Spending winter in Berlin, how could I not jump at the opportunity of visiting the Bundestag - a Norman Foster triumph. Now, having now seen it for myself. I can safely say that no photograph can do it justice and that this is a building that you really must see for yourself. Save for the fact that it’s a national landmark, infused with social, cultural and historical meaning, it’s also an extraordinary accomplishment of modern architecture. (Disclosure, I am a tremendous fan of Norman Foster).
Built at the end of the 19th century, to mark the unification of Germany under Bismark, and a Parliamentary Democracy under the Weimar Republic, the building (then known as the Reichstag) was mysteriously set alight in 1933. Claiming it to be a plot, the Nazis famously used this incident to suspend the constitution and grab power. There then followed a terribly dark period in German history.
Before I talk about the design itself, let me point out that if you wish to worship at the alter of Norman Foster, a little advance planning is required! This means booking a slot on the Bundestag’s website, preferably a few days beforehand (it is a very popular attraction). You are given a choice of three different time slots (you can rank them and, with luck, will be allocated your first) and then sent sent a confirmation email, which you should print out and take with you on the day, along with your passport. Without these, you won’t be allowed in (I'm serious; I saw a couple being turned away, despite great remonstrations).
This aside, I found the entire process simple and, even better, free of charge. Exploring the Dome, use of an audio guide and even touring the Parliament will cost you nothing. Just make sure you arrive 15 minutes before your slot so you can pass through security. Then, precisely on time (in true German style!) your group will be led inside.
The building (which had been badly destroyed in World War II) was reconstructed in the 60’s but was not used (since West Germany’s capital was then Bonn). After reunification, and many discussions, a new design project was agreed upon and the Bundestag officially reopened in 1999.
Wow! The first word that springs to mind as I walk in is “futuristic.” Entirely made of glass, the spiral ramps resembles a double helix and lead you up, up and up to an observation platform. Along the way, and at the top, you are afforded truly magnificent 360 views views of the city.
Furthermore, this building is a model of eco-friendly practises. It burns renewable bio-fuel which creates electricity…it’s much cleaner than using fossil fuel and leads to huge reduction in CO2 emissions. Surplus heat is stored elsewhere and used to heat the building in colder times. I’m reasonably sure that this makes the Bundestag the most ‘green’ Parliament on the planet.
I visited in the morning, but at night I'm sure it's just as spectacular! At its core of the cupola is a fantastic object, shaped like a cone and glittering with tiny mirrors. Foster calls this a ‘light sculptor“. It has been designed to “reflect horizon light down into the debating chamber, while a sun-shield tracks the path of the sun to block solar gain and glare. As night falls, this process is reversed – the cupola becomes a beacon on the skyline, signalling the vigour of the German democratic process.”
And something else - the top is entirely open (beware - if you go in winter, as I did, this means it’s going to be chilly at the top so dress warmly). From here you have a bird’s eye view of Berlin - and on the clear, crisp, sunny day I visited, endless landmarks were visible. Walking back to the bottom, at the base of the glittery Dome, there’s also a photographic exhibition detailing the history of the building.
So what do I think of the design? I have to say, even by my critical standards, this is a seriously impressive piece of architecture. The skylight plus the inverted cone of mirrors and the ‘occulus’ (with the reflected light that illuminates the debating chamber below) has simply bowled me over. I’m already contemplating my next visit, hopefully at dusk (the time photographers call ‘golden hour’ - before day turns to night and there’s sufficient light to give you the shots you yearn for). I’ve was also lucky when I visited - the sky was an azure blue - perfect for my purposes.
My advice - this comes under the 'must see' heading when visiting the German capital. But it's a major attraction, so I'd advise booking at least two weeks in advance (especially in school holidays or over the summer). For more information check out to the following website at:
Norman Foster - I salute you!