Culture

The Reichstag: From Political to Architectural Symbol

Kaiser Wilhelm I laid the first stone in 1882. Twelve years later, Berlin's Reichstag, designed by Paul Wallot, was finished. These days, there is hardly any other building in Germany with such a storied existence.

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The German Reichstag has had a turbulent and storied existence

It has had a turbulent history.

It was here in the Reichstag that Kaiser Wilhelm II ridiculed the parliament as a regime "monkey house." It was here in 1914 that Social Democrat Karl Liebknecht as a member of the upper house voted against funding the war. And it was here that Philipp Scheidemann proclaimed the first German republic.

In 1933, the building went up and flames and in 1945, it was heavily bombed. The interior was heavily plundered and the badly-damaged historical dome demolished.

After World War II, the building lay orphaned near the East German border with occasional tourists peeking over the wall at it. It was used occasionally as an exhibition hall. In 1995, the artist Christo was allowed to wrap the entire building in silver fabric, an event that brought millions to the building.

Today, the Reichstag is the German parliament. And the building is, in the meantime, regarded as the most publicly efficient parliament building in the world. But it is also a political landmark that has transformed itself into an architectural one.

A main attraction

"We are tourists from Denmark and we want to see the dome," said one tourist.

"There is a lot of history behind this place which is really why we wanted to come here," said another. "We all have seen many old pictures of it, including the one of it burning. We wanted to see it up close. Besides, it is a landmark from our capital city."

Reichstag 1945

The building was a ruin after WWII

They come in all weather and wait patiently at the entrance -- visitors from both Germany and abroad -- for whom a Berlin trip without a visit to the Reichstag would feel incomplete.

Since about seven years ago, around 10,000 people visit daily. That is not only because it is the seat of the German parliament but also because of the elaborate reconstruction by star British architect Sir Norman Foster that transformed the formerly oppressive and bulky building into a welcoming and modern public assembly building.

"My solution was considered radical," said Foster. "Where else in the world can one enter the building with politicians and ascend to a public square, all under one roof? Then go farther over meandering ramps to a viewing platform, from where one can look directly into the assembly room."

Gloomy to glamorous

With Foster's design, and the abandonment of grandiosity and classical temple facades, the gloomy Reichstag became a completely different building. It has a completely new assembly hall with the historical shell behind glass, a lot of light and the newest technological devices.

Sir Norman Foster in seiner Bibliothek der FU Berlin

Norman Foster wanted to bring past and future together

The masterstroke was the glass dome, though, which is visited by the public daily. Inside, a mirror-clad funnel illuminates the assembly hall. And at the same time, stale air from the room can be released naturally through the passage.

"That this building with its interior and exterior structure can and has fulfilled expectations, that visitors can absorb and accept its scale and design rather than be alienated by it is thanks to Sir Norman Foster," said Wolfgang Thierse, vice president of the Bundestag, Germany's lower house of parliament. "He had with his concept created the perfect synthesis between modern architecture and the building's historical roots. It mirrors the history of this building and its present and future through its design."

Arriving in the present

Thierse, formerly president of the Bundestag, was there that day in April 1999, when the first meeting of the parliament opened in the rebuilt Reichstag. It was a decade after the fall of the Berlin Wall before German political life arrived in Berlin -- and the tattered building that houses it arrived in the present.

Today, politicians from around Germany mingle in the building with visitors' groups. As they wander the wide hallways, they witness relics from another time now interspersed with works from international contemporary artists.

"Fabulous," said one visitor. "This contrast between the old and the new is so well connected. I think the architecture is very successful and representing the future of the building, and its past."

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