Green architects are trying to prevent the reconstruction of one of the most important buildings by the architectural genius Karl Friedrich Schinkel. But why? Do people who are politically left hate beauty?
Do people who are politically left hate beauty? I withdraw the question. Let me put it differently: do leftists have a particular problem with pleasing proportions?
I came across a construction scandal while reading the newspapers. Those involved: Karl Friedrich Schinkel, master builder and urban planner, as well as the Bundesstiftung Bauakademie, a forum primarily for green architects who are also progressive in every respect.
Schinkel is probably the best architect Germany has ever had. We owe him the Neue Wache on Unter den Linden boulevard, the Schauspielhaus on Gendarmenmarkt and the Altes Museum next to the cathedral. Good architecture is like pornography. It’s not always easy to say what makes them special, but when you stand in front of them, you recognize them immediately.
The most important building that Schinkel had erected is the Berlin Building Academy, a brick building that was revolutionary for the 19th century. It burned down after an air raid in February 1945 and was then torn down by the GDR regime in 1962. In every street survey, a clear majority voted for reconstruction, which is why the Bundestag passed a resolution to this effect six years ago and also made 62 million euros available to take account of the will of the citizens.
A clear decision by the sovereign, money for the reconstruction of the beloved building: All is well that ends well, one would think – well, if it weren’t for the architects from the Federal Foundation Bauakademie, who think that Karl Friedrich Schinkel is no longer right fits in with the times: too old, too reactionary and not ecologically conscious enough.
Therefore, instead of the reconstruction, a house with a “real laboratory character” is to be built, which feels committed to “holistic, sustainable planning and construction”. Yes, a house that, on closer inspection, is no longer a profane building, but an “open platform for knowledge and dialogue”: socially exemplary, socially conscious and of course “climate-resilient” above all. That’s what a forty-strong “think tank” and “citizens’ workshop” decided.
How compatible is the project with the decision of the Bundestag to rebuild? Quite simply, you now plan a building “in Schinkel’s sense”. Anything is possible with this ingeniously devious formulation, even the construction of an ecologically correct greened exhibition center.
It almost seems to be a law of nature: as soon as the decision is made anywhere in Germany to rebuild an old building, a chorus of critics join in lamenting why this is terribly backward-looking, if not to say right-wing.
Energy has never been as expensive as it is now. But instead of panicking, you should calmly check potential savings at home. As our guide shows, there are many of them.
The arguments are always the same: the reconstruction is unimaginative and forgetful of history, a motion of no confidence in modernity that one must oppose for reasons of historical responsibility. If you allow the discussion some time, the reference to National Socialism will appear with almost 100% certainty, in which all bourgeois longing for facades supposedly inevitably ends.
That’s how it was in Dresden when a citizens’ association decided against the advice of the architects’ guild to rebuild the destroyed old town as faithfully as possible to the original. This was the case in Frankfurt, where the old town houses on the Römer prevailed over the competing design made of glass and steel. And so it was, of course, with the greatest fall from grace, the rebuilding of the Hohenzollern Palace in Berlin. One pillar too many and you’re back in the Third Reich with both feet: That’s why it’s best to leave it at a smooth facade, without any pomp and plaster.
Even with the reconstruction there is no peace. The city palace stands after seven years of construction, a provocation of beauty for all those who argued against it. Now it’s about the inscription, which runs around the dome in gold on a blue background. They are quotations from the Bible, as was customary in the 17th century. Not cosmopolitan enough and therefore inappropriate, is the opinion of Minister of State for Culture Claudia Roth, who wants to have the Bible words superimposed.
If you ask the audience, the vote is usually unequivocal. The people who have to live between the cubes that modern architecture gives them enjoy the facades of Frankfurt’s town houses or the dome of the city palace a hundred times more than one of the blocks of stone that are thrown by the thousands over Germany.
The layman doesn’t ask whether behind every façade there really is a brick building or maybe just profane concrete. He is simply happy that his eyes can find support on ledges and parapets instead of gliding helplessly over stone and glass. But that alone makes the reconstruction suspicious from the point of view of the experts: where the ordinary person can agree unreservedly, there is always danger ahead.
Interestingly, there is a strong connection between a penchant for architectural purism and political leanings. I remember a dinner many years ago where I got into conversation with the ZDF editor-in-chief and committed social democrat Peter Frey about the stucco reduction bonus that social democratic local politicians had offered to rid old buildings in West Berlin of all trinkets. With shotcrete against bourgeois attitudes, what an absurd event, I said. To which Frey replied that he also found smooth walls nicer. I was speechless for a moment, which doesn’t happen often for me.
The contempt for ornament is all the more astonishing since those who despise it in their private lives have no objection to stucco molding or flourishes. But on the contrary. If one commissioned an investigation into the place of residence of the opponents of reconstruction, it would inevitably come to the conclusion that the greatest advocates of modern building can be found on the floors of the old building, on whose ceilings exactly the same decoration is found that they castigate in sweeping articles.
Conversely, there is never a storm of indignation when the construction of another business glass case or sandstone silo is pending. So colossal atrocities, which are then called Mosse-Palais or Riem-Arkaden and have as much to do with palace and arcade as a bulldog with a greyhound, occur completely unhindered.
Only when one of the political decision-makers accidentally gets lost in the vicinity does the nightmare that has become stone attract attention. There is a beautiful story of how the former Governing Mayor of Berlin, Klaus Wowereit, once stopped in front of the Alexa, a pink concrete colossus near Alexanderplatz, and expressed his astonishment that such a monstrosity could have been approved.
I still haven’t quite figured out why so many aesthetically trained people have such an aversion to stucco facades and baroque scrolls in public spaces. Maybe it’s about a secret program of distinction: the silo building for the plebs, the bel étage exclusively for oneself.
Or as an architect you want to prove that you are avant-garde and thus have a vocation for higher things. Of course, no putti and no golden eagle fit there. We know from history that the most intelligent people can have a soft spot for the monstrous.
What has grown and nested leaves little room for bold dreams of redesign. That’s why the redesigner also loves the fallow land on which to build. Then others have to live with his legacy.
• Read all of Jan Fleischhauer’s columns here.
The readers love him or hate him, Jan Fleischhauer is indifferent to the least. You only have to look at the comments on his columns to get an idea of how much people are moved by what he writes. He was at SPIEGEL for 30 years, and at the beginning of August 2019 he switched to FOCUS as a columnist.
Fleischhauer himself sees his task as giving voice to a world view that he believes is underrepresented in the German media. So when in doubt, against the herd instinct, commonplaces and stereotypes. His texts are always amusing – perhaps it is this fact that provokes his opponents the most.
You can write to our author: By email to email@example.com or on Twitter @janfleischhauer.