The Pre-Foster Reichstag

I realise blogs are no fun if they’re never updated, and I’m sure you have no interest in seeing the lab reports I’ve been spending my days churning out, so here’s a piece I wrote in first year. It was for our Architecture In Context module (that one about phenomenology and  symbolism in the history of architecture) and we were asked to write about a historical building we liked, followed by a modern building in the same context.  I’d not long since returned from a history trip to Berlin so of course I wrote about the Reichtsag and here is my pre-Foster piece (I wrote another piece post-Foster but I can’t seem to find that.) Anyway, it’s short and sweet so enjoy:

In 1894, a new German government building was completed in Berlin.  Designed by Paul Wallot, it ‘..served as the parliament building for Otto von Bismarck and later the Weimar Republic’ (Admin, 2011). Although discredited by architecture critics for its eclectic styles, the Reichstag has risen and fallen as Germany has, and is thus a building that embodies the statement:

“The relationship between the object and the intervening spaces is not formal: it is always rooted in the context of a particular setting” Dalibor Vesely (in Brooker and Stone, 2007, p. 57).

German architecture in the nineteenth century was largely uncategorised but ‘..governmental, religious & judicial buildings were conceived on a vast scale with an extravagant Neo-Baroque favoured as the official architectural language of the New German Reich’ (Kolinsky, 1998, p. 284). Wallot’s Reichstag was a mixture of many foreign styles and ideas, to the distaste of critics, such as the Neo-Renaissance pediments above the Neo-Baroque porticos, and stained glass windows inside. It was not, however, the first eclectically designed German building. Also in Berlin, Karl Friedrich Shinkel combined Gothic and Neo-Classical architectural themes in his Bauakademie, and Güstrow castle was designed by German, French and Italian designers, each offering national variations.

The Reichstag is also riddled with symbolism. ‘The Keiser clearly meant to use the building to celebrate German unity, military prowess and cultural ascendancy while some members of parliament intended to the building to be a monument to nascent German democracy’ (Barnstone, 2005, p. 180). The corner towers are Renaissance style and symbolise the four largest German Kingdoms. Throughout the building, coats of arms signifying this German unity, and crowns and eagles that mirror Germanys imperial might lace the walls. The huge steel and glass dome atop the building express a democratic presence similar to those atop the capital buildings of other democratic countries, such as the Neo-Classical US State Capitol (1863).

Despite being named “The epitome of bad taste” by Kaiser Wilhelm II (Barnstone, 2005, p. 181) it was a successful political building. It reflected Germany’s changing political climate throughout the 20th Century through events that embodied the opposite of the Kaiser’s hopes for the building. It was the burning of the Reichstag in 1933 that gave way to the enabling act that empowered Hitler, showing the break down in German unity and the beginning of the Nazi dictatorship. During WWII it was bombed by British and US air forces, proving that Germany’s military prowess had become overwhelmed, and it was the taking of the Reichstag in 1945 that cemented Russian victory. It was then left in a state of disrepair until the reunification of Germany in 1990.

The Reichstag, once considered an architectural disaster, became an integral part of German life through its connection to the social and political context of the time.

Bibliography
Admin. (2011, May 18th). Reichstag Berlin | Learning about the Reichstag’s Architecture. Retrieved November 13, 2011, from Reichstag Berlin website: http://reichstagberlin.com/
Barnstone, D. A. (2005). The transparent state: architecture and politics in postwar Germany. New York: Routledge 2005.
Glancey, J. (1999, April 19). The Guardian. Retrieved November 13, 2011, from The Guardian Website: http://www.guardian.co.uk/theguardian/1999/apr/19/features11.g2
Kolinsky, E. (1998). The Cambridge Companion to Modern German Culture. Cambridge University Press.
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