Capital Dilemma

Germany’s decision to move its government seat from Bonn to Berlin presented an epic architectural challenge, and fostered an international debate on what building styles are appropriate to represent German national identity. Capital Dilemma investigates the political decisions and historical events behind the redesign of Berlin’s architecture by weaving a complex and exciting drama of politics, memory and cultural values in which Albert Speer, Helmut Kohl, Norman Foster and I.M. Pei all figure as players.

If capital city design projects are symbols of national identity and historical consciousness, Berlin is the supreme example. Architecture has played a pivotal role throughout Germany’s turbulent twentieth-century history. After the fall of the monarchy, Germany gave birth to the Bauhaus, whose founders argued that their revolutionary designs could shape human destiny. The century’s warring ideologies, Nazism and communism, also used architecture for their own political ends. In its latest incarnation, Berlin has become the capital of the fifth German state in a century to be ruled from that city. How is the official architecture of reunified Berlin, a democratic capital built amid totalitarian remains, different this time around?

The Federal Republic of Germany, a stable democracy in contrast to its predecessors, has been struggling with burdensome architectural legacies. In the process it has considered remedies as various as outright destruction, refurbishment, and physical concealment, as in the case of the former Nazi Reichsbank. How German authorities have worked with contemporary architects to imbue buildings like the Reichstag and the former Luftwaffe headquarters with a new spirit for a democratic age offers an invaluable lens through which to view their country’s relationship to its past and its future direction.

Praise for Capital Dilemma

“An insightful and admirably concise book … [Wise] provides … an intelligible context for understanding why the new architecture of Berlin is assuming such a cautious and undistinguished character … One hopes that a decade from now Wise will go back to Berlin for a similarly clear-eyed and sharp-witted reappraisal.”
– Martin Filler, The New York Times Book ReviewRead the review

“This is such an important book. Michael Z. Wise has gone straight to the heart of the project for a ‘new’ Germany – which is that the creation of the capital out of a newly and uneasily unified Berlin is really about the creation of a people’s consciousness, and will shape, as much as any laws, the future of German democracy. I don’t know another book that explores so thoroughly and so thoughtfully the connection between public space, public sphere, and public memory, between the language of architecture and the language of community,”
– Jane Kramer, European correspondent for The New Yorker

“Michael Z. Wise leads the reader on an extraordinary tour of Berlin’s – and Germany’s – history through its architecture, from Schinkel to Speer to Pei. The journey – still unfinished – is both provocative and disturbing. Anyone interested in either architecture or Germany should read this admirable and important book.”
– Richard Holbrooke, former U.S. ambassador to Germany

“Capital Dilemma is a fascinating analysis of politics, architecture, the burdens of history and the search for national self-image.”
Foreign Policy

“A brilliant study — Clearer and more vivid than a good many volumes of political science.”
Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung