Good old days?


I’m possibly the last person to know about this (wouldn’t be the first time) but last year the Bundesarchiv (German Federal Archive) put around 100,000 images onto Wikimedia commons, for us all to wonder at.  A link here into the page giving an overview by year (this was initially a bit tricky to find, I thought).

I’ve picked out a few images (below) which all feature architecture (since this is an architecture blog), but actually the buildings are perhaps the least fascinating element. So far I’ve only skimmed through 1919 to 1939, but the overriding impression of utter chaos, civil unrest and the rising tide of Fascism is disturbing, to say the least.

Photography is of course a self selective process, or at least used to be in pre-digital times, so is perhaps as much a record here of what was considered important then. Add to this the not inconsiderable factor of being filtered through the ‘random survival’ of time – war destruction, political repression, accidental loss.  I sometimes wonder whether in a few hundred years absolutely every digital image will survive (perhaps recorded on a small chip that can be fitted in your ear, say) or whether absolutely every digital image will be lost.  Or at least unreadable. Much like Betamax videos.

Mendelsohn’s Mossehaus, 1923:

The Schloss, 1919, I guess at the conclusion of the revolution:

Einsteinturm, 1928

The Europahaus, 1931:

Poelzig’s Babylon Kino, under construction, 1929:

Living with your car? Surely a bad idea…

Potsdamerplatz, 1932:

(A comment left by Tamar, which I’ve moved up here:

The Potsdamer Platz picture with the ads is very interesting:
“Vote Hitler” (on the two signs under “Chlorodont, White Teeth”) and all of that above a confectionery (Conditorei). This is the poster in the middle:
“Schluß jetzt, wir wählen Hitler!” (we had enough! we vote for Hitler)

Next to Hitler, “Vote for a Person, not for a Party”, and since everything is so symbolic in this picture, you can also see a sign for “vegetarische Kueche”

The same building, I would imagine few month before that, with film posters – link).

The Reichstag, before fire, bombing, abandonment, reconstruction, reuse, reunification, reconstruction (again), and the return of the parliament:

Mendelsohn’s Columbashaus, Potsdamerplatz, with campaign image of Hindenberg.  Later to be war damaged, then demolished:

Oberbaum Brucke, 1932 (blocked by the wall during the city’s partition, rebuilt in the 1990s by Santiago Calatrava)

The morning of the Reichstag fire:

Construction of the Reich Aviation Ministry (still standing, next door to the Topography of Terror site)

Enough already.  I could keep going for hours, but will stop here. Perhaps I’ll do a proper trawl through at some point (it’s only 100,000) and make sure I have the best ones…

Critical (of) Reconstruction


See also this link to a conference on critical reconstruction and the IBA, in Porto, Portugal, 4th – 8th November:  My original post below:

‘Critical Reconstruction’. A term used to describe the policy for rebuilding post-wall Berlin. The vast areas of waste ground left by the wall zones were to be infilled, by reverting to older street patterns, and by following a set of conservative building codes which limited the height, and (in places) the style of new buildings.

In Pariser Platz, next to the Brandenburg Gate, the building rules seem to have been at their most restrictive, with every new building complying with the required style of horizontal stone banding. Frank Gehry’s Deutsche Bank HQ has had to hide his signature shiny-curvy building behind a singularly uninteresting façade. The rebuilt Hotel Adlon is just an overscaled version of the original, and the recently-completed American Embassy, which has the prime spot overlooking the Tiergarten and the Holocaust Memorial, sets new standards for blandness. The only building that subverts the rules slightly is Michael Wilford’s British Embassy (not saying this just cos I’m a Brit) – angular structures in purple and blue appear to explode from a ‘missing’ section of the plain stone façade.


The vast new buildings of Potsdamer Platz, designed by a string of ‘big name’ architects, are curiously underwhelming;  the whole layout of the site was something of a compromise with the major site owners (I’ll save a rant about that for another day).

But the greatest loss of nerve is the Reichstag. “Surely” you’re thinking, “this is a triumphant rebirth of Germany’s parliament building in an assured high tech intervention by Norman Foster?” Or words to that effect.

Well yes it’s not bad. It’s still one of his best works, with his signature ‘techno bits inserted in an old building’ look, done well. But it could have been something altogether more radical.

I’ve not been able to find a good link or non-copyright-breaching image, so instead, here’s an artist’s impression (the ‘artist’ being me):

The Reichstag - as it could have been

The competition to transform the Reichstag into a new parliament building had three joint winners: Norman Foster, Santiago Calatrava and Pi de Bruijn. But all three were subsequently asked to start over based on a much reduced brief, essentially requiring less floor space, contained entirely within the existing structure.

Foster won this ‘second’ competition with the design which was carried through – including the familiar spiral ramps inside a glass dome.


But his original design proposed a colossal independent roof structure, enclosing not only the Reichstag but a large space around it, even spanning across part of the river Spree. A raised podium would have covered the same area, cutting off the lower parts of the original building’s façades. The Reichstag would thus have been only a part, albeit the key element, of a larger whole; a literal representation that the new parliament would stand as something which accepted and incorporated the nation’s past, but at the same time would be something new and open.

It was a strong idea, particularly as the original 19th century building is considered by many to be a bit of a dog’s dinner. It was a not entirely successful attempt to merge a number of disparate styles, and couldn’t better represent the dead end that neoclassicism had reached in the years preceding the birth of modernism. Even its architect, Paul Wallot, admitted that he struggled with an ‘impossible’ task.

There was also the fact that the building was not in its original ‘intact’ state: it had been burned out in the 1930s, shelled by the Russians, and already refurbished in the 1960s.

So as architecture, it didn’t really bear comparison with the government seats of some other nations – Barry and Pugin’s Palace of Westminster, for instance. But in the end, conservatism prevailed, the competition requirements were rewritten to ensure that the building wasn’t radically changed. So that’s what’s now on the postcards.