Reviewed in Summer 2013 RIAS Quarterly Magazine.
In the 1990s Norman Foster transformed Berlin's Reichstag from a historical symbol of Germany's defeat and division to an architectural beacon for twenty-first century democracy, as can be seen in this generously illustrated book. This book introduces readers to one of Europe's iconic buildings and documents its rehabilitation by Foster + Partners through full-color photographs, plans, and sketches, along with informative essays. The new Reichstag's cutting-edge and environmentally sustainable features; the preservation of its historic details; and the cupola's new identity as an urban landmark are all discussed in the book, confirming Foster's innovative vision.
Review by Stuart Campbell Hon FRIAS
Visiting a major new project it is sometimes tempting to feel the design solution was almost inevitable - the logical result of following the programme. What else could this space have been used for?
Yet architecture usually involves complex processes to resolve complex three dimensional issues, circulation and functional spaces. This book provides an illustrated account of the intellectual journey travelled receipt of an invitation to participate in an open competition in April 1992 to the creation of the Reichstag.
Norman Foster expresses initial doubts in his introduction that, as a foreign architect, he might be inappropriate for such a political and symbolic task. His text identifies successful initiatives some of which were controversial, such as the reinvention of the roof level as a public space or the retention of graffiti left by Russian soldiers in 1945. He also acknowledges less inspired initiates as when his palette of muted colours was challenged by Chancellor Kohl resulting in a more colourful collaboration with Danish artist Per Arnoldi.
Joint author Chris Abel was a student in Berlin in 1960-62. His observations of the city before the Wall are insightful and his historic knowledge of the Reichstag is impressive. As an academic, his account of the project is comprehensive, but on occasions seems a little dry, which contrasts with the warmer infectious enthusiasm of the architect.
The wrapping of the building in a silver shroud by Christo and Jean Claude marked major impending changes. The Reichstag had already shared in the city's chequered history and remained iconic even as a shell after war damage. By the 1990s it had become the backdrop to reunification celebrations and the spectacular wrapping merely added to public enjoyment and the special sense of place.
Both authors discuss the process of designing the domed cupola but neither text matches the pages of concept sketches and model photographs which clearly explain the main design options. The architect refused to simply recreate the original dome as advocated by some but was interested in creating a beacon as a symbol of the new parliament. The design evolved as a lighter glazed feature with double helix ramps rising to a viewing platform. The facets of an inverted central cone reflect sunlight directly into the chamber at the heart of the parliament while a huge louvred sunscreen is moved by photovoltaics.
The Reichstag has been transformed into a model of responsible environmental design with power supplied by burning vegetable oil from rape seed and sunflowers. Low energy requirements means that, in fact, the building supplies more power than it uses. This 'energy story' was a major factor in winning the commission as the client was also the body setting standards for pollution and energy conservation.
This book narrates a compelling political and architectural story and beautifully illustrates stages in the design process and the finished building. This project was so much more than a simple reconstruction of a well known building.