Edifice Complex

Capital Dilemma

August 30, 1998, The New York Times

By Michael Z. Wise.
Illustrated. 190 pp. New York:
Princeton Architectural Press. $25.

No city bears the burden of its history more heavily than Berlin. For more than half of this century, the former Prussian and German Imperial capital was the command post of totalitarian regimes of exceptional brutality. Though the Nazis and the Communists had no monopoly on the modern world’s seemingly inexhaustible evil, what makes Berlin different from Phnom Penh or Srebrenica or Kigali is not so much the magnitude of the atrocities instigated there as the awareness of the Germans that the capital’s dark past must never be forgotten if it is not to be repeated.

Nowhere is that retrospective impulse clearer than in the new official architecture, the subject of an insightful and admirably concise book by Michael Z. Wise, a former central European correspondent for Reuters and The Washington Post. There have been other recent studies, most notably “The Ghosts of Berlin: Confronting German History in the Urban Landscape,” Brian Ladd’s superb 1997 meditation on the shifting identities of the city’s memory-laden landmarks. Wise, though covering some of the same territory, goes farther in tracing current developments to the very different ways in which the East and West German Governments dealt with the imagery of public buildings. He provides a more intelligible context for understanding why the new architecture of Berlin is assuming such a cautious and undistinguished character.

The Soviet Union and East Germany saw Berlin as the ultimate World War II trophy. Triumphalist schemes like the bombastic Stalinallee reflected Stalin’s preference for showpiece high-rises decked out in classical ornament. A nod toward local history was made in the apartment towers lining that Communist Champs-Elysees by incorporating motifs from the work of the pre-eminent 19th-century Prussian architect Karl Friedrich Schinkel.

In contrast, West Germany moved its capital to the small city of Bonn, which Chancellor Konrad Adenauer approvingly called “a city without a past.” The Parliament was established in a modest, 1930’s Bauhaus-style former teacher’s college in Bonn. Few then imagined that Berlin would again become the capital of a reunited Germany. As the cold war novelist John le Carre wrote, Bonn remained “discreetly temporary in deference to the dream, discreetly permanent in deference to the reality.”

Indeed, the architecture of Bonn, which studiously avoided anything hinting at the dangerous grandiosity of Hitler, was too discreet. Many visitors to the lower-than-low-key governmental complex would agree with the German historian Michael Sturmer that it resembled “the grounds of an international insurance firm.” The Bonn building vocabulary — a watered-down version of the Weimar Republic’s globally influential Bauhaus style, with a greater emphasis on vast glass window walls that implied the “transparency” of the activities behind them — was as self-effacing as possible. But to Sturmer, who has also served as an adviser to Chancellor Helmut Kohl, that effortful blandness signified “the shamefaced capital of a shamefaced state.”

Germany’s reunification in 1990 and the decision to return the seat of government to Berlin brought the latent issue of political imagery in official architecture quickly to the fore. “No one ever feared Bonn,” one politician told the author. “We don’t want anyone to fear Berlin.”

Not only had the previous decade seen the rise of post-modern and classical revival architecture in reaction against the International style, but older German traditions, like the work of Schinkel, were seen as valid points of departure for contemporary design. Yet, as the Berlin architect Hans Kollhoff said to Wise in one of dozens of interviews he conducted for this well-researched book, “Everything that has a stone facade and a large door is regarded here, in this paranoid situation, as a fascist building.”

Thus time and again urban planning and architectural proposals for Berlin have been reworked to expunge potentially offending elements. The capital’s new Federal Strip — an enfilade of structures — was laid out by the architects Axel Schultes and Charlotte Frank on an east-west orientation because the main axis of Albert Speer’s megalomaniac 1940 scheme for rebuilding Berlin ran north-south. Schultes and Frank’s Federal Chancellery went through three versions between 1995 and 1997. Huge oculi cut into the exterior of the first plan (a direct quotation from Louis Kahn’s national legislative chamber in Dhaka, Bangladesh) were disparaged as the “eyes of the Chancellor.” The second try, featuring a massive abstraction of a tree, was fortunately discarded. The final attempt, with an amorphous entry facade of unregimented columns and the obligatory glass walls, is meant, Schultes has said, to evoke “sympathy at the first glance.” Ennui is more likely.

The most tension-fraught proposal has been that for renovation of the 1884-94 Reichstag. Already reviled by the 1920’s as an emblem of Prussian militarism, it was burned by the Nazis in 1933 and left derelict by the Communists after 1945. An international competition to rehabilitate it was won by the British architect Sir Norman Foster, whose initial design went through several revisions before he won the majority approval of his 500-plus parliamentarian clients. He had not intended to replace the Reichstag’s demolished dome but bowed to pressure from conservatives demanding a new cupola. The tragicomic array of 26 alternative dome proposals — none very good — that the architect provided before a consensus was reached speaks volumes about the enervating effect of design by committee.

Though Wise is not an architecture critic, his assessments of the quality of individual buildings and urban planning concepts are acute and correct. To be sure, his tightly focused account leaves out the much larger volume of commercial construction that will affect Berlin far more pervasively than the relatively isolated Government commissions. It will be several years before the city’s forest of construction cranes and scaffolding comes down and a clear sense of the reborn Berlin emerges. Though a dazzling roster of international star architects is now building there, Berlin’s lack of a central plan put the initiative too comfortably into the grasp of developers and speculators. One hopes that a decade from now Wise will go back to Berlin for a similarly clear-eyed and sharp-witted reappraisal.

Martin Filler writes about architecture for House Beautiful, The New York Review of Books and the Book Review.