(Re) constructing Berlin: Architects and Academics Consider the Once-and-Future CapitalSkip other details (including permanent urls, DOI, citation information)
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Quoting the 19th-century poet Theodor Fontane, architect Axel Schultes apostrophized his hometown, whose splendid new Chancellery he has designed with Charlotte Frank. These distinguished architects were joined on December 5, 1999 by Wilfried Wang, curator of the German Architectural Museum (Frankfurt); Spencer de Grey of Foster & Partners (the London-based firm that rebuilt the Reichstag); Neil Leach, Columbia University; John Czaplicka, Humboldt University and Michael Cullen, Berlin, for a daylong symposium on the architecture of the new Berlin. The conference was sponsored by the Center for European Studies and the A. Alfred Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning and hosted by the University of Michigan Museum of Art.
"(Re)constructing Berlin" culminated a series of exercises in taking stock of 1989 from the vantage of "ten years after." The stock-taking had begun months before. In April 1999, the Center for Russian and Eastern European Studies had brought together many of the original participants in the Polish Roundtable for a public conversation about 1989 ("Communism's Negotiated Collapse") that could scarcely have taken place in Poland. During the week preceding the architecture symposium, a series of films devoted to Berlin - from vignettes of gypsy life in the 1920s to footage of tourists having at the Wall with picks and hammers - challenged challenged our perspective on this perplexing city. During the same week, a three-day conference titled "The Unification Effect" gathered scholars from a wide range of disciplines to reflect on the kinds of significance attached to the razing of the Iron Curtain over the past 10 years. In brief, who had been drawing what kinds of lessons from 1989, for whose (supposed) benefit, and why? Photographic exhibitions at the Taubman College and the International Institute enhanced the paper-reading.
With the architecture symposium, our focus shifted from the discursive terrain to the physical terrain of Germany's once-and-future capital. The balancing act carried out by architects and urban planners has been excruciating, especially when filling that no-man's and every-man's land through the middle of town - the space that Hitler and Speer began to clear for Germania, that Allied bombers continued to clear for democracy and that the Cold War kept clear because neither side could really think what else to do. Whereas the division of Berlin into two half-cities, each serving as "exhibit A" in the geopolitical case to be made against the other, may have projected an illusion of Manichean simplicity, unification has brought daunting complexity. It has only increased the number and variety of parties with conflicting interests in the future shape, soundscape and ambience of the new capital. Nearly everything is marked, sacred to someone, vivid with memories shared or denied.
The vividness of the symposium itself might be sensed through two excerpts, both representative of the high quality and thought-provoking contents of the contributions generally. (The slide illustrations, key to the immediacy of the presentations, are necessarily lacking here.) First, Wilfried Wang shares his thoughts on the thorny issue of reconstructing monuments, in a paper he wryly titled Short-term Strategies, Long-term Tactics: Berlin Architecture and Urbanism in the Web of Qu.otidian Politics. As Wang observed, those who bandy the notion of a "critical reconstruction" of Berlin often intend it to include the literal reconstruction of destroyed buildings.
Hans Stimman, the secretary of state in Peter Strieder's senate office of Urban Development, Environment and Technology, is the most resilient and influential of all those involved in the physical shaping of Berlin. Together with the eminence grise of urban design, Dieter Hoffmann-Axthelm, he has concentrated his efforts in the last few years on the definition of a design plan for Berlin's inner city, a so-called Planwerk that straddles urbanism and architecture. It is here that the current conception of critical reconstruction can be clearly distinguished...
While there is greater leniency for sites on the edge of the Planwerk, there has been a hidden struggle between advocates and opponents of the literal reconstruction of Berlin's old center: the Spreeinsel itself. Using the domino theory, politicians and bureaucrats on the advocacy side have gradually assembled a puzzle that will be exciting to watch as it nears completion. One of the world's largest publishing houses, Bertelsmann, has authorized its foundation to pay for the reconstruction of the Kommandatur (the former Prussian military headquarters) on Unter den Linden. While it is only a small building, the principle of private investment rebuilding a piece of the innermost city has been welcomed by some for the sake of their next objects of desire. (As the quasi-reconstructions. . . on the Pariser Platz show, such efforts as undertaken by the established guard of architects in Berlin inspire little confidence. In my view, they amount to a form of death warmed-over.) The domino theory had already been successfully applied when professional outrage against the proposed reconstruction of the Imperial Palace ( Schloss) made its advocates retreat, so to speak, across the Kupfergraben to offer a different bait: the possibility of reconstructing Schinkel's Bauakademie. Architects and historians who had raged against a reconstructed palace were (curiously enough) in favor of the reanimated Bauakademie, and their sophisticated rationalizations only made them look more ridiculous in the eyes of the public.
As it now stands, one facsimile corner of the Bauakademie is to be built on the site for an exhibition next year. Once this provisional piece has been established - and we know how enduring provisional pieces can be - chances are that the whole facade would be reconstructed. Without doubt, however, the same dismal fate will befall this reconstruction as the houses on the Pariser Platz. None of the advocates can say for sure how the interior should be realized: whether a concrete structural frame is intended or whether we are to return to brick, cast iron and wood. The putative use of the building as an exhibition space would be compromised by the numerous large windows, as well as by the internal cast iron columns. No solutions have been offered for the questions of vertical circulation (elevators or not?) or artificial lighting.
Such ostensibly minor problems only multiply when it comes to the Schloss. While the cost of reconstructing the Bauakademie is estimated at $50 million, the price tag for the palace is currently $750 million. Here, too, the extent of the reconstruction is unclear: should it be merely the facade, should there be one layer of original spaces behind the facade, or is the whole thing to reappear before the eyes of a clamoring public? And by the way, who should pay for it? The site is dually owned by city and state and neither can currently spare the cash.
Which version of a monument does one reconstruct? Consider the memorial to the victims of the Second World War. Under the East German government, it was a memorial to the victims of fascism and, before that, a memorial to the fallen soldiers of World War I by Heinrich Tessenow. Look at it now and you find a sculpture based on a design by Katthe Kollwitz, a sort of secular Pietà. Helmut Kohl wanted neither the East Germans' eternal flame nor a reconstruction of Tessenow's cube with silver wreath, but an enlarged copy of the Kollwitz sculpture. The arbitrary personal wish of Kohl, then chancellor, ridicules any contemporary notion of authenticity, it ridicules the Kollwitz piece in its context and it is ultimately disrespectful toward the victims.
What are the social and cultural concerns of reconstruction in general? And what are the scruples that should prevent us from welcoming the rebuilding of anything? However rigorously defined the aims of reconstruction may be, the result will miss the conceptual mark due to the unreconstructible nature of real life. The Planwerk has had to depart in detail from the literal reproduction of the former street network: the functions have changed, the plot dimensions are different, and the use of public space is not that of the 19th century. With the monuments at the heart of Berlin, the matter is slightly different. To consider a comparable case: the royal residence in Munich, severely damaged during the Second World War, was surreptitiously reconstructed at an enormous cost, nearly $1 billion. Visitors today take for granted that the residence survived allied bombings without a scratch. Advocates of such reconstruction are always quick to cite the case of Warsaw's inner city, which was rebuilt immediately after the war. Still, there is a difference between the victims of war and those who perpetrated it. There is a moral legitimation for the victims to rebuild and thereby recuperate, physically and psychologically, while there is a moral onus for the perpetrators to live with their (ultimately self-inflicted) wounds.
It will be argued that the Berlin Schloss was not completely beyond rehabilitation at the end of the war and that only the Communists' philistine vengeance against the former seat of German imperialism brought it down. That still does not justify a willful attempt to reverse the course of history. Reproductions, by altering the perception of history, give false evidence to subsequent generations about the events that shaped their society. They lull inquisitive minds and observant eyes into believing them normal whereas what brought about the destruction of such symbolic objects was anything but normal. How many of us have been to Berlin's Kulturforum and noticed that the only 19th-century building there, August Stuler's [correct spelling] Matthaikirche, is in fact a reconstruction? How many tourists in Frankfurt have noticed that the half-timbered houses on the old town hall square are in fact reproductions from the 1980s?
Wherever reproductions merge seamlessly in our perception, the process of reshaping history is underway. Removing objects of displeasure such as the former East German Ministry of Foreign Affairs . . . is a superficial, puerile act of revenge and destruction. The power of architecture to exorcise the ghosts of the past, to alter dialectically the character of buildings formerly associated with nefarious regimes, has been demonstrated in moving works to former concentration camps (for instance, at Buchenwald or Sachsenhausen), not to mention edifices associated with lesser evils. In this sense, the reuse of former Nazi ministries is one of the most important processes in reflecting upon Germany's history. A truly critical reconstruction requires the reflection of history in the living substance of today's buildings in accordance with our present culture.
A city so kaputt as Berlin has been faces important decisions on highly symbolical buildings. A mixture of sentimentality, nostalgia, anger at past errors and embarrassment at past horrors-together with a gradual learning curve for all parties involved-is going to yield a city of sentimentality, nostalgia and errors, but hopefully no longer horrors.
Taking his turn at the podium, Axel Schultes gave a densely lyrical account of Berlin's architectural past and present. He recalled the cocksure, boorish capital of Wilhelmine Germany, fighting for its place in the European sun and the 1920s, that "brief, difficult, yet happy period" marked by a "metropolitan chaos that would have appealed to Nietzsche: 'You need chaos within you still to give birth to a dancing star.' Berlin certainly remembers those years, and dreams of picking up where it left off." But that dream is now being undermined by a collective failure of nerve: "this city, mollycoddled for so long, was frightened of the future and clung fast to its history to cover its backside. Pursuing a phantom of identity never there for the nurturing in this young city, it resorts to an almost fundamentalist restoration, descending thereby into bawdy comedy, the Farce of the Provincial Metropolis. Berlin is cramping its style, pruning itself without need, for fear of losing itself." Schultes, too, is a fierce critic of literal reconstruction, of "a neo-classicism stewed in Prussian juice," which, to the outside world, can only "evoke memories of a jackboot city."
Schultes continued with a whirlwind survey, visual and verbal, of "what's been going wrong in our would-be metropolis." Only then did he come to that portion of Berlin's available acreage entrusted to his care, thanks to an exhaustive and byzantine competition process: a parcel in the inner Spreebogen, the arc in the river just north of the Reichstag. Here, so Schultes and his colleagues conceived, an architectural ribbon could be stretched across the river, joining east and west and cutting across the grandiose north-south axis envisioned by Speer and Hitler. That idealistic conception ran aground on obstructions posed by federal and civic authorities, not to mention deals cut behind the scenes. Still, what survived the endless demands for revision, the vicissitudes of national and local politics and the "purgatory of options and variations" is imposing nonetheless. This was especially clear when Schultes came to speak of the glass facade at the formal entrance, the cour d'honneur:
Neither the plan nor the elevation exerted any compulsion over the development of the facades; we had, after all, wanted to free ourselves of the internal structures in the executive building, seeking a liberty of form and appearance that we were unable to exploit to the full without the odd step forward and the odd step back. "A nation without form," without the courage to acquire form - that is the hasty verdict whenever German design is exposed to critical review. It coincides with an architecture whose idiom has dried up. The Stone Tree on the rim of the executive terrace was thus an act of rebellion against this musty German iconoclasm. It appeared to us feasible and justified by the event that had sparked off the procedure, namely, the miracle of '89.
The objections to this heavy imagery, this symbol of "global responsibility," can be reeled off quickly: too sentimental ("Under the village chestnut tree..."), too Teutonic (Ygdrasil, the world ash), too naive ("0 God, a tree!"), too didactic ("Save our dying forests!"), too difficult to design convincingly (leave that to Chillida) and (always the same, those architects) surely not made of reinforced concrete!? Nothing more than kitsch? than decorative art? Naive observers showed enthusiasm, cultivated ones (including colleagues) turned up their noses - the Republic, at any rate, felt undertaxed!
We thought back: we had wanted the new Chancellery in the Spreebogen to be a place of balance-balance and contrast, heavy and light, closed and open, intimate and public - a stimulus (what else?) to the political imagination of governors and governed alike. The discovery came almost by chance when the "Big Doors" in the foyer turned out to be what we had been looking for all the time: the second, compensatory element for the building. Alongside the incarnate necessity of the offices-the logic of row and layer, of cell, window, cupboard, door, and corrido - we have the freedom of the walls, a freedom of walls that have no load to bear and yet do what they have to do: open rooms onto the courtyard, the garden, the city, the river. And what better description is there than this for intelligent politics: opening up spaces, creating perspectives, granting insights and outlooks? With these walls in the light, at last we are able to fit together two things that had tormented us in their apparent antithesis: the Chancellery's entitlement to sculptural iconographic expression and our belief that the prime challenge to architecture is spatial quality and gestalt.
Back on familiar soil at last, we refused to be deterred. These walls are not luxurious whims, not scaffolds of or castles in the air. They do support loads here and there, and crucial ones at that. They provide bracing and shadow for the large glass fronts, making these appear truly transparent, that is, porous. They regulate the potential for looking in, guide the eye that looks out, mediate the inside to the outside and vice versa. And they will create spaces, for example, on the terraces that give those big balconies a purpose - for receptions, soirees, breaks in the discussions, etc. They will create spaces in the court and the garden, spaces in space...
Above all, Schultes said, he wanted to avoid the "torpor of the facade," to "assert the lightness of stone against those very German (and Berlinesque) tectonics and Teutonics, tease some dynamics and movement from the static demands of a large structure, inspire it with the hint of a new beginning." The guiding metaphor would be the Chancellery as garden, with a grove of elevated trees to temper the stiffness and ceremony of the courtyard, perhaps even to suggest that government institutions, too, can grow and transform themselves.
The Chancellery complex is due for completion this fall. It will be a striking counterweight to Norman Foster's bold reconception of the Reichstag, across the Platz der Republik, vividly described at the symposium by Spencer de Grey (see Brian Carter's comment). Understandably, following the lectures by Schultes and de Grey, discussion over the conflicting claims of aesthetics, historical awareness, political ambition and urban livability became lively, even sharp. The relationship of artist and client is vexed enough. When the "client" is not just a person but a whole city, capital of a newly-made nation, plus an expectantly watching, vaguely suspicious world, the stakes and the frustrations spiral stratospherically. Discussion will surely continue for decades to come over the relative merits of each and every attempt to confront or to shift (if not to escape) Berlin's peculiar symbolic and historical burdens through architecture. The landmarks created by Schultes and Foster are the most eloquent arguments that anxiety over the past should not harden into fear of the new.