The Houses of Parliament in London may be bigger and more impressive, but every time I was in London they looked the same, how boring. Not so the Reichstag (pronounced: raychs-tag), the German equivalent, in the course of my life I’ve seen it in three different varieties, if I were older, I could add a fourth. This is not so surprising, after all the building stands in Berlin, about which the art historian Karl Scheffer said in 1910, "Berlin is condemned forever to become and never to be."
The original Reichstag was completed in 1894, the architect Paul Wallot designed a grandiose neo-classical building with an over-scaled above-ground basement level and four monumental façades, a large flight of steps led to the main entrance, a huge portico with Corinthian columns. His cupola of steel and glass was considered an engineering masterpiece. In 1916 the words ’DEM DEUTSCHEN VOLKE’ (To the German people) were chiselled above the main façade, the Kaiser didn’t like that at all, he found the inscription far too democratic.
On 27th February 1933 a fire broke out in the building under dubious circumstances, the Nazi party under Adolf Hitler used it as a pretext to take over the Government. They didn’t use the building for parliamentary sessions, however, it would have been necessary to renovate it completely, which wasn’t done, it was used only for propaganda presentations and military functions.
During the war the building was badly damaged, the cupola destroyed. When Bonn became the capital of the Federal Republic of Germany, the Reichstag lost its significance, it was restored only provisionally and used for different functions, among others as a delivery room! When I visited the Reichstag in October, a guide told us that once a visitor showed him his birth certificate with ‘Reichstag Berlin’ as place of birth.
When I was in Berlin in the 1970s, I did see the Reichstag in passing but didn’t really look at it, it was only a bombastic building without any allure for tourists. The area near it was waste land, The Wall ran around the back of the building thus making it the last stop before the East so-to-speak.
Since 1971 the Bulgarian artist Christo and his French wife Jeanne-Claude had planned to wrap the Reichstag, but only in 1994 permission was given after heated discussions in Parliament. Wrapping began on 17th June, 1995 and was finished on 24th June, more than 100,000 square meters of fireproof polypropylene fabric, covered by an aluminium layer, and 15 km of rope were needed. The spectacle was seen by five million visitors, yours truly among them. I‘ve been to many arty events in my life, the Wrapped Reichstag was one of, maybe *the* highlight (my life isn‘t over yet!). I saw the silvery monument in sunshine, when the sky was overcast and at night, I can‘t say when it was most impressive.
Why do Christo and Jeanne Claude wrap buildings, landscapes, artefacts, what is the deeper meaning behind all this? They have repeatedly stated that they do it to make the world a ‘more beautiful place‘, no deeper meaning is intended, they make the world see well-known things in a different way, their motto is "revelation through concealing".
When the Reichstag was unwrapped, it looked naked and ugly! But then reconstruction began under the British architect Sir Norman Foster who had won the competition. Interestingly, Forster hadn’t planned to build a new cupola on the roof, he wanted to put a flat plate on it, twice the size of the base, held up by gigantic columns. When the Berliners heard about that, they nicknamed the project ’Federal Filling Station’. (I guess he won the comp because he presented the best plans for the renovation of the inside). It needed a lot of pushing and wooing to make Foster design a new cupola, he must be happy now as it has become the No 1 tourist site in Berlin, since 1999 about 20 million tourists have come to visit it.
‘Normal’ visitors, i. e., single visitors and not groups which want to have a guided tour, enter through the right door of the portico, there they’re checked like passengers in an airport, two lifts take them up to the flat roof of the building which is 24m high, they can walk around the cupola and enjoy the view of the cityscape. It’s advisable to go up in the evening because then there aren’t many tourists and you don’t have to queue, you can watch a magnificent sunset if you’re lucky. There’s also a restaurant on the roof about which I can’t say anything because I haven’t been inside, it looks rather expensive, though.
From the roof you can look down into two courtyards, in the northern one is a flower bed (sort of) by the German artist Hans Haacke. From the net: "The work consists of a 21 x 7 metres large cast installed in the centre of the courtyard. In the middle the word DER BEVÖLKERUNG (To The Population) is written with lit neon letters. On instructions from Haacke the cast was and is still being filled with soil that is brought by parliament representative from each constituency in Germany. Today the neon letters are surrounded by randomly growing vegetation. DER BEVÖLKERING refers to the inscription, DEM DEUTSCHEN VOLKE (To The German People) from 1916 on the west portal of the Parliament building." Many political and public discussions preceded the installation and people are still not in one mind about it which is a good thing in my opinion because this is what the artist wants to achieve. If you ask me, *I* prefer TO THE POPULATION to TO THE GERMAN PEOPLE.
Now into the cupola which is 38m in diameter and 23,5m high. The ceiling of the assembly hall below is made of glass and it‘s possible to look down and watch the representatives in case there is a meeting. I visited twice but wasn‘t lucky, I would have liked to see our Chanceloress Angela Merkel in action! In the middle of the cupola is an enormous funnel covered with mirror plates providing the assembly hall with light, they can be moved according to the position of the sun. The inside of the funnel serves as an air vent (its lowest part is in the basement of the building), the last time I visited I was with a group, our guide could hardly stop enthusing over the sophisticated, ecologically correct ventilation system. The top of the funnel is open, rain water is collected just beneath the rim.
Two ramps lead to a viewing platform, they’re screwed to the steel ribs forming the skeleton of the cupola (onto which the glass panes are fastened). I’d really like to tell you what it is like on the platform, 47m above ground, but unfortunately I can’t, the second time I visited I wanted to be braver than the first time but chickened out again. The ramps swing slightly, and their ‘walls‘, about hip high, are made of glass, i.e., I feel exposed, there is too much empty space for me inside the cupola, and the sky is visible through the glass panes - all this made me dizzy and when I had covered about a quarter of the 230m long ramp, I had to turn round and walk down again. (Readers suffering from vertigo will understand me.) This is not the way it should be because one ramp is meant for the people going up and the other for the ones going down, I was lucky that there wasn‘t much traffic, so no one complained.
I have to admit that I didn’t inform myself where and how handicapped visitors can get into the Reichstag, but I know that they can get in because our Home Secretary sits in a wheelchair; they can get up by lift and roll into the cupola - but can they get up the ramps? I doubt it, I can’t imagine anyone pushing a wheelchair up, and then it would block the flow of tourists, the ramps are only 2,30m wide.
Should you ever visit Berlin, don’t miss the Reichstag and the cupola, it’s a unique site, strikingly modern at the top but with a lot of history below. And it’s free!
Platz der Republik 1
Open daily from 8 am until midnight.