The Reichstag, located in Berlin is one of the most famous buildings in Germany, mostly because of its engaging history. The word ‘Reichstag’ actually refers to the series of governing bodies in the German realm, however, the term is often also used as shorthand for the building in which the Reichstag met for many years. Today, the Reichstag building houses the Bundestag, but it has retained the traditional name.
With that bit of introduction in place, let’s get into the interesting part. When you think of Germany, what is the first thing that comes to your mind? I’m pretty sure most of you would say the Nazi era, Hitler, oppression, dictatorship, war? Even though it’s been more than 70 years since the end of World War II, if this is the case, you can imagine how rigid peoples’ opinions would have been at that time. The German parliament desperately wanted to revamp the image of their country, and this building was how they achieved that.
A brief history: The Reichstag, so to say, had been through a lot. The New Reichstag building was built in 1884 as the German Empire grew larger and for its time, the new structure was state of the art. Among other things, it had central heating and cooling, electrical power stations, telephones, double glazed windows, and toilets with water.
In 1919 however, after the destruction of the First World War, the Reichstag was shortly reincarnated. In just about four weeks after Hitler came to power, the building was almost totally destroyed in a mysterious fire (suspected to be the Nazis). And finally, in 1933, the Reichstag voted to put itself out of business transferring power to the Nazi dictatorship. The atrocities that followed thereafter are known to all.
Fast-forwarding to the post World War II period, the building was a complete ruin owing to the Allied bombs. Due to the shift of capital of West Germany, the Reichstag could not be used as a seat of government, however, still needed to be preserved. An architectural competition was held and the building was renovated by Sir Norman Foster, and it changed the face of Germany. Forever.
The design of the Reichstag by Sir Norman Foster was quite revolutionary. We know that the building was maimed by war and impervious rebuilding, and the reconstruction took inspiration from the original imprints of the past. Certain features like the stonemason’s marks, Russian graffiti including slogans like “Hitler kaputt” and names of individual soldiers, were scars preserved as a ‘living museum’.
In contrast to this, the building has a fantastic glass dome which acts as a symbol of inspiration on the skyline of the city, depicting the strength of the German democracy and providing a 360-degree view of the surrounding. A special mechanism within the Dome, tracks the movement of the sun and blocks direct sunlight to avoid excess heat and unwanted glaze.
Below the massive transparent dome is the assembly hall that politicians occupy, and the public continues on the roof in the terrace where ramps lead to an observation platform, allowing people to symbolically ‘ascend’ above the heads of their representatives. It metaphorically depicts that the public has the power to view the parliament from a superior position. The dome is accessible during the day as well as the night and provides a breath-taking view of the city. At its core is a ‘light sculptor’ that reflects horizon light down into the chamber, while as night falls, this process is reversed and the cupola becomes a beacon on the skyline.
Foster’s winning design, initially, did not include a dome, but almost immediately after the competition was concluded, some members of parliament began demanding reconstruction of the original dome.
“Every trace of that original dome had been destroyed by a combination of war, fire, neglect, and post-war rebuilding. To make a literal reconstruction of how it had once looked went counter to all the architectural principles that Foster had come to believe in. Yet to a vocal and influential minority within Germany, it would be unthinkable to build a new parliament without a dome.”
Apart from its spectacular architecture, the Reichstag is also one of the greenest buildings in the world. It runs on renewable biofuel and refined vegetable oil, a system far more energy-efficient than burning fossil fuels. It performs as a local power station by supplying power to the other nearby government buildings. The surplus heat generated by the Reichstag’s power plant is stored in a natural aquifer below the structure, and is used to either heat or cool the building depending on the season.
Today, the Reichstag building is one of the most visited tourist destinations in the country. With such an inspiring past, it depicts how the Germans have come a long way, after years of domination, struggle, and warfare. The fact that these sentiments come across so strongly, just through one building, definitely shows the power of architecture.