Berlin Stories


by Noah Isenberg

CAPITAL DILEMMA: GERMANY'S SEARCH FOR A NEW ARCHITECTURE OF DEMOCRACY • by Michael Z. Wise • Princeton Architectural Press • 192 pp • $25 • May

In an oft-cited passage of Walter Benjamin's Berlin Chronicle, a collection of vignettes written in the 1930s, the German-Jewish critic likened remembrance to archaeology: "He who seeks to approach his own buried past must conduct himself like a man digging." As an archaeologist of his personal history as well as of the history of the German capital, Benjamin often looked to the city's architecture for insights into the deeper cultural terrain. There was, for instance, the dark, oppressive "Brandenburg brick Gothic" of the Kaiser Friedrich Gymnasium where he went to school; the "plain, genteel faŃades" of the stately bourgeois homes where he lived; even a "dead corner" of the Zoological Garden that he considered both a mythical ruin and "a prophesying place." In Benjamin's Berlin, the past lived on in the present and even portended the future.

The architectural landscape of contemporary Berlin is no less haunted by the past--a past that, moreover, is anything but settled. Berlin's physiognomy is the product of several architectural layers: the imperial splendor and Prussian self- confidence of the Wilhelmine era; the fledgling democratic traditions ob thf Weimar Republic; the aestheticized power of the Third Reich; and the Communist monumentalism of the former German Democratic Republic. Since the German Parliament voted in 1991 to make Berlin the country's capital once again, the colliding objectives of local memory and world history, of domestic politics and international obligations, have greatly complicated efforts to create a new design for the city. As Michael Z. Wise shows in his new book, Capital Dilemma: Germany's Search for a New Architecture of Democracy, Berlin's main task as the capital of this century's fifth German state will be to overcome its "ghosts" and to emphasize through architectural symbolism its commitment to European liberalism.

The decision to relocate the capital from the sleepy, pastoral, and, for some, "shamefaced" city of Bonn to the historically charged metropolis of Berlin did not meet with the unanimous approval of the German people (the narrow margin of the parliamentary vote in June 1991, 337 to 320, indicates their ambivalence). In fact, many Germans regarded the decentralized and unassuming character of Bonn as preferable to the volatile legacy of the former grand capital. The architecture of Bonn--the so-called laboratory of democracy--evoked a fresh air of liberalism. Through out postwar history, Bonn's urban planners and architects actively sought to counter the bombastic gestures of Nazi architect Albert Speer with an aesthetics of humility and contrition. They first aligned themselves with the Bauhaus tradition and later with a muted, light architectural style that expressively repudiated "Deutschland, Deutschland łber alles!" with the more democratic alternative "Germany, Germany--among other things."

But Bonn's self-image was not without its share of identity problems. As Wise points out, the new pillars of West German democracy emerged from a concerted effort that was "deliberately self-effacing--a renunciation of pretense that amounted to an architectural declaration of 'never again.'" Very few risks were taken, and German self-assertion was intentionally downplayed. The results were not always inspiring. The new Chancellery, a three-story glass and dark aluminum-paneled structure built in the mid-1970s, appeared almost "willfully nondescript," suggesting a corporate headquarters or a bank more than a national political institution. With its unobtrusive design and demonstratively un-German statue by Henry Moore, the Chancellery came to represent the understated politics of postwar West Germany.

With German unification in 1990, the tenor of political discourse shifted dramatically and German politicians, responding to the desires of the broader populace, began to broach the topic of moving the capital to Berlin. As Oscar Schneider, Helmut Kohl's former building minister, proclaimed, "We Germans must finally take off this tattered Cinderella's dress and find our way back to healthy self-confidence." As it turned out, the way back to such confidence led straight to Berlin, which will take, or rather resume, its place among the great capitals of the world by the end of the century. But in resurrecting Berlin as the nation's capital, Germans have been forced to confront the ghosts embedded in the city's architecture, while at the same time drafting blueprints for its future.

The debate over Berlin's design has centered on the problem of how to create a capital city that reflects an appealing new German national identity. Yet nobody can agree on what such an identity should look like in architectural terms. Hans Stimman, who as director of municipal construction in united Berlin from 1991 to 1996 focused on preserving "local tradition" and strictly adhered to conservative prewar building principles, has been accused of trying to create a "New Teutonia." Meanwhile, avant-garde architects, who envision a city of wildly fragmented, open-ended structures, have faced criticisms for their irreverent dismantling of tradition. "History," notes Wise, "cannot be changed by negating it architecturally." It is no wonder, then, that memory, as Wise further explains, "has been at the heart of Germany's capital dilemma."

One of the biggest tasks for planners and architects has been to consolidate the historically divided halves of the city. The new plan for the Spreebogen, the 150-acre site along the river Spree where Albert Speer once envisioned the north-south via triumphalis for the Third Reich, promises to forge an east-west corridor of federal buildings reminiscent of the Mall in Washington, D.C. It is an effort to repair the deep political divisions that have split the city and, in the words of its designer, the architect Axel Schultes, to provide "a place of civil courage" where citizens can gather at all hours and where they "can heal themselves of the malady of being German."

As a part of the greater healing project, and as a means of deflecting any accusations of rekindled nationalism, Berlin has also imported "high-visibility outsiders" to assist in its architectural makeover. The towering Reichstag building, famous most recently for Christo's 1995 wrapping, is now receiving a sympathetic face-lift from the British architect Sir Norman Foster; in the new capital, the glass-domed Reichstag, "making democracy visible," will serve as home to Germany's 672-member Bundestag. And Helmut Kohl has recently commissioned I.M. Pei to create a new annex to the German Historical Museum, an addition that the architect promises will "soften the image" of a space formerly overshadowed by the Prussian Royal Arsenal.

Among the other prominent non- German artists, architects, and designers who have offered suggestions for the new capital are Daniel Libeskind and Peter Eisenman, both finalists in the competition for the much-anticipated Holocaust memorial. (Libeskind is also the architect of Berlin's new Jewish Museum, a self- consciously postmodern building scheduled to open in the winter of 2000.) Although Eisenman's partner, Richard Serra, recently withdrew from the competition, a decision that reportedly had to do with "personal and professional reasons" and "nothing to do with the merits of the project," their design remains under consideration. The Eisenman-Serra proposal, which has garnered the support of former President Helmut Kohl and other prominent officials involved in the memorial's planning, features a dark labyrinth of four thousand concrete slabs, occupying an area of 180,000 square feet between the Brandenburg Gate and the Potsdamer Platz.

Final decision on the Holocaust memorial has been suspended indefinitely, however, by the contentious debate over whether there ought to be a memorial in the first place, and by the recent electoral triumph of the Social Democrats. In a surprising twist, many Social Demo crats--who have historically espoused a politics of contrition--have also come out against the memorial, claiming that it cannot possibly reflect the enormity of the crime and is therefore doomed to trivialization. The Social Democrats' minister of culture Michael Naumann and the left-leaning novelist Głnter Grass are among the memorial's most vociferous critics.

Some observers, most notably the American scholar James Young and the Polish-born Jewish journalist Henryk Broder, have come to recognize that the debate over the Holocaust memorial may be more meaningful than the memorial itself. It has prompted Germans to engage once more in a critical discussion of their past. The same could be said of the dialogue around the design of the new capital in general. It too has stimulated a lively and productive exchange between planners and politicians, architects and the general public. To his credit, Wise avoids hasty judgment on the competing approaches to refashioning the German capital; at this point, it is still too early to tell, and too much remains up for grabs. He makes it abundantly clear, however, that traces of its past incarnations, whether overt or veiled, will be felt in the city for a long time to come. •

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