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Berlin: Topography of time

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Every city has its memories. Most are dormant, dissolving into a comfortable present as time passes. But time has a very special meaning in Berlin, where periods of imperial glamour, republican liberty, rising power, total devastation and unfathomable division were telescoped into only six decades. Each has left a trace, in the buildings, the streets, the very earth. Elsewhere, time and memory find expression in the built environment as a simple accretion of static layers, but in Berlin those layers are active and urgent, demanding attention, pressing through each other to surface unexpectedly.


The result is visible wherever one looks.


A minimalist, contemporary glass and metal pavilion stands on a street block long since cleared of its 19th century buildings, including an art school and a hotel; for more than a decade, they housed the headquarters of the Gestapo, the SS and the Reich Main Security Office. A trench opens the excavated remains of tiled cellars to the sky.


Across the road, a handsome Italian High Renaissance villa of 1899, formerly the lower chamber of the Prussian state parliament and now the House of Representatives for the parliament of Berlin. Next door, the Federal Ministry of Finance occupies the restored, stripped classical expanse of the building constructed in 1936 by the Third Reich to house its Air Ministry.  


The street itself, Niederkirchnerstrasse, was once Prinz-Albrecht-Strasse, after the son of a Prussian king, before being renamed by the East Berlin authorities to honour a wartime communist resistance worker.


Finally, above the trench and running along the street, two hundred metres of the outer-most layer of the Berlin Wall still stand.


This is not a passive history. How Berlin has evolved its architectural response in recent years, particularly decisions on whether, where and how to rebuild since reunification, is a compelling narrative.


The heart of the city was always the long cross axis of Unter Den Linden, lined with grand civic structures and terminated in the west by Pariser Platz, the Brandenburger Tor (Brandenburg Gate) and the Reichstag and in the east by the Berliner Schloss (Berlin City Palace) and Museumsinsel (Museums Island).


Erected in 1791 on the site of a portal in Berlin’s excise control wall, the Brandenburg Gate was conceived as a peace monument and appropriated the civic nobility of ancient Greek architecture to make that point. Its subsequent fate has mirrored that of Berlin.


The surmounting quadriga was seized by a conquering Napoleon, but restored after his fall with the addition of a victory wreath and the Prussian iron cross. The Gate itself stood in no-man’s land between the inner and outer barriers of the Wall for nearly forty years, before becoming a celebratory lynchpin once more when the Wall fell. That event, in 1989, prompted the first architectural decision point for the newly unified Berlin government.


The effects of war and the Wall had removed the buildings which once surrounded the Brandenburg Gate, and left Pariser Platz an empty expanse of concrete. To begin, a full restoration of Pariser Platz was agreed. Gardens were reinstated either side of Unter Den Linden, surrounded by reproduction railings and with display fountains at their centres. The street was re-paved with a careful mix of granite blocks, cobblestones and mosaic, and lamp standards based on original designs were installed. By simple reproduction of the past, Pariser Platz became an elegant promenade again.


Next, old friends were welcomed back to their old sites on shallow carriage drives around the gardens, including a rebuilt Adlon Hotel, French Embassy and Akademie der Künste (Academy of the Arts).

Major new commercial blocks completed the picture. All were constructed to the old street line, and functioned to re-establish the area’s identity as a prestige location. But what of the architecture? Should that be simple reproduction too?


American firm Moore Ruble Yudell’s US Embassy (2004-2008) is a disappointingly insipid presence, a narrow frontage of salmon-coloured stone and a weak entrance canopy the only visible elements of what is actually a much larger building centred around a secure courtyard. Longer views and publicity pictures reveal more successful details, such as a lighthouse-like top-floor conference room giving views over Berlin’s rooftops, and there is a refreshing absence of the kind of extreme security seen at American diplomatic premises in other cities after Berlin authorities stood firm against post-9/11 US insistence. Amusingly, the French Embassy that stands opposite, by Atelier d'architechture Christian de Portzamparc (1997-2003), is more assertive, with a battered lower storey and asymmetrically-chamfered window reveals. Plans and images show a much smaller site divided into greened courtyards with rusticated stone walls.


The two commercial blocks are more involving. Frank Gehry’s Pariser Platz 3 (1996-1999) is occupied by DZ Bank with additional space for other tenants and residential apartments. Its central atrium has a glass roof but also a lower canopy shaped from thousands of metal panels. At Pariser Platz 6, designed by gmp (1995-1997), Dresdner Bank has made a home behind a principal frontage that reflects European architectural heritage, with a Moderne curved door case and Expressionist stepped windows. A 31-metre diameter drum-shaped space sits at the heart of the building, extending through all six floors and covered by a glass roof.  


It should be noted that the desire to respect the past led to a rather controlling planning envelope for all of these schemes, including cornice line heights fixed to follow previous buildings on the site and mandatory stone facades with a maximum of 49% glazing to Pariser Platz. With considerations of security and privacy to juggle too, the architects appear to have internalised their designs as a result. It’s unfortunate that the site and opportunity could not yield more persuasive symbols of openness.


Fortunately, however, just such symbolism is plainly on show just a few minutes’ walk to the north, with the transformation of the Reichstag.


Built between 1884 and 1894 to designs by Paul Wallot to house the old German parliament, the Reichstag was burnt out in 1933 in infamously uncertain circumstances that helped spark the rise of the National Socialist dictatorship. Bombed in the war and eventually occupied by the Red Army, this immense, magnificent edifice was then abandoned in its ruined state for twenty years with the West German government sitting in Bonn.


A partial rebuild was carried out by Paul Baumgarten in 1966-72 during attempts to return parliament to the building. Following typical practice of the day, his interventions erased some original features and inserted functional interiors – including a new main chamber – in a minimalist concrete aesthetic. Unfortunately completion of this work coincided with passage of the 1971 Four Power Agreement on Berlin which, inter alia, prevented any parliamentary meeting in the city for the duration of its division. Baumgarten’s efforts, which one can now perhaps see as underappreciated in the context of their time, were thus rarely experienced.


Reunification saw a reversal of the 1971 provision but only after much argument was the decision taken to rebuild fully and reoccupy the obvious home for a unified German legislature. Fittingly, Norman Foster’s completed scheme for the Reichstag (competition 1992, executed to a slightly different design 1996-99) is a triumph.


The immediate impression on entry via the lofty glazed-in west portico is generosity, of space and to the encountered historical fabric.


Two internal courtyards have been re-paved and partly planted, but left open to the sky. A new top floor has been discreetly added. The roughly 30% of the original structure that remained has been kept. Graffiti left by Russian and British soldiers has been conserved and displayed, and wartime bullet holes – sealed by Baumgarten – in the facade of the 1904 Reichstag President's Palace opposite have been unplugged, so strong was the desire to demonstrate the building’s passage through time. But this is an entirely honest exercise, so where Baumgarten channelled air conditioning into walls, the plant has been removed and the holes filled in a way which leaves even these scars plain. Foster thus contributes another stratum to the building’s history.


All this is balanced beautifully by the extraordinary quality of the new work. Windows with curved-section reveals in satin-finished metal are set within existing openings. Mezzanine walkways have the look of the very best commercial interiors. Travertine floors, plaster walls, brushed metal details – all are immaculate, with the junctions between materials especially sharp. The inevitable security areas and equipment have been well integrated and feel unobtrusively natural; one can imagine Foster’s well-known affinity for precision fittings finding delight in the neat pattern of items on the emergency control panels set into the walls.


Already richly symbolic thanks to Wallot’s assignment of a decorated window to each major German town and multiple sculptural references to music, industry and the like, it is of course Foster’s great louvred rooftop dome of glass – accessible to the public with minimal fuss – that has become the new Reichstag’s defining image.


Much taller than Wallot’s, which was removed after the war, it is also more complex. Inside, a double helical ramp provides views over the city even as it rises to the summit with its open oculus above a circular eerie. A vast cone of facetted mirrors is suspended beneath to direct daylight into the plenary chamber below. A moving sunshield prevents dazzle. The roofscape around the dome is also praiseworthy, with new paving and glass balustrades, although inevitably the extra storey visibly intrudes on Wallot’s corner towers when seen from this vantage point.


The parliamentary chamber displays its concrete column and ring beam support system openly and comfortably, as its does its non-party political and television-friendly blue seating, much of it in dramatically cantilevered tiers.  


The architecture’s stated aims for this project included “a commitment to public accessibility; a sensitivity to history; and […e]mphasising values of clarity and transparency”. It is very much to Foster’s credit that these aims are fulfilled completely but not doggedly.


Moreover, this approach to rejuvenating Berlin’s architecture satisfyingly and pragmatically appears to have formed a touchstone for much of the city since 1989.


To the south west of the Reichstag lies Potsdamer Platz, named after another gate in the excise wall. Berlin’s first railway arrived here and Germany’s first electric traffic lights too. Latterly Berlin’s playground, as luxury hotels and entertainment venues began to cluster in a place which was originally just beyond the city limits, the significance of the square as a meeting point lasted from the late 19th century



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Chris Rogers  |  Writer on architecture and visual culture

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