Essential Architecture-  Berlin



Paul Wallot




1894, 1992 interior and cupola rebuilt by Norman Foster






  Reichstag burning, 1934
  Red Army soldiers Mikhail Yegorov and Meliton Kantaria of the 756th Rifle Regiment raising the Flag of the Soviet Union over the Reichstag building during the Battle of Berlin, April 30th, 1945.
  The Wrapped Reichstag
  Images copyright Tim Devlin.
Reichstag (building)

The dedication DEM DEUTSCHEN VOLKE – "To the German people" – can be seen on the architrave.The Reichstag building in Berlin was constructed to house the Reichstag, the original parliament of the German Empire. It was opened in 1894 and housed the Reichstag until 1933. It again became the seat of the German parliament in 1999 after a reconstruction led by internationally renowned architect Norman Foster.

Today's parliament of Germany is called the Bundestag. The Reichstag as a parliament dates back to the Holy Roman Empire and ceased to act as a true parliament in the years of Nazi Germany (1933-1945). In today's usage, the German term Reichstag refers to the building, while the term Bundestag refers to the institution.

History of the building

Construction of the building began only well after 1871. Previously, the parliament had assembled in several other buildings in the Leipziger Straße in Berlin; but these were generally considered too small, so in 1872 an architectural contest with 103 participating architects was carried out to erect an all-new building. Work did not start until ten years later though, due to various problems with purchasing property for the new building and arguments between Wilhelm I, Otto von Bismarck, and the members of the Reichstag about how the construction should be performed.

In 1882, another architectural contest was held, with 189 architects participating. This time the winner, the Frankfurt architect Paul Wallot, would actually have his plan executed. On June 9, 1884, the foundation stone was finally laid by Wilhelm I. Before construction was completed in 1894, Wilhelm I died (in 1888, the Year of Three Emperors). His successor, Wilhelm II, objected to parliament as an institution to a much greater extent. The original building was most acclaimed for the construction of an original cupola of steel and glass, a technical masterpiece of the time.

After World War I had ended and the Kaiser had abdicated, during the revolutionary days of 1918, Philipp Scheidemann proclaimed the institution of a republic from one of the balconies of the Reichstag building on November 9. The building continued to be the seat of the parliament of the Weimar Republic (1919-1933), which was still called Reichstag.

Third Reich

The Reichstag building was set on fire in 1933.After Adolf Hitler had been appointed Reichskanzler on January 30, 1933, the building was set on fire on February 27, 1933, under circumstances not yet entirely clear (see Reichstag fire). This proved to be a valuable excuse for the Nazis to suspend most human rights provided for by the 1919 constitution in the Reichstag Fire Decree.

Contrary to popular belief, during the 12 years of National Socialist rule, the Reichstag building was not used for parliamentary sessions. Instead, the few times where the Reichstag convened at all, it did so in the Krolloper building, a former opera opposite the Reichstag building. This applies as well to the session of March 23, 1933, in which the Reichstag disposed of its powers in favor of the Nazi government in the Enabling Act another step of the so-called Gleichschaltung, the legal steps through which the Nazis seized power. The building (which was unusable after the fire anyway) was instead used for propaganda presentations and, during World War II, for military purposes. It was also considered to be turned into a Flak Tower, due to its general similarity, but was found to be structurally unsuitable.

The building was further damaged by air raids. During the Battle of Berlin in 1945, it became one of the central targets for the Red Army probably mostly for its symbolic significance. Today, visitors to the building can still see Soviet graffiti on smoky walls inside as well as on some of the roof, discovered and preserved during the reconstructions after reunification (see below).

Cold War
When the Cold War emerged, the building was within West Berlin, but only a few meters from the border of East Berlin, which in 1961 was closed by the Berlin Wall. During the Berlin blockade, an enormous number of West Berliners assembled before the building on September 9, 1948, and Mayor Ernst Reuter held a famous speech that finalized in the call, Ihr Völker der Welt, schaut auf diese Stadt! (Peoples of the world, look upon this city!)

After the war, the building was essentially a ruin. In addition, there were no real use for it, since the capital of West Germany had been moved to Bonn in 1949. Still, in 1956, after some debate, it was decided that the Reichstag should not be taken down, but instead be restored. Unfortunately, the cupola of the original building, which had also been heavily damaged in the war, was demolished. Another architectural contest was held, and the winner, Paul Baumgarten, reconstructed the building from 1961-1964. The artistic and practical value of his work was the subject of much debate after German reunification. Due to the provisions set forth for Berlin by the Allies in the 1971 Four Power Agreement on Berlin, the Bundestag, the parliament of West Germany of that time, was not allowed to assemble formally in West Berlin (even though East Germany was in violation of this provision since it had declared East Berlin its capital anyway). Until 1990, the building was thus used only for occasional representative meetings and for a widely lauded permanent exhibition about German history called Fragen an die deutsche Geschichte (Questions to German history).


The official German reunification ceremony on October 3, 1990, was held at the Reichstag building, including Chancellor Helmut Kohl, President Richard von Weizsäcker, former Chancellor Willy Brandt and many others. It was a touching event with huge fireworks, fondly remembered by many. One day later, the parliament of the united Germany would assemble in an act of symbolism in the Reichstag building.

However, at that time, the role of Berlin had not yet been decided upon. Only after a fierce debate, considered by many one of the most memorable sessions of parliament, the Bundestag concluded on June 20, 1991, with a quite slim majority that both government and parliament should return to Berlin from Bonn.

In 1992, Norman Foster won yet another architectural contest for the reconstruction of the building. His winning concept looked very different from what was later executed. Notably, the original design did not include a cupola.

Before reconstruction began, the Reichstag was wrapped by the Bulgarian artist Christo and his wife Jeanne-Claude in 1995, attracting millions of visitors.

During the reconstruction, the building was first almost completely gutted, taking out everything except the outer walls, including all changes made by Baumgarten in the 1960s. The seat of parliament was transferred to the Reichstag in April 1999. The reconstruction is widely regarded as a success; the Reichstag, most importantly the huge glass cupola that was erected on the roof as a gesture to the original 1894 cupola, is one of the most visited attractions in Berlin, giving an impressive view over the city, especially at night. The main hall of the parliament below can also be seen from the cupola, and natural light from above radiates down to the parliament floor. A large sun shield tracks the movement of the sun electronically and blocks direct sunlight which might blind those below. It is open to anyone without prior registration, although the waiting queues can be very long, especially in the summer.