiment of the Iron Chancellor’s will to power, then the hated symbol of that era during the Weimar Republic, and then finally mute testament to the Nazis’ immolation of democracy.

By the time Berlin was nearly obliterated during the last weeks of World War II, the city had been the capital of Germany for just three quarters of a century. When the German states were unified into the Second Reich, the new central government occupied the Baroque and neoclassical buildings that had been used by the Frederician monarchy. What still needed to be built, however, was a new home for the Reichstag, and a site was chosen for it just north of the Brandenburg Gate, at the opposite end of Unter den Linden from the Schloss, the Altes Museum, and the various Imperial administration buildings. In 1882, the Rhenish architect Wallot won the competition for the commission. Among the buildings that inspired him was, surprisingly enough, Hermann Schwarzmann’s Memorial Hall of 1874–1876, the main building of the United States Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia. The German-émigré engineer Schwarzmann, who had never designed a building before, concocted a florid Beaux-Arts structure centered by a square drum that rose to an iron-and-glass dome that served as the direct model for that of Wallot’s Reichstag.

The Berlin parliament building was beset with problems from the start. The site was moved three times, forcing Wallot to redraw his plans with each change. Then the great iron-and-glass cupola (which the architect termed the Volkskuppel, or people’s dome, prefiguring by more than a century Germany’s current obsession with literal architectural transparency that is meant to encourage an equivalent political transparency) appeared to be set too far back in relation to the façade, and the architect repositioned it forward in his final scheme. After little more than four decades of use, the Nazis torched the building soon after Hitler’s rise to power, and the sham activities of the puppet assembly were moved, with tragicomic aptness, to the city’s Kroll Opera House.

In the hierarchy of architectural commissions, a new national capitol is the most prestigious of all, but it is also one of the most difficult to pull off. For quite aside from the demands of creating a functional seat of government, the architect is expected to somehow divine and embody the spirit of a nation. The twentieth century witnessed the completion of several architecturally distinguished national capitol buildings that do just that, including Louis Kahn’s Sher-e-Bangla Nagar of 1965–1983 in Dhaka, Bangladesh, and Geoffrey Bawa’s Parliament House of 1977–1980 in Colombo, Sri Lanka. Even more ambitiously, several entirely new federal cities—Walter Burley Griffin and Marion Mahony Griffin’s Canberra of 1911–1920, Edwin Lutyens and Herbert Baker’s New Delhi of 1913–1929, and Oscar Niemeyer’s Brasília of 1956–1960—were created on largely vacant sites. But none of those projects was as politically charged as the latest rebuilding of Berlin, and its most sensitive commission was that for the Reichstag.

This was made clear by the fact that all three finalists chosen in the 1992 Reichstag competition were foreigners, perhaps because the honor was deemed too great for any German citizen to bear. The Spanish Santiago Calatrava, the Dutch Pi de Bruijn, and the British Norman Foster were each asked to devise schemes that would be subject “to the discussion that was expected to take place between the client and the public about the role Parliament was to play and the image it wished to project.” This participatory process was to widen design by committee into design by referendum, as was soon discovered by Foster, who ultimately won the job, the exhausting story of which he tells with amazing forbearance in Rebuilding the Reichstag.

Foster’s initial scheme called for the erection of an immense high-tech canopy over the Reichstag, supported by a grid of twenty towering masts that would have reduced the scale of the old structure to that of a tabletop antique. The dome was not to be replaced; but that decision caused such an outcry among a majority of the five hundred parliamentarians who were given design approval that Foster was forced to add a cupola. He had to propose twenty-six consecutive versions before arriving at one that won the approval of a majority of the lawmakers. Second-guessing was also the rule in everything from the shape of the parliamentary chamber—which finally took the compromise form of a squashed oval—to the gigantic metal German eagle mounted behind the speaker’s rostrum, a hybrid that won consent after some found one version too rapacious, another too domesticated.

To be sure, Foster’s restoration of the existing building is scrupulously executed, with intriguing touches such as preserving behind glass panels the angry and often obscene graffiti scrawled by invading Red Army soldiers in 1945. Yet the overall effect is one of expensive technological prowess and chilly bureaucratic efficiency, a caricature of the supposed German nature rather than a more sympathetic evocation of that nature’s finer qualities.

Nonetheless, the Reichstag is now Berlin’s biggest tourist attraction, and visitors wait for hours to ascend to its glass-and-steel cupola and perambulate the helical walkway that wraps around its interior, offering panoramic, if not particularly lofty, views over the city. From the outside looking in, however, the view is most unfortunate, with the tourists trudging endlessly along the ramp like inmates in a nineteenth-century workhouse. Suspended from the center of the dome is a huge, astonishingly vulgar light-reflecting cone recalling Art Deco ceiling fixtures as now reinterpreted on Carnival Cruise liners. The public can also look directly downward into the legislative assembly itself, which Bernhard Schulz, in his concise guidebook The Reichstag, naively assures us “shows the chamber’s complete openness to scrutiny,” as if low deeds cannot be performed in the full light of day.

So onerous has been the burden of the Nazi past that anything even vaguely hinting at fascist architecture has been strenuously shunned throughout the rebuilding of Berlin. This means a prohibition not only on classicism in its many permutations, but also on solid masonry construction and even symmetry. As Hans Kollhoff told Michael Z. Wise in Capital Dilemma: Germany’s Search for a New Architecture of Democracy,1 “Everything that has a stone façade and a large door is regarded here, in this paranoid situation, as a fascist building.” Yet the desiderata of governmental architecture include a sense of stylistic timelessness and physical permanence, so some approximations of those classic (if not overtly classical) solutions were attempted. Least successful of all is the new Federal Chancellery by the German architects Axel Schultes and Charlotte Frank, which opened this spring, on a site next to the Reichstag (see illustration on page 28). (Schultes and Frank had also been given the commission to plan the entire Band des Bundes, or Federal Strip, of governmental structures running eastward from the Federal Chancellery, a venture that has since been scrapped for being far too costly.)

The new Federal Chancellery was criticized from the outset for being too large (more than three quarters of a million square feet) and too expensive (costing $221 million, or more than twice the price of Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum Bilbao.) As Chancellor Gerhard Schröder dryly remarked, “My feeling from the beginning was ‘Don’t you have it in a smaller size?’” Indeed, the Chancellery’s overblown proportions and grandiose posturing seem more in keeping with Schröder’s immediate predecessor, and not for nothing have Berlin wags, who love giving wry nicknames to strange new buildings, dubbed it the “Kohlosseum” (and, more descriptively, “the washing machine”).

Schultes and Frank somehow imagined they were channeling the spirit of Louis Kahn in this scheme. But their amalgam of superscale geometric forms, portentous voids, and evasive classical references are the antithesis of Kahn’s stirring evocations of Roman prototypes. One of their most ludicrous ideas was to erect freestanding columns with trees popping out at the top, as if to give Green credentials to a potential fascist symbol, an impression intensified by their extensive use of green tinted glass and green interior design schemes. Fear of putting a foot wrong and raising the ghosts of Berlin led to an atmosphere in which not offending anyone became the most important design motive. Insanely micromanaged by the government on one hand and cravenly abandoned to commercial interests at Potsdamer Platz and elsewhere on the other hand, the rebuilding of Berlin has been a fiasco of immense proportions, the greatest lost opportunity in postwar urbanism.

More than a decade after reunification, Berlin faces tremendous economic problems that will have a defining effect on its future architectural and urban direction. Having already spent some $100 billion on infrastructure alone, the city is now virtually bankrupt, with an approximately $30 billion debt, the interest on which costs some $5 million per day, remarkable figures for a city of just 3.4 million people. As a result, several big urban renewal plans have been fobbed off on the federal government or delayed indefinitely. Among the pending projects that will require a national bailout is the British architect David Chipperfield’s master plan for restoring and rebuilding the several institutions of the Museum Island surrounding Schinkel’s Altes Museum, including O.M. Ungers’s renovation of the Pergamon Museum, Hilmer and Sattler’s retrofitting of the Neues Museum for the Heinz Berggruen collection of modern art, and I.M. Pei’s transformation of the nearby Zeughaus into the German Historical Museum.

Though major corporations rushed to build new branches in the reconstituted capital, no major sector of the German economy is now based there. Finance is still firmly ensconced in Frankfurt, media in Hamburg, the auto industry in Stuttgart, and heavy industry in Düsseldorf. Before World War II, Berlin prospered not so much as the seat of government as the center of commerce, with 60 percent of all German companies—including AEG, Allianz, Deutsche Bank, and Siemens—headquartered there. After the war, West Berlin survived on financial life support from the West, with large populations of students and pensioners heavily subsidized to defend, with whatever demographic inappropriateness, the island outpost of democracy.

But Berlin was no longer a place where people were drawn to pursue entrepreneurial careers, and that remains true to this day. Without that necessary stimulus, no city will develop an authentic architectural character, whatever precise form it takes. But economic growth does not directly correlate with mere consumerism, as is misunderstood in a recent promotional brochure for Potsdamer Platz, which astonishingly maintains that “in terms of culture, Berlin has been at the top for a long time, more so than London or Paris. But what it still lacks is a well-developed tradition of shopping.”2

The greatest world cities emerge as slow and steady accretions over time, retaining their underlying civic character despite superficial changes in aesthetics. Berlin, as we know it, has been defining itself for little more than two centuries, much of which time has seen the city at war, under repression, or in ruins. It is now recovering from an upheaval of a very different sort—a ten-year-long architectural binge of too much, too soon—but one no less harmful to the natural progression of place-making than the misadventures of world politics. For all the hand-wringing about political correctness, the grotesque speculative frenzy of the classic boomtown overwhelmed all other impulses in 1990s Berlin, a capital that now needs a respite from the baser impulses of capital if it is to get back in touch with its essential self.

  1. 1

    Princeton Architectural Press, 1998.

  2. 2

    Brian Ladd, “Center and Periphery in the New Berlin: Architecture, Public Art, and the Search for Identity,” in PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art, 65, (2000), pp. 7–21.

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