The New York Times

April 11, 1999, The New York Times

The New Berlin

Expressing government power without pomposity

BERLIN – For nearly a half century, the Federal Republic of Germany studiously avoided creating grand Government buildings. The self-consciously modest, modern West German capital that arose in Bonn after the demise of Nazi Berlin stood in pointed contrast to the overblown classicism favored by the Third Reich — an architectural declaration of “Never Again.” Federal ministries in the small Rhineland town set up operations in unassuming quarters, and Government chiefs from Ludwig Erhard to Gerhard Schroder have occupied a squat, low-slung official residence nicknamed the Chancellor’s Bungalow.

If Bonn’s buildings were intended to exude a sense of atonement — an architectural hair shirt for a contrite nation — the German Government is adopting a somewhat different tone for the official structures it has commissioned for Berlin. These buildings are consonant with unified Germany’s status as the most powerful nation in Europe and in keeping with the expansive urban scale of the country’s historic capital. But in planning the Government’s move to Berlin from Bonn, German leaders had an acute sense of architecture’s symbolic power and therefore feared an international furor about their aspirations if they revived an overly monumental official style.

Not surprisingly, one of the thorniest official design challenges was the headquarters of the German Chancellor, the first to govern from Berlin since Adolf Hitler. Drawn up by the Berlin architects Axel Schultes and Charlotte Frank, the new Chancellery’s design marks a clean break with Bonn’s anonymous, low-key approach. “This is no longer understatement,” Mr. Schultes said after winning the commission in 1995. Now that Germany had become a nation of 82 million people, he declared: “We are moving forward and we have to respond. The Republic must show its colors.”

Mr. Schultes and Ms. Frank were obvious choices to design the Chancellery since it forms a key part of the master plan that the same architects also created for Berlin’s latest Government district. Now under construction in an area known as the Spreebogen, an arclike bend in the Spree River, the Government district is just northwest of the Reichstag, the former Imperial Parliament renovated by the British architect Norman Foster as the new home of the federal legislature, the Bundestag.

The Schultes-Frank-designed district comprises a massive ribbon of official structures reminiscent of the Mall in Washington. Called the Federal Strip, it is as wide as a football field, with the Chancellery and its gardens at the western end and offices and a library for the Bundestag at the other. The plan’s east-west orientation has symbolic import because the new Government district is rising upon the very same Berlin tract where Hitler’s architect, Albert Speer, envisioned a vast north-south axis, framed at opposite ends by a gargantuan victory arch and an even bigger domed hall large enough to accommodate 180,000 people.

The Federal Strip thus seeks to cancel out Speer’s design while forging a new architectural allegory — a ribbon of federal offices that also acts to knit together the once divided city while running across an area previously traversed by the Berlin Wall.

The soft-spoken Mr. Schultes, who wears half-moon glasses and his shirt collars idiosyncratically flipped upward, describes himself as owing a considerable debt to the American modernist Louis Kahn. As did Kahn, Mr. Schultes uses 20th-century materials like glass and smooth concrete to evoke the mystical grandeur of ancient monuments like the temples of Karnak or Hagia Sofia. He and Ms. Frank previously designed an art museum in Bonn and a hauntingly beautiful new set of funeral chapels in the Treptow section of Berlin.

For Germany’s new Chancellery, the architects had to perform the equivalent of a high-wire balancing act. They needed distinctive imagery that could serve as an instantly recognizable backdrop when foreign statesmen come calling and official pronouncements are made. The design also had to surpass the functional but nondescript Chancellery in Bonn. Completed in 1976, that building looks little different from a corporate office for BMW or Siemens.

At the same time, Mr. Schroder’s predecessor, Helmut Kohl, who had himself hoped to occupy the new Chancellery, was wary of any architecture that verged on the forbidding or aloof. Mr. Schultes, too, took pains to avoid resuscitating the pretentious corridors of power like those Charlie Chaplin lampooned in “The Great Dictator.” The design thus went through a half-dozen reworkings during which Mr. Schultes said he and Ms. Frank “felt our pulse and that of the country.”

THE architects strove for a playful, euphoric architecture that Mr. Schultes said “does not look like a so-called fat Germany.” This boldly formulated wish created friction with a client who held a somewhat different vision. “Kohl was concerned above all with dignity,” Mr. Schultes said during a recent visit to the crane-studded construction site. “And that involved not just the architecture, but the dignity of the institution of the Chancellor himself. I told him that dignity was for me a very difficult word. We said, “This building should not exude dignity, for God’s sake, not dignity.” Instead, Mr. Schultes wanted an inviting edifice that would evoke “sympathy at the first glance.”

Mr. Schultes and Ms. Frank fashioned a nine-story cube to house the executive offices, cabinet meeting rooms, an auditorium for news conferences and a circular international conference room suitable for summits of the European Union and the G-7, the group comprising the world’s leading industrial nations. Flanking the cube will be two lower administrative wings for the Chancellery’s 500-member staff. The five-story wings, their mass leavened by 13 glass-enclosed gardens, form the outer edges of the Federal Strip. Mr. Schultes originally wanted the Federal Strip to be of a uniform height, but Mr. Kohl pushed the architects to double the size of his office so that it would not be outflanked by the nearby Reichstag.

The main facade of the Chancellery, scheduled for completion by autumn of 2000, looks onto a large ceremonial court where Germany’s leaders will greet state visitors. Embellishing this entryway will be a collection of concrete columns up to 46 feet high. But the prospect of another imposing colonnaded Chancellery in Berlin set off alarm bells, so to avoid anything that might have Speerian echoes, the architects devised irregularly shaped and asymmetrically placed columns that look more like rippling panels than traditional pillars. The result adds depth and a play of light and shadow to the facade, while also providing fresh iconography for a liberal democratic state.

The entrance foyer features an immense staircase below an undulating ceiling whose free-spirited sweep adds vibrancy to what might otherwise be a cold and intimidating space. On upper floors, banquet and reception rooms give onto balconies on the east and west facades and interlock with a central hourglass-shaped stairwell linked to the Chancellor’s executive offices. The interior finishes will aim to retain at least part of the austere allure of German state architecture in Bonn, consisting neither of marble nor granite, but raw concrete surfaces mixed with others of sandstone and white stucco.

Since easily defeating Mr. Kohl in last September’s election, Mr. Schroder has argued that the Germans are too “up tight” about their history and should proudly regard themselves as a “normal” nation. His comments make one wonder whether the symbol-laden new Chancellery might have looked different had the younger Social Democrat — Mr. Schroder was in diapers at the end of World War II — been premier when the building was planned. But by the time he took office last fall, the project was already well into the construction phase.

Mr. Schroder has been able to set his own mark upon his headquarters’ design in small, but important ways, nonetheless. He assented to Mr. Schultes’s unusual plan, ostensibly rejected by Mr. Kohl as undignified, to plant trees on top of some of the irregular columns, thus bringing a Tuscan sensibility to the forecourt. “We wanted to diminish the pathos of these columns and give them a southern nonchalance,” said Mr. Schultes. Mr. Schroder says the lofty trees will render the facade more “airy and cheerful.” The current Chancellor is also far more open to filling the building with contemporary artworks than were envisioned under his predecessor, and Mr. Schultes is working with the culture minister, Michael Naumann, to devise an art program that will include foreign as well as German artists.

Such a carefully calibrated design befits a national capital that Mr. Schroder touts as being “self-confident without being arrogant.” For it will have neither an aura of undue pomp nor false modesty, while still offering a far more dramatic setting than Bonn’s muted stage for German history’s next act.