Physical Dramaturgy: Ein (neuer) Trend?

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Bodily harm to a train station

If the German Railway has its way, nothing will remain of Berlin's new central station but a monstrosity. By Horst Bredekamp

Once a ruin in the lacklustre terrain across the Spree River from the abandoned Reichstag, the Lehrter Bahnhof is now Berlin's central train station, at the very heart of the nation's pulsing capital. Its dramatic rebuilding has been a costly and protracted affair. And the architects took Deutsche Bahn to court for bastardising their plans. The court's finding: if Deutsche Bahn can prove that its alterations saved costs, it can complete the station as it sees fit. Horst Bredekamp argues that if the new plans did not reduce costs, Deutsche Bahn should be obliged to "negate the negation" and build the station as the architects conceived it - and thus save the station and the city from an ugly disfigurement.

There is no better way to begin a visit to Berlin than with a short ride on Berlin's "S-Bahn" from Bahnhof Friedrichstrasse to Alexanderplatz, the two buildings that ushered in the era of the elevated railway station. It's an unforgettable first impression: gliding through the city at second-floor window height. The best bit is passing the Museum Island, where the interplay of art and transport perfectly embodies Berlin's bipolar attitude to life.

Bahnhof Friedrichstrasse has been superbly restored as part of a strategy on the part of German Railways, or Die Bahn, to keep up with airline competition. Die Bahn often drives us to distraction with poor service, but these efforts can truly be said to represent a return of railway station culture. A great promise, especially for Germany's eastern states. Lehrter Bahnhof, one stop before Friedrichstrasse, was to be the jewel in the crown and Berlin's new main station. The building really does deserve superlatives. Its logistical and structural achievements make it a place of pilgrimage for engineers from all over the world. One of the wonders of the project is that the Berliners noticed almost nothing of the colossal construction work; life simply went on as usual.

The new Hauptbahnhof - Lehrter Bahnhof, simulation. © DB

The prize-winning design by Gerkan, Marg and Partners with two towers looking over the curve of the station roof, promised to become Berlin's architectural landmark of the twenty-first century. It was to claim its place in Berlin's long and famous tradition of artistic industrial architecture – from Peter Behrens' AEG Turbine Factory and Josef Paul Kleihues' workshop building for the city refuse disposal services through to Oswald Mathias Ungers' sewage pumping station.

Like every artefact, a building either succeeds or fails. Berlin's recent architectural history is full of examples of both, but Lehrter Bahnhof takes this process to a new dimension. When it opens, it will give Berlin a new centre and transform the very fabric of the city, reconfiguring its rhythm and orchestration. For one thing, it will link up with the Potsdamer Platz development. The Hamburger Bahnhof, the Natural History Museum and Charité hospital will shift suddenly from the periphery to the centre of attention. The surrounding urban wasteland currently lends the station building the aura of a flying saucer, but it will, in all probability, quickly disappear. The changes to the appearance of Lehrter Bahnhof are instrumental in this respect.

Hauptbahnhof - Lehrter Bahnhof under construction. © DB

Public concern was first aroused in 2001, when it was announced that 130 metres were to be simply lopped off the length of the 450-metre glass roof. A length of 320 metres still seemed gigantic, and as the glistening tube began to take shape the harm initially appeared relative. But as the office towers grew, the calamity became more obvious with every passing day. The interplay between the length of the ribbon of glass and the height of the towers, originally in a charged equilibrium, now insults any sense of proportion. One can imagine what a cinematic effect the trains would have offered, accelerating out like bullets from a gun. Now they will just chunter off into the open air. The sleek beast that would have encompassed these platforms has mutated into a lumpy monstrosity.

Others have already demonstrated that neither time nor money justified the shortening. The architectural firm Gerkan, Marg and Partners is famous – indeed among architects, sometimes feared – for its punctuality and cost-efficiency. The glass panels had already been made. And the ultimate irony of the short roof is that the front carriages of the high-speed ICE trains will be left out in the wind and rain – the first class. A populist move? We will never know. But the intervention certainly impairs the station's function as well as its appearance.

The deformation of the interior is no less gratuitous and equally fatal. The architects had planned a neo-Gothic vault with great pointed arches curving over the underground floors to create a gigantic subterranean hall. The arches receding into the distance on different levels would have called to mind the lightness of Arab architecture. The planned lighting and acoustics would have liberated the huge space from the auditory and visual noise of DIY stores and supermarkets. The designation "cathedral of transport" would not have seemed exaggerated for this ennoblement of functional architecture. Europe would have gained an unparalleled underground theatre of light and motion.

Cathedral of transport. The original design by GMP-Architects. © GMP

But it was not to be. In the summer of 2004 – after the contract for the arched roof had been put out to tender – a Berlin firm of architects was commissioned to construct the most hideous of all flat ceiling solutions, grey steel cladding. The horribleness of this is particularly clear at the places where the ascending columns pierce the suspended ceiling. The round openings intersect aimlessly with the beginnings of the arches, providing glimpses into the wasted space behind.

Warehouse of transport. The new design. © GMP

The cathedral of transport has turned into a warehouse roofed with conveyor belts. Where the aerodynamic forms of the trains would have been taken up and amplified by the vaults, they appear instead truncated by the flat ceiling. It is as if the trains are being squeezed into the platforms like the guests crammed into tubes in Japanese capsule hotels.

The Western understanding recoils at the idea that visual forms belong in the realm of those secondary worlds which can be accepted or rejected according to preference. The interventions in the appearance of Lehrter Bahnhof surpass even that level of ignorance by devaluing forms that have already been built. Acts of this sort do not play out at the level of secondary phenomena – Aby Warburg spoke of the "human rights of the eye". Here physical perceptions are affected, and for that reason, the alterations amount to bodily harm to the millions who will enter this station. It is the biggest disaster Die Bahn has ever inflicted on the citizens.

In the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, design was respected. "Visions", once laid down, were binding for both partners. Mareile Büscher's historical studies have shown that in cases of conflict, patrons were very open to mediation and that artists generally got their way without suffering consequences if they overstepped the terms of their contract. That is one reason why those epochs produced works that millions of people are prepared to travel by train and plane to admire today.

If the mischief takes its course and Lehrter Bahnhof is completed according to the current plans, it will still be celebrated as an architectural masterpiece and photographers will find suitable perspectives to gloss over the distorted proportions. But the eulogists and image-enhancers will always know they are making the best of a bad job. And the owners will be barred from even those compensations. They have got themselves into the pickle of having to justify the alterations by claiming that Lehrter Bahnhof is purely functional architecture without any particular aesthetic value. This is their only way to get around laws covering intellectual property rights. If it has no visual added value, it can be altered at will. In future, whenever Hartmut Mehdorn, CEO of Deutsche Bahn AG, is tempted to call the station beautiful, elegant or even dignified, he will have to hold his tongue to avoid admitting his legal adversaries were right.

Hauptbahnhof - Lehrter Bahnhof under construction. In the foreground the German Chancellory. © DB

The targeted attack on these two central aesthetic features arouses the suspicion that an owner accustomed to having his own way has violated the architects' rights in order to make the building comply with his will. Despite claims to the contrary, no time was gained; it was lost in discussions. Money was not saved; the costs increased. The upshot is that culture was destroyed in the name of economics, while this will in fact weaken the economy.

The actions of Die Bahn may be psychologically abstruse, but they are not without method, and have their historical precedents. The planned inauguration date of Lehrter Bahnhof is also the five hundredth anniversary of the laying of the foundation stone for St Peter's Basilica in Rome. The story of its construction was an incessant alternation of construction and demolition. No new pope was satisfied until he had made the building his own by destroying parts of his predecessor's plans and parts of the building that had already been constructed.

For all the differences between the buildings – epoch, function, design – the mechanism is comparable. Applied to Lehrter Bahnhof, Mehdorn's swipe at the architects' design also struck at the concept of his predecessor Heinz Dürr, whose wanted to make the railway competitive with road and air travel through a renaissance of the railway station, and in the process create a cultural landmark. With his deformations, Mehdorn has slashed himself free from the heritage of the ground breaking former chief executive.

In the process, damage has been done to the architects' intellectual property, to an outstanding work of artistic functional architecture, to the reputation of the flat roof architects and above all, to the standing of the owners. For generations to come, the monstrosity of Lehrter Bahnhof will remain associated with the name of its disfigurer. In Hamburg they have never forgotten how Kaiser Wilhelm II stopped the original design of their main station with a flourish of the imperial quill. Everlasting damnation is not a pretty fate. Salvation for Mehdorn could yet come, in the guise of a judge who shows him mercy by granting Gerkan's suit.

In the case of St Peter's, a fabulous work was created in the end, because the destruction of already built parts was annulled. It would be a calamity for the face of Berlin and modern architecture if Lehrter Bahnhof were not to go through this process too: revising the revision, lengthening the shortened roof, doing away with the flat ceiling.

The possibility of a negation of the negation, a rejection of the rejection, is demonstrated by the station's optical counterpart, the Reichstag. In 1992, the German Bundestag initially voted against having a dome because it appeared to embody the imperial authoritarianism that had caused Germany's downfall. After Michael Cullen and Tilman Buddensieg – historian and art historian – discovered that the dome had been constructed as a gesture of opposition to autocratic imperial power, the Council of Elders, and later the whole Bundestag, overturned their original decision and commissioned Norman Foster to design the dome, which has since become a symbol of the Republic. A symbolism that cuts differently when we look out of the dome to the north-west, to the new main station. The choice here involves more than matters of etiquette. It is a question of mentality and a storm warning to the nation.


The article was originally published in German in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung on November 17, 2005.

Horst Bredekamp teaches art history at Humboldt University in Berlin. His books include "The Lure of Antiquity and the Cult of the Machine".

Translation: Meredith Dale.

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