Visit: Bundestag, Berlin

Blog Layout Berlin.jpg

The main focus behind my visit to Berlin was to tour the buildings of the Bundestag (the German federal parliament, similar to the House of Commons) with the primary focus on the Reichstag and its surrounding buildings. Following on from my previous trip to Brussels, I hoped to understand the motives behind the rebuilding of the government in Berlin, why their new quarter was designed the way it was and ultimately what it is trying to represent. Despite the UK’s decision to leave the EU, these case studies in Europe are useful in showing how a new outlook for politics and EU identity is trying to be expressed in relatively contemporary parliament complexes.

The complex of Bundestag buildings in Berlin all sit close to the River Spree in the Spreebogan area, with the newest of the government buildings sitting alongside the Reichstag in what feels like one linear block, but is broken up by bridges, gardens, and the river at various intervals. Official tours are only available for the Reichstag Building but whilst taking photographs around the German Chancellory I was invited to take a quick tour of the building as long as I didn’t take any photos inside.

Properties owned by the Bundestag which includes the Berlin Cathedral and the former residence of the Reichstag president

1) Chancellory 2) Paul Löbe Building 3) Reichstag 4) Marie-Elisabeth Lüders Building 5) Jacob Kaiser Building 6) Day Nursery

My first point of call on the trip was a tour of the Reichstag building. Built between 1884 ans 1894, the Reichstag building was reoccupied by the German Bundestag in 1991 when it was decided that the government would be moved to Berlin.

Following the typical airport style security, the tour began in the visitor’s entrance hall, a space containing copies of LC2 sofas which felt much more like the interior of an Apple Store (token Norman Forster) than a parliament building (possibly just in comparison to Westminster). The tour started with a quick background history of the building and its layout. The building’s floors are specified for different users and this is identifiable by the colour coding of doors and signage throughout. The basement and ground floor (yellow/orange) contain the storage, building systems, service installations, physician consultation rooms and tunnels to other parts of the estate. The next level is the plenary areas (blue) which contains the chamber itself. Following this is the visitors level (dark green) and finally the presidential level (burgundy). The main idea behind the colour coding is to add to the overall theme of transparency by being able to identify who is travelling on each floor, as there are many moments within the building where walkways are visible above.

The tour moved onto the basement level next. Here we were shown the tunnel which connects the Reichstag to the rest of the parliamentary estate (image below) which was quite surprising as this is usually an aspect kept under wraps in most other parliaments (there seemed to be a conscious effort in both the tours of the Reichstag [photography allowed pretty much everywhere] and Chancellory to show everything and discuss its meaning; a refreshingly honest approach). The tour then moved on to an exhibition by French artist Christian Boltanski in which he has constructed a narrow corridor from 5,000 metal boxes, each of which has the name of an elected member of Parliament and their date of inauguration. The boxes reach all the way from the ground to the ceiling and the only differentiation between the boxes is for those who were murdered by the National Socialists; a small black strip of text on the front of the box shows this. This piece is one of many works of art throughout the building. In the north entrance hall, American artist Jenny Holzer created an LED column which displays transcripts of speeches given by Members of the Reichstag and Bundestag between 1871 and 1999, scrolling endlessly up the structure and blinking whenever an interupption to the speech occured.

 Access to the pedestrian walkway to the Jakob Kaiser building - in the centre is a part of the old heating tunnel which connected to the palace of the Reichstag president. It was cut out to place on show during refurbishment in the 1990s.

Access to the pedestrian walkway to the Jakob Kaiser building - in the centre is a part of the old heating tunnel which connected to the palace of the Reichstag president. It was cut out to place on show during refurbishment in the 1990s.

 Christian Boltanski: Archive of German Members of Parliament

Christian Boltanski: Archive of German Members of Parliament

 Jenny Holzer installation in the North Entrance hall

Jenny Holzer installation in the North Entrance hall

From the basement we moved to the plenary level where we were shown some of the graffiti which was left by Soviet troops following their capture of the Reichstag building in May 1945. Most of the graffiti was left with charcoal or burnt onto the stone and with a significant amount of foresight during early restoration works was covered up with gypsum boards. The holes in the wall where the panelling was secured can still be seen. Upon removing the panels at the start of his work on the building, Foster added the retention of this graffiti to his plans.

The tour finally moved on to the plenary chamber at the heart of the Reichstag building. During the visit, the dome (or cupola) was being cleaned so this was pretty much the main source of attention throughout this section of the tour. We sat in the visitors level in the chamber and from this area you can see the whole of the chamber seating and the dome which reaches to a height of 24 metres from the floor of the chamber. The old windows of the original building bring in light from the courtyard behind the visitors seating with much of the light coming from the dome above. Although I don’t particularly buy into the whole ‘glass = government transparency’ proposal, the space is very impressive and if anything it adds a great deal of natural light which is more than can be said for many of the other chambers I have visited.

The plenary chamber was the official end of the tour at which point we were shown the lift to the roof terrace where extensive views across Berlin can be experienced. Whether or not this adds any value to the building as a Parliament, I’m not convinced, but it’s a good tourist attraction and helps you orientate yourself within the whole Bundestag complex.

The main points I have taken from this visit to the Bundestag was how open and walkable the entire estate is, much like that I experienced in Brussels. The use of glass is very extensive and when walking through the complex you can see into many of the buildings where events and committee meetings were in action. Again, the notable downside was how much space there was not being used but this could be down to the time of year. The green area in front of the Reichstag appears busy in most of the summer photographs I have seen. The use of walkways was another aspect I intend to use within my own design as these definitely showed the parliament complex in action, especially by the Jakob Kaiser buildings where the walkways span Dorotheenstraße.

Tom Ardron