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BOOK REVIEW: Captial Dilemma, Michael Z. Wise 

Living as I did within the giant building site that has passed as Berlin for the last 10 years, I suppose I was a first hand witness of the period of “dilemma” discussed in Michael Z. Wise’s lapidary new book on the city’s architectural rebirth. Nonetheless, what I experienced as a perpetual chaos of bulldozers and yawning building sites, Wise elucidates as a fascinating interplay of history, politics and polis.

Berlin, more than any other city in Europe, has its history incised on its architectural skin. Some of its historical buildings are fairly innocuous – the ideological import of the Wilhelmine Unter den Linden is no more oppressive than the Imperial limestone that crowds Trafalgar Square – but Berlin at the close of the 20th century is also seamed with more intractable layers of stonemasonry. There is the politically radioactive strata of Nazi buildings, the few completed elements of Speer’s mammoth plan for the new Germania and in the East, the Communist pendant of Stalinallee (now Frankfurter Allee) whose Muscovite giganticism now stands scrubbed and clean. Then there is the 100 mile-long scar left by the Berlin Wall, running as it does through the city’s most central real estate: a palpable absence reminding us of the most famous building of the Cold War. And since the Wall’s welcome demise and the Federal government’s decision in June 1991 to move Germany’s capital back to Berlin, great swathes have been cut through these urban strata by the massive construction canyons, the Baugrube that punctuate the landscape in preparation for the new Berlin Republic. A preparation that makes the substance of Mr. Wise’s book.

As journalist for the Washington Post with particular knowledge of Central Europe, Wise has the outsider’s eye that sees the historical paranoia that German politicians have when it comes to public buildings. He points out how the Bonn Republic went out of its way to keep the government buildings of the quiet Rhineland town as innocuous as possible. A British envoy in the 60s called their Embassy in Bonn, “her Majesty’s only mission in a cornfield” and indeed most German politicians were keen to foster this ad hoc, small-scale atmosphere in the repentant Germany’s unassuming capital .

But after 50 years of Bonn, a new more confident Germany is about to move its national headquarters to the “well-trodden, bloodied ground” of Berlin. And Capital Dilemma attempts to chart why decisions were made and chances missed as architects and politicians spent a decade debating what kind of Berlin would best suit this powerful but rigourously democratic Germany. Many were disappointed by the end results. The American Philip Johnson told an audience “The Germans today are timid. [They] have made no great plans”. Indeed, while I was there it became a commonplace to say that the New Berlin was designed by the world’s best architects doing their worst work (Johnson’s included) , but as Wise points out, much of this timidity was the result of powerful political undercurrents.

With admirable concision, he gives accounts of the architectural competions, goverment U-turns and eventual compromises that led to the construction of the core government buildings: the new Federal Strip, containing the new Chancellery; Norman Foster’s recently completed Reichstag conversion; the dark granite ellipse of the President’s Office and refurbishment of two extant Nazi buildings for the Finance and Foreign ministries. He also tackles the much more contentious issues of Marx-Engels Square and the still undecided Holocaust Memorial. In all these instances Wise shows how the sensibilties ( some would say oversensibilities) of German politicians have stymied any large scale architectural coherence. Unlike Mitterand and his Grand Projets, Helmut Kohl was not able ( nor would he have wished) to indulge in such architectural fiats. The New Berlin was to be more confident and less impromtu than Bonn, but in no way should it hint at totalitarian übermut . Unlike Hitler’s Chancellery which was meant to convey the feeling that “one is visiting the master of the world”, the new Chanellery designed by Berlin architect Axel Schultes is meant to elicit “sympathy at first glance”. Similarly during the competition for the masterdesign of the goverment district alongside the Reichstag, it became clear than any plan hinting at a north-south instead of the more healing east-west “strip” would immediately be excluded as a very unwelcome echo of the gigantomanic axis Speer planned for Germania.

In this respect Wise illustrates an important point about the arts in Germany. Whether in architecture or visual arts, the Berlin Republic is and will be a considerable patron. But any creative head working in the public realm there must also be sensitive to the political taboos and nerves that cannot be trampled on. For me, Capital Dilemma has re-confirmed my belief that no other city illustrates this Century’s history so tangenibly on its streets as Berlin. Long live the Berliner Republik!

“Berlin’s architecture in itself is not to blame for the terrible crimes once organised from the German capital. The stones themselves are not guilty”.

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