|Architect||Axel Schultes Architekten, Frank Schultes Witt|
|Lighting designer||Licht-Kunst-Licht, Bonn/Berlin|
|Photographer||Rudi Meisel, Berlin|
The German Federal Chancellery: Pathos for the Republic
by Hanno Rauterberg
Seldom has a building been so hotly debated. The cautioners and admonishers, backbiters and faultfinders had the time of their life when the new Chancellor's Office was inaugurated in spring. The government building was derided - called a monstrosity, a Colossus, a washing machine, an elephant loo. And commentators did not tire of pointing out that Chancellor Schröder felt uneasy about the new building. What should have been a joyous architectural event, a proud monument of the new Berlin Republic, turned out to be a mega cause of offence. Unjustifiably - since this splendid state building undoubtedly ranks among the best international architecture conceived in the 20th century.
Scarcely anyone is as yet prepared to acknowledge this fact. People still stand before it rather bewildered - some intimidated, others indignant. They are mainly disturbed by the dimensions of the Chancellery and its unusual indulgence in the free play of forms. Hardly anyone credits the fact that the long 18-metre-high wings are actually lower than the general run of Berlin appartment blocks or that even the elevated cube of the actual Chancellery building is still well below the roof height of many commercial buildings in Friedrichstrasse. It is because the Chancellor's Office lacks neighbourhood, is not embedded in the urban context, that it appears so large and isolated - exactly as its original client, Helmut Kohl, wished it to be.
The original intention was that all new buildings in the 'Federal Strip' - a long ribbon of construction running east-to-west, crossing the River Spree - should be of the same height, in order to accord sovereignty of the air to the Reichstag. Kohl overruled this plan by the architects Axel Schultes and Charlotte Frank and elevated himself and his office above the committee block, the offices for members of parliament and the Bundestag library. Kohl desired an emblem for the new, united Germany, a national symbol of the first order.
It is not, however, merely its dimensions that the many passers-by find disturbing; the architecture's unusual force of expression is also regarded as disagreeable. In Bonn, sweeping gestures were avoided. Government was not seen as a heroic act but as a complex process that did not require any symbolic boosting. It was not by chance that the Chancellor's Office in Bonn, with its dark brown aluminium skin, resembled a 'Rhineland local bank' (Helmut Schmidt). By contrast, the Berlin Chancellery, which cost almost half a billion Deutschmarks, displays a new readiness to indulge in state aesthetics, an almost carefree delight in representation. Unlike the buildings on the gentle banks of the Rhine, government architecture in the new federal capital has to compete with a wealth of emblems and symbols, with all the landmarks of international concerns such as those that have arisen on Potsdamer Platz. Nevertheless, there could be no question of making the Chancellor's Office resemble some company headquarters or of resorting to neo-classicist pomposity, the traditional formula of state architecture.
Rather than flaunting itself, this building softens the strict rites of protocol with quiet gestures of amiability. In the cour d'honneur of the Chancellery, some of the columns look as if they have detached themselves and are moving into the courtyard. They are neither round nor square but strangely soft in form; a few of them are even crowned by superfluous amelanchier bushes. Some of these curvaceous columns appear to be trying to accompany the visitor into the building, being located half outside, half inside. Whether they are simply part of the décor or serve to support the floors above is not clear.
In some areas this architecture looks positively unleashed, as if it were about to lift off skywards; othing stays still, everything moves towards change: nothing stays still, everything moves towards change. Other sections, by contrast, look clumsy, immovable, almost chilly; the result is that in its totality the ensemble develops a skilful ambivalence. The north and south facades are clear in outline, creating an effect of mass in spite of their large windows, whereas to the east and west the building is soft and airy, thus creating a complex spatial drama. So while Schultes ensures the necessary comprehensibility and concision by making use of the basic geometrical forms - circles, squares and cubes - he also liberates these strict and timeless forms from their static state and sets them in motion. He makes walls wave and balustrades flutter; even the massive concrete ceilings roll away like huge breakers. Each volition of this building is negated as it arises; Schultes, the great master of yearning and vacillation, who aims to seize the human soul and yet is fearful of solidified emotion, has discovered an architecture of dramatic dialectics.
In the interior, the contrast between the orderly and the organic pulls one in powerfully; everywhere new paths and prospects open up. Generous stairways or lifts provide access to the upper storeys, where one is presented with another grand spatial drama. The circular staircase linking the three storeys tapers and then widens again, like an hourglass. And this is more than a stairway, it is the very core, the three-dimensional concept of the Chancellor's Office. One can see it as a small amphitheatre, an invitation to stroll and saunter around, to enjoy a change of perspective and direction, to indulge in a casual exchange or a take an unexpected turn. Where the builders of earlier epochs resorted to cherubs, reliefs or coats of arms for decorating the centres of power, Schultes transforms space into a symbol.
It is above all to transitional areas, such as entrance halls, foyers, loggias and gardens, that Schultes has conspicuously devoted particular attention. His treatment of other spaces is more impersonal. They are all similarly designed and furnished, as if to reflect the egalitarian aspect of democracy in the spatial concept of the Chancellor's Office. This insistence on a high degree of uniformity has its advantages; despite considerable opposition it has been possible to accommodate all the approximately 400 staff of the Chancellery in airy, individual office rooms. The officials look out through generous windows on to winter gardens, which lend the wing tracts their own rhythm. And although the Chancellor's personal office space is naturally larger and offers a better view, it is designed in just the same style as any of the others. The entirety can be sensed in each individual room.
Schultes' intention was to avoid clear hierarchies in his Chancellery, aiming instead for an atmosphere of transparency and permeability. He has made a brave attempt to combat any trend towards exclusion. Even though there can be no real openness in the case of the high security area, it was at least possible to create some spatial permeability between the various spheres. This element is scarcely perceptible for people in the outside world, who are kept at bay by both a fence and the smooth facades of the office tracts. Seen from the inside, permeability is more successful; the silhouette of Berlin can be seen from everywhere through slits and windows - the city's landmarks, at least, if not its people.
The new building is thus not really able to bridge the distance between governors and governed, but it does at least provide excellent facilities for their intermediaries. Since this architecture is splendidly emblematic, it has already become indispensable to the media, especially the visual media. More than any of the ministry buildings, the new Chancellery caters for the needs of journalists; in many rooms, TV floodlights were specially installed in the ceilings and the press conference hall is very cunningly designed. The Chancellor enters the hall over a bridge, disappears briefly behind a section of wall and then re-emerges, as if by way of a trapdoor, at his lectern. The media game of self-presentation, disclosure and camouflage has acquired a spatial form here.
Schultes has been much criticised for this indulgence in baroque theatricality. Should a chancellor allow himself this degree of frivolity? So much leeway for misinterpretation? Especially here on the Spreebogen riverbend, where Albert Speer once planned to build his maniacally gigantic Volkshalle (Great Hall)? Is it permissible in this location to make such a massive, yet simultaneously light-hearted impression as this new building does?
All these questions should, of course, have been posed before the decision was taken to rehabilitate the desolate Spreebogen site and erect the Chancellor's office there. It was to be expected that with a return to political normality here the history of the location would fade. So Schultes should not be blamed for this. Yet his liberated forms negate all trace of history; they neither pay their respects to the glass pavilions of Bonn nor make any reference to the stony traditions of classic state prestige architecture. Schultes has chosen a third way, elevating spatial order to express meaning; he does at least play with the possibility of a new beginning.
He has presented the Republic with architecture that takes the risk of pathos, even if this is a pathos that does not strive for immortality or for the self-glorification of power. Rather than seeming earthbound and authoritarian, rather than promising security and reliability, this is a building that expresses great intensity of feeling. And demands it, too, from both politicians and people in the street. No one passing it is to remain uninvolved. What Schultes has succeeded in creating is an architectural phenomenon that stirs emotions and treats the business of government as a dialectic system, as something open-ended with no definitive perspectives. It is unlikely that this building, with all its ambivalence, will win people's love or even liking, but it does not need to - any more than the former Chancellor's Office in Bonn.