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A City Planner Describes the New Government Quarter in Berlin (2001)

City planner Günter Schlusche describes the impact of various federal building projects on Berlin’s urban and architectural landscape. He is interested in the symbolism of high-profile government buildings but also wants to know how – or whether – they fit into their larger urban environment. His wide-ranging essay examines a variety of topics: history and memory, for example, but also use and functionality. Schlusche also discusses the decision to house various ministries in existing buildings in the city’s historic center and describes the beneficial effects of mingling government and non-government institutions in an urban setting.

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The Parliamentary and Government Buildings of the Federal Government in the Context of the Urban Development of Berlin

I. Berlin is Many Capitals

“Berlin is many cities” – so goes a saying by the late Berlin architect Werner Dütttmann. “Berlin is many capitals” – this is how the statement could be altered and applied to the various capital-city installations built in Berlin under various state forms over the past two hundred years: the official buildings of the recently collapsed GDR, the structures of National Socialism, of the Weimar Republic, of the Empire, and, finally, of Prussia. As early as 1990, that is, almost a year before the Capital City Resolution of the German Bundestag, Berlin presented a compendium of its existing real estate. It revealed two things:* first, that Berlin could offer the federal government a stock of available buildings and building lots that would meet even its most elaborate needs; second, that the vast majority of the sites in question were in the Old Center [Alte Mitte], that is, in the historical center between the Brandenburg Gate and Alexanderplatz. Because of the compelling nature of these facts, there was never a serious discussion of basic alternatives – for example, housing all federal offices in the enormous Tempelhof Airport or in Berlin’s numerous military barracks. It took some time, however, before the representatives of the decisive institutions came to appreciate the richness offered by these settings, both in architectural and functional terms.

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II. Focal Point Spreebogen [Spree Bend]

The fewest questions were raised by the choice of the Spreebogen as the government district – in this matter, the existence of the Reichstag building was a clear and decisive factor; moreover, the federal government also owned a large tract of adjoining land. Still – when the Ältestenrat [Council of Elders] of the German Bundestag decided in October 1991 to make the Reichstag building the seat of parliament, the choice was not as obvious as it might seem in retrospect.** In the public eye and for some politicians, the building was discredited by its National Socialist burden, and its Wilhelmine architecture met with disfavor. Indeed, the defiant building (which, in the days of the Wall, had stood in its shadow like an errant block on the outer edge of the Tiergarten), had nothing winning about it – very much unlike the new Bundestag building by Günter Behnisch on the banks of the Rhine in Bonn. It took a series of colloquia and public debates to arrive at a more objective assessment of the historical role of this structure, whose purpose had been mocked by Kaiser Wilhelm and whose architecture had been scaled back by him.*** The great public affection for this building emerged with the artistic project by Christo and Jeanne-Claude in the summer of 1995, and it has turned into true enthusiasm since the completion of the dome. With three million visitors in a little over two years, the building has become an international tourist attraction on par with the Eiffel Tower or the Tower of London – a remarkable achievement for a parliament building in an age of grave dissatisfaction with politics.

* Task Force for “Capital City Planning, Berlin,” ed., Rahmenbedingungen und Potentiale für die Ansiedlung oberster Bundeseinrichtungen in Berlin [Basic Conditions and Possibilities for Situating the Highest Federal Offices in Berlin] (Berlin, 1990).
** German Bundestag, ed., 2. Kolloquium Deutscher Bundestag [2nd Colloquium of the German Bundestag] (Berlin, 1993), p. 19ff.
*** Kaiser Wilhelm called the Reichstag building the “Reich monkey house” and prevented it from having a dome higher than the one on the City Palace. S. Michael Cullen, Der Reichstag – Die Geschichte eines Monuments [The Reichstag – The History of a Monument] (Berlin, 1983).

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