Empire of Confusion

Germany, as a centralized state, is very young. Even younger than the United States. Germany, for centuries, had been defined by its component states such as Bavaria, Prussia, or Austria; all developing their own national ideas. There was also a strong protestant and catholic divide that would eventually morph into the disastrous “Kulturkampf” of the early Bismarck years. Amidst the various arguments that broke out concerning the nature of a new Germany, there was vigorous debate about what architecture should best represent this young state.

Often, it was the theories of historicism that reigned supreme, such as on Vienna’s Ringstrasse. In regard to the use of unique historicist styles on this famous Viennese thoroughfare, Carl Schorske states in his book Fin-de-siècle Vienna that: “The four public buildings of this sector together form a veritable quadrilateral of Recht and Kultur. – parliamentary government in the [classicist] Reichsrat, municipal autonomy in the [neo-gothic] Rathaus, the higher learning in the [neo-renaissance] University, and the dramatic art in the [neo-baroque] Burgtheater. Each building was executed in the historical style felt to be appropriate to its function.”

This kind of thought can be seen in the competitions for the new German parliament. The competition entries ranged from neo-classicism, to neo-gothic, neo-baroque, etc. The final winning entry from Paul Wallot can be seen as something of an almagamation of all of the above. Neo-classicist pediment and columns, neo-renaissance towers, neo-gothic interiors, neo-baroque flourishes, and a modernist dome. To return to the accounts of Emile Wetterlé: There is a bewildering excess of wainscoting, bas-reliefs, statues, frescos, and stained glass windows.” The end result is something that resembles a large crowd filling the halls of a massive Greek temple, particularly with the crowd of heraldic figures in its Königsplatz facing pediment. The confusion of its design is quite indicative of the nature of the regime it was built for. It had the impossible task of wrangling the disparate cultural and state elements of the suddenly expansive empire into a singular structure. The nation, a new and diverse construct, had a building that encapsulated a widely diverse array of historical styles.

It later became a rallying point of German architecture partially due to its ability to change. First with the addition of “Dem Deutsche Volke”, then with the post-WW2 renovations and then finally with the addition of the Norman Foster dome. Its architectural diversity was first the image of a new state still working as it what it meant, and then became a building that could be remixed for the new demands of the ever changing Germany of the 20th century.

Carl Emil. Schorske, Fin-de-siècle Vienna (New York, NY: Knopf, 1980).

Rudy Koshar, From Monuments to Traces: Artifacts of German Memory, 1870-1990 (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2000).

WETTERLE, EMILE. BEHIND THE SCENES IN THE REICHSTAG: Sixteen Years of Parliamentary Life in Germany. FORGOTTEN Books, 2015.