After it was set on fire in 1933, the ruined reichstag building became an emblem of the destruction of democracy, but its reconstruction has turned it into a new symbol of transparency, with light streaming in through its iconic glass cupola to illuminate the assembly hall below.
As an institution, the Reichstag originated as the assembly of the imperial estates that made up the Holy Roman Empire, but in the 19th century the name was adopted by the parliament of the new German Empire under Wilhelm I. It has its inaugural meeting in 1871 in Berlin, where it decided that its new seat should be built. There were then ten years of delays while Bismarck, the emperor and the Reichstag members debated how to go about this. Eventually the architect Paul Wallot was chosen by competition, and the new building was completed in 1894. Though styled as a neo-Renaissance palace, it incorporated some modern engineering, notably in its large central steel and glass cupola. The four towers at the corners were said to represent the four constituent kingdoms of the new empire:Prussia, Wurttemberg, Bavaria and Saxony.
Symbolic ruin The building survived Germany’s transition from empire to republic, proclaimed from one of its balconies in 1918, but not the fateful arson attack of February 1933, when it was gutted in circumstances that have never been fully explained. The Nazis claimed the fire to be the work of communist plotters and used it to justify the suspension of civil liberties, beginning the trail of events that established Hitler’s dictatorship.
Under National Socialist rule the Reichstag was left ruinous and unused, but it was fiercely defended by German forces ( hundreds of whom dies inside ) when it became a target for Red Army troops during the Battle of Berlin in 1945. For the Russians, the capture of this crumbling but iconic building encapsulated their triumph over Hitler, despite the fact that the Nazi regime had never used the Reichstag, despising the democratic principles it represented. Yevgency Khaldei’s photograph of a Soviet soldier on the Reichstag roof, raising the Red Flag above the ruined, smoking city, is one of the most famous images of World War II.
After the war, with the Bundestag sitting in the new West German captial of Bonn, the Reichstag building was without a function. The cupola had to be demolished in 1954, but the remainder was retained and given a new, bland interior in the 1960s; it was used fr meetings, exhibitions and the occasional concert. Standing virtually on the border between East and West, it was now emblematic of the country’s division, particularly after 1961 when the Berlin Wall was erected immediately behind it.
The wall fell in November 1989, and the reunification of Germany meant that the Bundestag would now represent the whole country. It chose to reinstate Berlin as the capital and to return to the old building. But the Reichstag has to be transformed for its new purpose. Another architectural competition was held and the winner was Norman Foster, who wrote: ‘The most straight forward approach would have been to gut the Reichstag and to inset a modern building in the place of the odd mix of late nineteenth century and the 1960s fabric which then existed. Yet this would been in a sense too easy. We believed that history could not simply be swept away.’
Among the history that was retained was Russian graffiti dating from 1945, which builder in the 1960s had covered with plasterboard because it was easier than cleaning the walls. Foster also returned to the original concept of the central cupola, and his modern version has become the signature of the 21st-century Reichstag and a new landmark for Berlin.
The transformation began with what seemed like a magician’s trick: the disappearance of the entire building under draped fabric for Wrapped Reichstag, an environmental work of art by Christro and Jeanne-Claude. As soon as the wrapping came off, work began to create the new building withing the shell of the old.
The old Reichstag witnessed the dismantling of democracy: the new version is all about transparency. The plenary chamber is the center of the building, but it’s overlooked by the vast glass cupola, where the public can wander around the helical ramp that winds up to the very top, looking out at the view of the city or down on their elected representatives. In the center, a mirrored cone reflects daylight down into the chamber. This is the ‘light sculptor’, which sets the green tone of the building by reducing the need for artificial light. It’s also a funnel: it extracts waste air but on the way it recovers its heat so even if the debate below is just a lot of hot air, it’s at least helping to warm the offices.