Tuesday, 3 March 2015

The Longlist: The Reichstag

What's the Longlist? It's the list for all the other great man-made spectacles in the world that haven't quite made my shortlist. I don't feel the need to research them or visit them, but as long as this blog is about the world's best man-made structures, they deserve some kind of mention. Today, the Reichstag.

The Reichstag is Germany's parliament building, and has been since 1894 - oh, except for 66 years between 1933 and 1999. It's a little more than just a parliament building though. It's a building for the ages, and rightly an icon of the nation. The Reichstag has taken various forms over the decades. It has been vandalised, destroyed, ignored, and reconstructed on more than one occasion. It has witnessed imperialism, democracy, and the Nazis. The history and the ups and downs of the Reichstag's history mirrors the ups and downs of Germany.

This is the Reichstag, mark 1. It came about in the aftermath of German unification in 1871, whereby various independent states and areas such as Prussia and Bavaria got together to form a German Empire, essentially the modern Germany we see today. It took place just after the Franco-Prussian War, in which the Prussians totally kicked the French's ass, so much so that the official proclamation took place in the Palace of Versailles. The problem was, with all these important German people around, Berlin just didn't have a building big enough to house its new parliament. So in 1872, there was an architectural contest. Out of 103 entries, somebody won, but it doesn't really matter who because for the next ten years absolutely nothing happened.

Well, that's not quite true. A site was chosen, and the old palace standing there was pulled down. Finally, in 1882, another architectural contest was held. The winner, from 183 entrants, was an architect from Frankfurt called Paul Wallot. This time things were allowed to get going - funds were raised through wartime reparations from France. Ouch.

By 1884 the foundation stone was laid by Wilhelm I. Wilhelm was Germany's first emperor and he was progressive and liberal - the parliament building was an important symbol of his empire. He didn't live to see it finished. He died in 1888 and the Reichstag was completed in 1894, by which time his grandson was in charge. And Wilhelm II was a bit of a dick. He didn't like democracy at all, and led his country down a much more imperialist path which ultimately led to the First World War. Well, would you trust a man with a moustache like this?

It's no surprise that Wilhelm II wasn't very keen on the Reichstag therefore. Not the building per se, just the whiffs of democracy that surrounded it. The building itself doesn't seem to have won universal acclaim either, being a kind of neo-Baroque, neo-Renaissance, neo-Classical mishmash, packed with grand sculptures and decorations. 137 metres long, 97 metres wide, it was crowned with a dome of steel and glass, which was regarded as an engineering feat of its day. In 1916, much to Wilhrelm II's distaste, words were carved above the facade: Dem Deutschen Volke - "[To] the German People".

World War 1 came and went, and Wilhelm II abdicated. A bold new era for Germany was beginning. On 9th November 1918 the new German Republic was proclaimed from the balcony of the Reichstag. The parliament building was the centrepiece of this blossoming new republic.

And then in 1933 there was a fire.


The cause of this fire has been the subject of endless speculation. The facts are simple: it was definitely arson, it took place on 27th February 1933, devastated the Reichstag, and a Dutch communist called Marinus Van Der Lubbe was arrested soon after and guillotined the following year. The truth is a lot more nebulous. Hitler had been named German Chancellor just four weeks earlier and the burning down of the Reichstag really suited him. It was a crisis, a very convenient crisis that allowed him to suspend the laws about human rights and civil liberties while Nazi Germany went looking for the culprits. They blamed the Communists and a mass arrest of suspected Communists soon followed. Publications unsympathetic to the Nazis were banned. Security was heightened. All this was very helpful to the Nazis for the elections a month later...

But it's easy to jump on the conspiracy theory bandwagon and assume the Nazis set the whole thing up. There's no direct evidence for it. It's just as likely that the Communists were behind the fire and Hitler simply took maximum advantage. Van Der Lubbe was a drifter with learning difficulties and already had a criminal record for arson. It seems unlikely that he was able to do the whole thing alone, but whether he was a Nazi scapegoat or a Communist tool may never be known. Nonetheless, the burning of the Reichstag set off the chain of events that led to the rise of Naziism and eventually the Second World War.

The Nazis didn't use the Reichstag, and it was left in a derelict state. It was further damaged during the war, leaving it a shelled out ruin.

Nonetheless, it remained a symbol of Germany, and the Soviets expended a lot of lives and manpower capturing it in 1945, covering it in graffiti.

Following the war, Berlin and Germany were divided into two. The Reichstag sat in West Berlin but only just, mere metres away from the border. It remained a ruin, with West and East governments meeting elsewhere. By 1956, it was debated whether or not to tear it down, but fortunately the decision went the other way: restore it. Restore it, yes, but in a crappy, half-hearted way. After another architectural contest, Paul Baumgarten reconstructed it from 1961 to 1964, removing all the statues, decorations, sculptures, and anything nice, and made the Reichstag stripped back and plain. The dome was removed altogether.

For decades, it was barely used. The Cold War raged, Germany was split in two, and its icon lay empty, its crown removed. But then, in 1990, it came back to life. Germany reunified and on 3rd October the official reunification ceremony took place at the Reichstag. The next day, in a symbolic gesture, a unified parliament assembled there.

And now we find ourselves in the most recent stages in the Reichstag's life - Germany unified and the Reichstag rejuvenated. With the Reichstag to be Germany's parliament building again, in 1992 another architectural contest was set. The remit: make the Reichstag great again. The winner was none other than Norman Foster. Look at the stupendous piece of mentalism he devised.

The Reichstag - covered with a vast glass parasol and a glass box in place of the former dome. It's bold and outlandish. Possibly it would have been ridiculous, but equally possibly it would have been wonderful. Foster's track record would suggest it would have worked. Alas, it was deemed to be too expensive - or in other words, "Guys, I don't think we've got the balls to go through with this" - and Foster went back to the drawing board. Fortunately he has a good drawing board.

Removing all this parasol paraphernalia, Foster focussed on the dome. It's a masterpiece. All light and glass, it floats on the heavy stone building. Open to the public, it allows both a 360 degree view of Berlin but also a direct view below into the sunlit main hall of parliament. This is deliberately symbolic of the people always being above the government - a democracy rather than a dictatorship. A shield tracks the sun electronically and blocks direct sunlight from entering the dome or the main hall, avoiding dazzling. It's modern, but stylish, a delicate addition to the Reichstag, never distracting.

It wasn't just the dome, Foster also got the Reichstag fit for purpose again, almost rebuilding the entire structure. He removed and reversed all of Baumgarten's 1960s touches but, as per the conditions set, carefully preserved various traces of the many historical events to have befallen the Reichstag, such as the Soviet graffiti. It was completed in 1999 and is now once again the meeting place of the German parliament, the Bundestag (the name Reichstag is an old German term referring to a parliament or assembly, although these days only it's simply the name for the building). Berlin's icon is alive and well.

I've been to Berlin before and have visited the Reichstag (the above photo is mine), although I didn't go inside or climb to the dome. The queues were too big and it was a lovely day, so I preferred just to sit on the grass and admire it. It's a terrific combination of the old and the new, has a relaxed confidence and represents Germany so well. In terms of being a Wonder, it doesn't quite have the impact of the best, but it would still slot comfortably into my shortlist without embarrassing anybody. I wonder how it would have done if Foster's original design had gone ahead. It's the second-most visited landmark in Germany, with around 2.7 million visitors a year. (The number one is Cologne Cathedral, with an amazing 6 million visitors a year. Wow.)


  1. I have never been to Berlin but I really love this building. It's largely because of the dome - not only because of the symbolism of allowing the people to look over their politicians' shoulders, but because it really makes the building unique and instantly recognisible. If it had kept the old dome, it would look like any other grand 19th century building of which there are many dotted around Europe. Also I like it when old and modern styles complement each other to make a harmonious result like this.

    By the way what are your thoughts on the reconstruction of the Berlin City Palace (Stadtschloss)? Three of its façades are to be rebuilt in the original style, but the back one will be in a more modern, less ornate style. The reasoning behind this is that apparently that side of the palace will face a square that is sided with post-war buildings so the theory is that the palace will fit into its surroundings from whichever side you are looking at it.

    1. Agreed. The modern dome makes the Reichstag special.

      I'd not been aware of the Berlin City Palace reconstruction, but wow, I'm really impressed. I'll be very interested in seeing how it turns out, and it looks like it's making good progress. I think having the modern facade is a good idea, or at least an intriguing one, but personally I think it's going to work well. I'm just as interested to see how the Baroque facades turn out. We don't make giant Baroque buildings these days - I wonder if we still can. Will it look cheap and phoney, or will it look the genuine article?


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