To tourists, the Reichstag building is defined by its magnificent dome, which is one of Berlin’s most popular attractions.
I went there countless times with my visitors, joining hour-long queues that snaked down the front steps of the building.
Those were the days before security tightened up and visitors had to register beforehand. But the dome, ah, what a marvel of technology and beauty.
Made of glass and aluminum, the dome caps the 1999 version of the building, the whole of which was designed by the great British architect Norman Foster. As with most Berlin monuments, the rebuilding was controversial, particularly of the dome.
The current dome resembles the original one but pushes the concepts of light and transparency much further. In fact, it can overwhelm in the symbol-of-democracy-and-governance department. Each time I entered the dome, I would be struck by the cleverness of it all.
From the floor of the dome, I could look up to the sky and look down to the plenary chamber, where Parliament sat. I cannot be a hundred per cent sure, but I think I once spotted Angela Merkel, which thrilled me to no end.
As I ascended the spiral walkway to the dome’s crown, I could see the city of Berlin; being so flat, the cityscape wasn’t very exciting. But that spiral walkway was a real how-did-they-do-that wonder, to be experienced to be understood. My favourite visits were at dusk, particularly when the clouds favoured me enough to see the sun set; if not, the transitioning of the city to night-time was always pretty.
The dome’s centrepiece was another fascinating piece of functional art. Basically a giant funnel that the architects called a ‘light sculpture’, it was made of mirrors, 360 of them. Their job was to deflect daylight into the plenary chamber. A sun shield tracked the sun to minimise glare.
What’s more, within the funnel was a system that recovered heat from the plenary chamber for heating. These were but a part of a comprehensive clean energy system designed for this and other buildings in the entire government quarter.
As a work of art, though, those mirrors evoked various reactions each time I experienced them. Reflecting me from different angles, they would catch me by surprise or make me self-consciously giggly or cause me to be contemplative as to the meaning of being in this august venue.
More than any other edifice arguably, the Reichstag building needs to be transparent. For it needs to counter, if not supplant the continuing and powerful image of the burnt Reichstag in the 1930s that cemented Nazi power and symbolised the end of parliamentary democracy in Germany.
Somehow, I never felt like photographing the front facade of the Reichstag building in its entirety. Except the one time. It was dark and ferociously cold. I was trudging from the building across the deserted green that foregrounded it towards the Haus der Kulturen der Welt as part of my Festival of Lights foray.
When I reached the road, I stopped to catch my breath and turned around. And caught my breath again. At night, when there is no light, the dome emits light, as Foster intended. Somehow, at that moment, it really felt like I was looking at the light of democracy. ω
About the Building
The Reichstag building houses the Deutsche Bundestag (German Parliament). The edifice was built in 1894 for the Reichstag, the Parliament of the newly united German Empire. Then, too, it boasted the latest technology and materials, including a glass and steel dome and temperature control.
Its Italian renaissance style was also controversial and it was disliked by Kaiser Wilhelm II and the public, attracting monikers as the Reichsaffenhaus (imperial ape house) and the dome specifically, Bonbonnierendeckel (lid of a candy box).
But it went on to become the site of many key moments in Germany’s history. The most well-known is the mysterious arson attack of it in 1933 that was used by Hitler to violently suppress the opposition, presaging Nazi totalitarianism.
But earlier, in 1918, it was from the Reichstag building that one of two proclamations of the Weimar Republic was made. Hitler left it burned and unused during the Nazi period but an enduring image of the fall of Berlin in 1945 is that of a flag-waving Soviet soldier atop a bombed Reichstag building.
In 1961, the Berlin Wall was built right by the edifice, which West Germany repaired and eventually turned into a museum. In 1990, when Germany was united again in its post-Cold War form, the Reichstag building hosted the first sitting of the Bundestag. But it took eight years before the building was fully renovated and the Bundestag was finally able to move into its permanent home.
This story draws from:
>> ‘Facts – The Bundestag at a Glance’ (German Bundestag, 2006)
>> ‘Berlin: Then and Now’ (PRC Publishing, 2005)
>> ‘The Reichstag in Berlin’ (The German Way, 2016)
>>‘The Reichstag – source of controversy’ (Red Barons Webseiten, 2015)
>> ‘Reichstag, New German Parliament’ (Foster + Partners, 2016)
Visitor information is on the official Deutscher Bundestag homepage.