Building a National House – Architecture

Since the 1980s, a number of buildings have been reconstructed in Germany that are intended to contribute to the formation of German identity. While this period is referred to as a “reconstruction wave,” a look at the history of German architecture shows that from 1945 onward, in both East and West, there has been a continuous reconstruction of buildings that had been lost. Even though modern architectural forms dominated postwar reconstruction, in most cities there were a series of prominent projects to reconstruct important buildings from the city’s history that had been partially or entirely destroyed. Why, then, is there talk of a reconstruction wave starting in the 1980s at all? What changed for it to be perceived as something new?

By the early 1980s, the process of rebuilding German cities that had been destroyed in the war had been largely completed. Within this period, historical reconstructions and modern buildings coexisted—even if they were sometimes heatedly debated. Modernity and reconstruction were not mutually exclusive. In Frankfurt am Main, for example, the Leinwandhaus (Linen House) in Frankfurt am Main was reconstructed thanks to an initiative over many years by the architect Alois Giefer, who was otherwise responsible for modern projects such as residential buildings at the Interbau building exhibition in Berlin in 1957 (Hansaviertel) and the Frankfurt Airport. In Berlin, Richard Paulick, who had worked for the Bauhaus—the epitome of modernity—was entrusted with reconstructing the classical Staatsoper Unter den Linden, the Kronprinzenpalais, and the Prinzessinnenpalais.

When the issue shifted from repairing wartime damage to developing the built environment, however, modern architecture and urban planning became subject to criticism. Reconstruction projects during and after the 1980s for the most part did not take place on vacant lots, but instead themselves became agents of urban destruction. Historical reconstructions replaced modern buildings.

These conflicts, which grew into a culture war, were ideologically charged and antagonistically fought in a way that recalls the legendary (Zehlendorf) roof controversy of the late 1920s, which was not just about an architectural solution to the specific place in question but about a societal canon of values, about the politics of history and questions of identity, about society’s very understanding of itself. The architectural designs in question (flat roofs vs. pitched roofs) were understood as built guidelines that pointed far beyond the single case, within which the latter were understood to change the direction, to push back the influence of “modernists,” and revive traditional forms of architecture. Architectural questions were tied to fundamental questions of history and identity politics and society’s self-image was negotiated on that basis.

In a federalist country like Germany, debates about the built environment happen first on a local level, concerning architecture projects in specific cities. The positions being articulated within these debates, however, are by no means specific to the locale. Instead, they are contributions to a debate on the level of society as a whole. Their ideological core can best be understood using examples of reconstructed buildings that are national projects. These also best reveal the shifts in the society being expressed in such architecture.

Sepp Ruff, Chancellor’s Bungalow, Bonn, 1963–1966. Photo: Tomas Riehle. © Wüstenrot Stiftung.

National Projects

The most important state buildings from the Bonn Republic (1949–1990) thoroughly espoused modernism: the federal buildings in Bonn with the chancellor’s bungalow by Sepp Ruff (1963–1966); the buildings for the world’s fairs by Egon Eiermann and Sepp Ruf for Brussels (1958) and by Frei Otto for Montreal (1967); the buildings by Frei Otto, Günther Behnisch, and others for the Olympics in Munich (1972); and the new Bundestag in Bonn by Günther Behnisch (1987–1992). These buildings, rejecting classic expressions of will to prestige, stood for openness and transparency. But precisely in their supposed negation of symbolism, they became symbolic gestures in the first place. Outwardly, they successfully embodied the idea of a modern, liberal, and forward-looking Germany, and thus strove to counter Germany’s overwhelming negative image in the world as a result of Wilhelminism and National Socialism. The buildings rigorously avoid any historical references. As such, they offered the possibility of anchoring identity in the present rather than in history. This orientation toward the future also enabled German society to mostly avoid confronting its own past.

Societal consensus around this future orientation broke down in the 1970s. This was not only because modern architecture and urban planning had fallen into crisis, but also because of the generational shift in which the wartime generation retired from its position in society and the younger generation began to demand a different form of addressing its own history. The 1980s wave of reconstruction was also accompanied by the rediscovery of historical sites from National Socialism and Jewish life. In Frankfurt am Main in 1987, for instance, public protests on Börneplatz led to the remains of the former Jewish ghetto being partially preserved and integrated into the Museum Judengasse, which was completed five years later. In 1988, the first independent Jewish Museum in the Federal Republic of Germany opened in Frankfurt am Main, and was followed in 1995 by the founding of the Fritz Bauer Institut, which studies the history and effects of the Holocaust. In 1996, the Gedenkstätte Neuer Börneplatz (New Börne Square Memorial) was created in memory of Frankfurt’s Holocaust victims, and in 2015, the memorial at Frankfurt’s Grossmarkthalle increased public awareness of it as the site of mass deportations.

Comparable developments took place in other cities as well. In Berlin, the Gedenk- und Bildungsstätte Haus der Wannsee-Konferenz (House of the Wannsee Conference Memorial and Education Site) was built in 1988–1992, and the Jewish Museum was built in 1989–1999. The realization of the Holocaust memorial followed in 1994–2005, as did the Topographie des Terrors in 1993–2010.

Public protests on Börneplatz, Frankfurt am Main, 1987. Photo: Jewish Museum Frankfurt.

In parallel with these leftist, liberal, and emancipatory movements, conservative stances also turned to the historical topography of cities in a way that thematized national traditions from before 1945, evident in the Prussian renaissance that began in both West and East Germany in the late 1970s. When the era of governmental rule by the Social Democratic Party ended in 1982, these forces gained additional momentum in West Germany.

In 1980, Walter Wallmann, the mayor of Frankfurt am Main from the Christlich Demokratische Union Deutschlands (CDU; Christian Democratic Union of Germany), intended to restore the Paulskirche (St. Paul’s Church) to its original historic state of 1848, but which had already been rebuilt in 1948 with modernist simplicity by Rudolf Schwarz and others. The 1948 reconstruction had been an important architectural manifesto for the reestablishment of democracy after 1945, and at the same time was a uniquely pan-German statement one year before the division of Germany. Wallmann’s plans were, therefore, radical. Even though they were rejected by historical preservationists and met with protests from the professional world, his proposal for the Paulskirche reoriented the discourse around reconstruction: reconstruction was no longer a matter of rebuilding that which had been destroyed in the war, but rather a revision of postwar rebuilding according to a new politics of history.

Whereas the Paulskirche had been a municipal building of national relevance, the new attitude quickly affected federal buildings. In 1987, German Chancellor Helmut Kohl commissioned the architect Gottfried Böhm to redesign the Reichstag building in Berlin, which had been reconstructed in 1961–1973 by Paul Baumgarten. Part of the planning for the revision of Paul Baumgarten’s reconstruction was to rebuild the dome that had been lost after being damaged during the war. That project, which was pursued until 1992, was never realized. Instead, and as a consequence of the decision to move the permanent seat of the federal parliament to the Reichstag, an international competition was announced in 1993, which was won by the British architect Norman Foster. His winning proposal did not include a dome, but instead a gigantic suspended roof. Representatives of the Bundestag, however, increasingly called for reconstructing the historic dome, which Foster rejected as dysfunctional, purely rhetorical gesture. A struggle between the client and architect followed, in which Foster was forced to follow the dome’s historical silhouette. At the same time, however, Foster resisted the idea of exact reconstruction, and through numerous design studies wrested a functional significance from the dome. Transparent and walkable, Foster’s dome opened the building to the public while providing natural climate control for the building.

On the one hand, with its transparency and functionality, Norman Foster’s dome for the Reichstag belonged to the tradition of the modern buildings of the Bonn Republic. On the other, with its reference to a historical form from the nineteenth century, it also conformed to the new desire for history of the Berlin Republic. For both the debate on reconstruction and for German state architecture, this solution represented a transitional phenomenon. A new plenary hall in Bonn by Günter Behnisch had opened by 1992, which updated the modernity of postwar West German state buildings with a deconstructivist twist. That was no longer in demand in Berlin. The new-old capital was no longer a provisional solution in which national status symbols were avoided out of shame over its history and a refusal to accept the division of Germany. Demonstrative humility gave way to a new national confidence.

Demolition of the Palast der Republik. Photo: Philipp Oswalt, 2006.

The Berlin Castle: The New Orthodoxy

One decade later, such a solution was no longer possible for the Berliner Schloss (Berlin Castle). Although used as a museum, the Humboldtforum, it is first and foremost a symbolic building that aims to contribute to identity and express a new national self-image. This time, the Bundestag prevailed with its idea of a faithful imitation of the Baroque facades and the historical dome. The appearance of the former Prussian royal house was recreated, connecting architecturally to German history prior to 1918. This was intended, so its advocates argued, to give Berlin part of its lost identity back. But Berlin did not lack an identity in 1990. The task, then, was not about providing specificity to something faceless and without qualities. It was rather about deliberately change a historically evolved identity according to another idea of values.

The process of reconstruction was carried out rigidly and without compromise. First, despite recommendations by the committee of experts, no effort was made to determine whether and how parts of the Palast der Republik (Palace of the Republic), which was located on the designated and former site, could be integrated into the new building. The Palast der Republik had not just been a central building in the GDR, but also the meeting place of the last Volkskammer (People’s Chamber) of East Germany, which was freely elected in 1990. With a less ideological perspective on the history of the German nation, there would have been no question that the Palast der Republic should have been preserved, at least in part. Nevertheless, the Bundestag even tolerated cost overruns for its planned demolition in order to rule such an option out.

Second, the architecture competition that took place in 2008 did not search for an architectural solution, but rather a proxy that would satisfy the wish for an architecture without contemporary architects. The expressed desire was to reproduce the outward appearance of the building in its historical state as exactly as possible based on existing photographs. This approach is a central characteristic to the wave of reconstruction, of which the Berliner Schloss is the most prominent prototype. A reproduction of architecture from photography does not just presume the availability of the technological media of photography, photogrammetry, and digital image editing, it also breaks with the millennia-old tradition of architectural reconstructions. The reproduction of historical legacy has long been based on a process of cultural appropriation and implementation. Differences between earlier buildings and their reenactments were not due solely to incomplete documentation, but could also be conscious interpretations of the historical heritage from the position of the present. These differences anchor the reconstruction in the cosmos of ideas and values of their time.

With the introduction of photorealistic reproductions, however, this process of cultural appropriation and updating is halted and replaced by a scientifically exact, purely technical approach. With the concept of “authenticity,” a logic of practical constraints is implemented that is relentlessly executed, not unlike traffic planning or engineering. This supposedly objective logic makes it possible to conceal the underlying value decisions and avoid any societal discourse. Other solutions are categorically ruled out. The modern era of the past hundred years is presented as a misguided path of architecture and urban planning that needs to be corrected. In this black-and-white thinking, historical buildings from the period before 1919 are considered fundamentally successful, while modern buildings from the past hundred years are sweepingly dismissed as failures.

Elevation of the new Berliner Schloss (Berlin Castle), designed by Franco Stella with FS HUF PG. Drawing courtey of SHF.

Parallels in the General Discourse on Architecture

The reconstruction debate is an escalation of a much broader architectural debate that began in Berlin in 1991 when Hans Stimmann was appointed Senatsbaudirektor (Senate Construction Director). Stimmann, who has been called, not entirely inaccurately, the Thilo Sarrazin of architecture, called for the redesign of Berlin after the fall of the Berlin Wall to follow the rules of “Berlin architecture” and of the “Prussian style.” Architecture should be “disciplined, Prussian, restrained in palette, stony, more straight than curved.” This fictional image of a Berlin architecture was supposed to result in its “rebirth.” The myth of the past served as a vision for the future. Architecture theorist Fritz Neumeyer acknowledges this quite openly: “Looking at our own history, we have to undertake the critical work of a de- and remythologizing. This work on the myth of Berlin can, one hopes, contribute to developing the necessary regulative fictions and guidelines without which it will be difficult for something to emerge in architecture and urban planning that would provide identity.”

This stance was clearly derived from identity politics, as is clear from Hans Stimmann’s statements: “In the 1950s, the Berliners began searching for their identity: some in America, others in the Soviet Union, and later in the direction of who-knows-where. In any case, it had to be terribly international. That was a wrong path. The Berliners have to take their own themes seriously again.” What in Stimmann is still formulated as a form of regionalism was given a nationalist spin by the conservative journalist Wolf Jobst Siedler: “The memory of the peoples is deep and reaches far back. The national renaissances that mark all of European history are just a form of breaking out of buried memories… It is this decline of the antihistorical epoch that also stands behind those movements that have seized the urban planning of the present: a plunging back into history that will soon restage the old visual and narrative figurations.”

Unsurprisingly, Stimmann’s ambition to impose a uniform style on new buildings in Berlin failed miserably. It was, however, not just the early storm clouds of the right-wing populist critique of globalization and the reinstatement of architectural nationalism that were instituted twenty years later. Stimmann’s architectural policy and production of ideology made a crucial contribution to establishing a neoconservative current in architecture in Germany espoused by architects such as Hans Kollhoff, Christoph Mäckler, and Hilmer Sattler Architekten. At the same time, the radicalization of this position has paved the way to demolish parts of city centers and implement reconstruction projects anew.

Kuehn Malvezzi, Humboldt-Forum Berlin, competition entry, 2008.

The Berlin Castle: Unwanted Alternatives

There were effectively two winners in the Berliner Schloss competition. Franco Stella, who perfectly fulfilled the client’s wish for a nonarchitect, was ultimately commissioned. But Kuehn Malvezzi, which received a special prize of €60,000, was the jury’s favorite. Their proposal did not win, however, because it did not include a replica of the dome of 1845–1853. The client had not actually specified a recreation of the dome as an explicit requirement, and the architects had planned, as in Foster’s design for the Reichstag, a suspended glass roof rather than a classical dome form. What had been required, however, was a faithful reconstruction of the historical facades. Kuehn Malvezzi’s proposal did this, but with two additional ideas: in order to eliminate the historical building’s lack of connection to its urban context, the building volume of the second Baroque extension by Johann Friedrich Eosander was opened up to the city on the ground floor; and in homage to Karl Friedrich Schinkel, the building as a whole was to be initially built using exposed brick masonry, and only in a second step, depending on successful fundraising, clad in the replica of the Baroque facade. While Stella’s design amounted to a kind of decorated shed built with concrete, to which three-dimensional stone facades plotted with CNC milling machines would be pasted like wallpaper, Kuehn Malvezzi’s proposal located the historical replica in the present by means of subtle but strategic interventions. That was, however, not what was wanted. This national, symbolic building was meant to undo Germany’s traumas of the twentieth century; to remove their traces and connect seamlessly to the year 1918, “as if all the pains of history had never existed.” The Berliner Schloss was shaped by the desire for a different past.

Just how radical this recourse to premodern architectural heritage was is revealed by the building of the castle’s dome in the years that followed. This element, which was added later, was executed in a way completely faithful to the original, including a cross on the dome and an inscription written by the original patron. The dome cross once crowned the castle’s chapel, which was located under the dome. Today, however, the building houses part of the museum’s non-European collection. What does it mean that this is crowned by a Christian symbol? The reconstruction of the cross trigged a debate in which its advocates wanted it to be understood both as a declaration of faith in Christianity and at the same time a symbol of loving one’s neighbor, tolerance, cosmopolitanism, and reconciliation. But the inscription by King Friedrich Wilhelm IV that was added along with the cross declares Christianity to be the only legitimate religion and called for a subservience that beat back the democratic revolution of 1848 and justified the absolutism of the time. Others defended the reconstruction of the cross and the inscription with historical authenticity and beauty, objecting that it no longer conveys its original meaning today. To dispense with it would be an act of self-denial and submission, they argued, like that described in Michel Houellebecq’s eponymous novel.

“Submission,” however, is a puzzling description for the Humboldtforum, where non-European cultural heritage, almost all of which was obtained through the violence of colonialism, is used to legitimize the reconstruction of the Prussian castle as a symbolic building for a united nation. Indeed, the decision to house the non-European collections of the Berlin State Museums in the Berliner Schloss was made in 1999, a strategic solution to secure the necessary approval from the political left parties (Grüne and Linke), who might otherwise object to reinstating the Prussian ruling house as the national cultural building at the heart of the German capital. Relocating the non-European works from the Ethnological Museum and the Museum of Asian Art in Berlin-Dahlem to the Humboldt Forum in the center of Berlin, in other words, provided a cover of political correctness.

Rendering of the Garnisonkirche, Potsdam. Image:, 2013.

The Garnisonkirche in Potsdam: The New Nonchalance and Radical-Right Influence

This nonchalance towards national heritage was also exemplified by the reconstruction of the Garnisonkirche (Garrison Church) in Potsdam, which began in 2017. The federal government is not the immediate client here, but in 2013 it elevated the project to the status of a “project of national importance” and finances more than half of the costs. This Baroque church, which was consecrated in 1735, was heavily damaged by aerial bombing in 1945, and its ruins were demolished in 1968. When it stood, the Garnisonkirche represented a connection between the Prussian ruling house, the Protestant Church, and the military, and thus also the problematic aspects of the Prussian legacy: absolutism, obedience of subjects, imperialism, militarism, nationalism, and hostility to democracy. In the Weimar Republic, it was an assembly point and symbol for the radical right wing that was hostile to the republic, and on March 21, 1933, the National Socialist regime was symbolically enthroned here with ecclesiastical and military solemnity.

In 1984, the West German army officer Max Klaar, who has become designated “extreme right-wing” by the Federal Defence Ministry, initiated the project. While serving in the Bundeswehr in Postam, he spent fifteen years advocating, ultimately successfully, for the reconstruction. Early on he received political support from the CDU and, a little later, from the Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands (SPD; Social Democratic Party of Germany) as well. In 2000, the Protestant Church got involved in the project at the urging of politicians and, in an effort to address admitted ambivalence about the historical site, supplemented Klaar’s basic concept with ideas of reconciliation and working for peace. Klaar who was becoming increasingly radicalized, withdrew from the project in 2005. Since then, the project has been continued by the church with some of Klaar’s former supporters. Currently, the first phase of construction is underway under the auspices of the Federal President, and according to a design in which the church tower faithfully replicates its original form, including its decoration with weapons and war trophies.

Now that construction has begun, the church’s participants in the project have distances themselves from the radical-right initiator of the project, and also spoken out against old and new Nazis. But neither that nor the ongoing work for peace and reconciliation has kept radical-right politicians from Alternative für Deutschland (AfD; Alternative for Germany) from advocating for the project without reservations. Likewise, it enjoys enthusiastic support from radical-right accounts and channels on Facebook and YouTube even today.

The problem with the Garnisonkirche is not that the church or the Federal President is pursuing some sort of radical-right idea, but rather that they declare this highly problematic site of Prussian history to be part of the “national family silver” and assert that it stands “for responsible Christian action for the community, for the combination of Christian faith and ‘Prussian virtues.’” This is only possible if those involved in the project practice historical revisionism and, effectively, turn the site of the perpetrators into a site of the victims. The site of the Garrison Church is closely connected to the injustice and violence for which the Prussians and Germans were responsible: from the partitioning of Poland by way of the colonial wars to the First World War, the right-wing radicalism of the Weimar Republic, and to National Socialism. For its supporters, however, the building is a valuable pearl of the Prussian heritage that was misused by the National Socialists, heavily damaged in wartime bombing, and shamefully destroyed by the GDR. It is notable, too, that critics of the projects are commonly referred to as “church haters,” “Ulbricht’s grandchildren,” “distorters of facts,” and so on, but fail to effectively distinguish themselves from the right. To ensure that the project continues being carried out, they want to avoid scaring off potential supporters, even if they do not work with them and do not share their views.

Protests against the reconstruction of the Garnisonkirche, Potsdam, 2016.


While the architectural reflection that took place on the history of German cities since the late 1970s was necessary, the associated wave of reconstruction has produced a strand of ideology that is problematic and is becoming increasingly radicalized. The uncompromising, precise reconstruction of lost buildings based on their outward appearances as recorded in photographs pursues a dubious agenda for the politics of history. Using supposedly innocuous terms such as “authenticity,” “beauty,” or “repairing the city,” a nationalist-conservative identity is being created while adopting techniques of historical revisionism. Accordingly, buildings prior to 1918, and therefore the monarchy, are uncritically and universally idealized; modern buildings after 1919, mostly from phases of a democratic polity, are universally defamed. Contemporary architects are accused of the “déformation professionnelle,” of an obsessive will to renew that allegedly ignores the public’s longing for tradition, cultural heritage, and beauty.

In public discourse, this inaccurate accusation has effectively concealed the orthodoxy of today’s reconstruction advocates. Yet reconstruction and modern architecture were never contradictory; the postwar era’s obsession with the future was a conflicted consensus on society as a whole that found its visible expression in architecture. The struggle of architects to find adequate forms of reconstruction—visible in Hans Döllgast for the Alte Pinakothek in Munich (1946–1957), Rudolf Schwarz for the Paulskirche in Frankfurt am Main (1947–1948); Kuehn Malvezzi in their design for the Berliner Schloss/Humboldtforum (2008), and Bruno Fioretti Marquez’s plans for the Masters’ Houses of the Bauhaus Dessau (2011–2014), to name just a few examples—does not just demonstrate architects’ interest in and talent for dedicating themselves to issues of reconstruction. It also reveals innovative ways that society can use architecture to appropriate and implement an architectural heritage that has been lost in a critical and constructive way. Today’s advocates of reconstruction in Germany, however, are not interested in a critical and reflective relationship with history, but rather in an uninterrupted connection to the period prior to 1918. In controversial cases, buildings from the period after 1919 are uncompromisingly eliminated, regardless of their architectural quality and historical relevance. In the name of history, history is erased.

In liberal societies, there are competing ideas on issues of architecture and urban planning that differ in each individual case and also change over time. The demolition of the Palast der Republik and the associated reconstruction of the castle was rejected by a clear majority of Berliners in the early years of the new millennium. The municipal politicians of Potsdamer used dubious means in 2014 to prevent a referendum on the Garnisonkirche in Potsdam because the project risked defeat. In the only referendum to be held on a reconstruction project—of the Ulrichskirche (St. Ulrich’s Church) in Magdeburg in 2011—seventy-six-percent voted against reconstruction. That only made it even more important for politicians to create the appearance of strong citizen participation, with the exception of the Frauenkirche (Church of Our Lady) in Dresden, however, whose participation was more simulatory than real.

Recently, a statement by an older CDU politician who has been active in Frankfurt am Main for more than twenty years clearly summed up all the problems of these developments in just a few words. The former city councilman and dean of schools regards the city’s modern theater building from 1963 as an “architectural contribution to the reeducation of our people,” which he perceives as an imposition and a burden. The reconstructions realized in Frankfurt since the 1980s are, by contrast, “balsam on the flayed soul of the city,” even though they are “attacked by ideologues of reeducation” today. Developments in architecture that have oscillated between nationalist conservatives and right-wing populism are not a unique to Germany but are a global phenomenon. Against the backdrop of Germany’s specific history, however, they have a particular volatility for the politics of history and memory that emerges ever more clearly.


Monument is a collaboration between e-flux Architecture and Het Nieuwe Instituut.

Philipp Oswalt is an architect and writer. Since 2006 he is Professor for Architecture Theory and Design at Kassel University.