“The Reichstag’s new cupola or ‘lantern’, has quickly become a Berlin landmark. Within it, two helical ramps take members of the public to a viewing platform high above the plenary chamber, raising them symbolically above the heads of their political representatives. The cupola is both a generative element in the internal workings of the building and a key component in our light and energy saving strategies, communicating externally the themes of lightness, transparency, permeability and public access that underscore the project.”
Foster and Partners’ Reichstag project (finished 1999) sits atop one of the most (and certainly, as Europe is concerned, the most) politically significant structures of the twentieth century. When the Iron Curtain fell, dividing the Allies to the west from the Red Army to the east, the building stood both physically and symbolically along the line where two competing political systems maintained a po-faced standoff. The two forces that had poured into Berlin to deliver the decisive blow to the Nazi base of government retreated again, taking with them the responsibility to govern their respective parts of Germany and depositing them far away. The wall which ran roughly north/south through Berlin created a new and overwhelming symmetry along an empty no man’s land roughly perpendicular to the east/west axis of the abandoned and empty Reichstag. With reunification, this larger, cruder symmetry was thankfully abolished and the Reichstag returned as the seat of government to the German people.
While this is one of Foster’s most notable projects, it is certainly also one of the most Foster-like too. Like their best work, it is an essay in grand and void architectural gestures spoken in an unconvincing and determined high-tech accent, that at the end of the day gets charmingly muddled up. Foster is always armed with the same reductionist rhetoric of misleading and discredited Modernist platitudes whether designing an airport or a seat of government – though, let’s face it, the airports are the best. Indeed, the Reichstag dome feels like a nicely designed terminal – gently inclined ramps, big walls of glass, too much light to feel ‘indoors’, and nowhere to sit (there is an exception, which I’ll get to) – albeit with no real point of departure or arrival.
Conceptually, the design is very simple. Recalling the glass dome that used to sit atop the Reichstag, the new cupola contains a skylight to illuminate the chamber below. In order to increase the amount of light entering the chamber, a bloody great big inverted cone of mirrors is placed right in the middle of the opening, directing the reflected light straight down. The whole thing has a helical ramp running around it to vaguely sybolise a democratic ideal of ‘people above the parliament’ – territory I’ve written about before. It’s all glass because glass is transparent and transparency is a metaphor for good government. I honestly think it’s a painfully cringe-worthy idea, but we cannot forget that there was a great need for the reunified Germany to have a symbolic architectural statement, albeit one focused intensely and exclusively on the future. Conceived roughly at the same time as the Reichstag and also carried out by a foreign architect, Daniel Libeskind’s Jewish Museum counters the Reichstag’s blinkered future-optimism with a work of dense dialectical and historical allusions, grounded violently into the soil of East Berlin. Also, both buildings would go on to serve as models for near-identical reproductions in far-away contexts – and in doing so reproducing almost identical statements of architectural intent.
Anyway, the day I went was bright, sunny, crisp. It’s worth noting here that glass is not transparent; well, it is, but it isn’t. Glass very quickly changes from transparent to reflective (which in a way is the most opaque thing possible) depending on the relative values of light either side of it. Looking down into the glass pane above the Reichstag’s chamber below – which, admittedly, was not in session – I quickly realised I could not see down into the chamber at all, and nor could anybody else.
Indeed, I struggled even to read the glass-covered exhibit illustrating the history of the building that ran around its edge. Here’s Norm at its opening:
The very contraption employed to ‘sustainably’ light the debating space was also denying the thing’s transparency. From down at street level, you can see the people walking on the Reichstag dome jolly clearly (there is the same amount of daylight inside the cupola as outside, so the glass is clear). So as a symbol at an urban scale, we are back at the “people above the building” trope. But, as for looking down on the process of government: it is conditional. I’m sure it works well at night; but not as well as at the “people above the building” level, where the dome radiates like a fucking Pink Floyd backdrop above the severe architecture.
The Reichstag dome serves the purpose of re-ordering the composition of the existing architecture far better than it fulfills a purpose in itself. Visitors are afforded a privileged view over Berlin to take photographs out of the dome. And even if they try to take a photo internally, the reflection of the mirrors and the glass mean we are just seeing the outside anyway. We can only look out, no more.
As a backdrop, the new Reichstag is an architectural short-hand for a newly reunified, forward-looking Germany. Every government makes use of backdrops (contexts in two-dimensions), and this one is a beauty.
The start of our democratically mandated ascent set the tone for the rest of the experience. The ramp is helical, so it touches down on the main roof at opposing sides. We took a little look around, and started to ascend one of the ramps. Big mistake. A burly and from what I could gather, surly guard barked that we cannot go up that ramp, “that is the down ramp!” I took a long look: there was no sign saying it, just this guy, who hates his job. I’m not sure how ‘democratic’ it would seem to have two identical ramps but for the signs dictating which one is acceptable and which one not (the presumption being that people cannot be allowed to choose). In the end they left it up to this guy. I’d like to know if it was planned as a one-way system, or if this is just how it has come to be used (democratically and transparently of course).
Up you go, round and round. The first few orbits are ok: you see the city, you look at other people walking up, walking down (incidentally, when I was there the lower levels were all frosted over – water, it seems, made it into a ‘room’). Then you keep going, looking out at the same stuff, from slightly higher vantage points. My vertigo kicks in. What’s the point? What’s at the top? Not to put too fine a point on it, but fuck all: here, the top of the reflecting cone has transformed into a shitty and uncomfortable seat – and uncomfortable expressions. I’m sure everyone hopes they can peer down inside the thing to actually see the proceedings going on inside the main chamber, but you fucking can’t. People stand around craning their necks in vaudevillian exaggeration like they’re looking for that bit of democratic process they’ve been promised. They take a photograph to mark the moment of anti-climax.
There’s a sign saying ‘descent’. Down you go.