September 2, 2007

Berlin Highlights: Der Reichstag

Germany’s capitol building, the Reichstag, is so fascinating both historically and architecturally that I feel compelled to give it its own post. I’ve visited it twice in the past three months, and even so, I’d go again. It was worth every minute of the two-hour wait to get inside – even in the rain.

The History (in brief):

The original Neoclassic building was opened in 1884 to house the new German congress – even though the country was still a technically a constitutional monarchy. After the monarchy fell, as a result of the nation’s defeat in World War I and the badly settled Versailles Treaty, the Reichstag became the real seat of the Weimar Republic until someone set it on fire on February 27, 1933, destroying its famous cupola and badly damaging the rest of the building.

This particular event is really interesting. Even now, it seems no one knows for sure who set the fire on that February night. The leader of the National Socialist Party, Adolf Hitler, claimed it was the communists. The communists claimed it was the National Socialists. Whoever was actually responsible, there’s no denying that Hitler successfully used the event to turn public sentiment against political opponents, suspend the constitution, and strength his grip on power. Not to overreach here, but to an American, it all sounds eerily familiar…

Anyway, during the Nazi era (1933-1945), the Reichstag remained a burnt-out ruin. As my tour guide said, “Hitler and his sham parliament never set foot inside the Reichstag because they had no use for democracy or the parliamentary system.” I thought it funny that a contemporary German, one born after the Second World War even, would go to such lengths to distance her parliamentary building from the country’s most infamous citizen. Apparently after Reunification the nation was divided over the decision to renovate the building and make it the home of the Bundestag (parliament) once again – not just because it meant moving the capital from Bonn to Berlin, but because average Germans felt the building itself was too tainted by the Hitler era.

Now that I know the history, it’s not all that surprising that they would have felt that way. The Russian Army, not realizing that the actual seat of Hitler’s government had been across town on Kaiser Wilhelmstrasse, made the Reichstag one of their primary targets when they lay siege to the city in April 1945. When they finally reached the building on May 2, 1945, they flew the red flag from its roof and defaced the interior with graffiti. Even now you can see some of the graffiti – in Russian, Polish, German, even English – preserved in an upstairs room accessible on the special guided tour. I got to see it on this last visit, and fortunately, I was in the company of a number of Russians and Poles, who translated for me -- mostly just lines like “Vladimir wuz here 05-25-1945,” etc.

During the Cold War, the building was slowly rebuilt, though not its famous dome. Still, because of tensions between the East and West, it was rarely used, as it lay a stone’s throw from the Berlin Wall. Nonetheless, its enormous front lawn was the site of several peace concerts in the 1980s. I think even Bono was there.

The Architecture:

[Cristo and Jeanne-Claude, Wrapped Reichstag (1995). Photographs by Wolfgang Volz.]

After Reunification, the building was given a much need face-lift. British architect Sir Norman Foster designed its modern dome. I’ve heard Germans call it “the salad spinner,” but I think it’s really brilliant. Walking up the spiral ramp inside is an other-worldly experience, and because of its glass surface you get an incomparable view of the city of Berlin and all the new building that’s going one there. (Kevin and I counted 36 cranes on our last visit).

Unfortunately, I can’t speak so highly of the interior design. In fact, I suspect the Plenary Chamber, the actual hall where the Bundestag meets, was decorated by none other than the set designer from Star Trek – the original series. The hall itself is pretty spare: off-white carpets, off-white walls, but the 600-and-some-odd members sit in chairs of the most absurd shade of purple. I mean, I’m a big fan of purple, but it’s just not a dignified color for a government. I also find it odd that a country with such a long history would choose such a modern concept for their parliamentary chambers. By comparison, the United States of America is a baby of a nation, but we’ve given our congressional chambers a real patina of age. But I suppose it’s psychological: We’d like to think that our government is older than it is; they’d probably like to think theirs is younger. Anyway, the designer calls the space “practical” and “meditative”; I think it looks like the meeting place for the United Federation of Planets.

Finally, the Germans just can’t seem to restrain themselves when it comes to modern art, even in their places of government. The Paul Löbe Building, which houses the parliamentary offices and is next door to the Reichstag, is dripping with conceptual art: art installations, text-based art, neon art, sculpture. Inexplicably, someone on the decorating committee selected a work from American artist Joseph Kosuths to adorn the floor of the building: a quote from Thomas Mann’s magnum opus Der Zauberberg (The Magic Mountain) written in two-foot script, which reads “Was war also das Leben?” (What then is Life?”) – and ends some hundred words later with no clearer idea of what life is than when it began. Otherwise, the building is a beautiful piece of architecture. When I was there, on a quiet Sunday just after sunrise on a quiet Sunday, I couldn’t restrain myself from photographing the interior from every angle.

So while I don’t think much of the German’s taste in art, I do appreciate their taste in architecture. In my opinions, that’s their real métier, and they should stick to it. They could even teach us Americans a thing or two.


Cousin Matilda said...

But, what IS the German word for "salad spinner?"

the Collector said...

The German word is "die Salatschleuder," although, oddly enough, the two times I heard it referred to by that name, the speaker used the English word!