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  • Writer's pictureDr Julien Drouart

Reichstag building: Visit the dome of the Parliament

Updated: Jan 12, 2022

Le Palais du Reichstag accumule les symboliques.
Democratic renewal through architectural innovation

As a symbol of German democracy, the Reichstag building is a must-see during your visit to Berlin.

The Reichstag building is a highlight.

In the summer of 1995, the artists Javacheff and Denat de Guillebon undertook the wrapping of the Reichstag building in silver cloth. The event will be followed by the whole world and several million Germans will witness its realization. The monumental work inscribes political power in a constantly renewed ephemerality. The artist thus defines the challenges of the new German democracy.

Although it played virtually no role during the National Socialist period, the Reichstag is a systematic reminder of totalitarianism. More than that, it is a reminder of the failure of the democratic system. Parliamentary democracy had allowed the Nazis to come to power legally. At the same time, it had shown its inability to become a bulwark against fascism. The burning of the building in February 1933 led to the adoption of exceptional measures that laid the foundations for the dictatorship.

After reunification, Berlin once again becomes the capital and the Reichstag once again houses the national parliament. However, renovation work is necessary. Since architecture is not neutral but reflects contemporary issues, a legitimate question arises in the public debate: what architectural form will best symbolise the new German democratic system?

The British architect Norman Foster, a visionary who had previously distinguished himself with his modern designs, was called in. He combines modernity and tradition, glass and stone in a single dynamic. He renewed the symbolism by building a replacement dome for the one that had been destroyed after the war. The opacity of the first set of dome is now replaced by a transparent and open structure.

While the architectural achievement is undeniable, Foster has succeeded above all in giving a face and a meaning to the reunified Germany. Better still: the upper parts of the building are accessible to the general public.

A dive into the heart of German democracy

It is possible to visit the dome of the Reichstag building free of charge. However, access is regulated. An online registration must be confirmed in advance. The visitor must undergo the usual identity and security checks. Finally, access to the terrace of the building is only allowed under strict supervision. These restrictions are obvious and no one can claim to be exempt from them. On the other hand, the organisation of the reception teams is such that movement remains fluid and expectations are very limited. From the huge terrace, one can enjoy a panoramic view of Berlin and the adjacent complexes (Tiergarten Park, Sony Center, etc.).

A few hundred metres from the Reichstag building are the imposing New Chancellery and the parliamentary committee building. Both are equally modern buildings in which glass is a prolific material.

The access to the dome itself is open at several points. At its inner base, a round square is formed around a gigantic pillar made of reflecting glass and mirrors. An exhibition on the history of the German democratic model is presented to the visitor. The plenary hall, where the German members of parliament sit, can be seen below.

Afterwards, a huge circular staircase leads to the top of the structure in an unforgettable climb. Audio guides are available to the public. In addition, the visitors' service also offers the opportunity to attend a one-hour presentation on the functioning of political institutions in Germany. The presentation is followed by a visit to the building's terrace. The registration procedure is the same as above.

When architecture reflects political ambitions

At the end of a terrifying 20th century, reunified Germany was faced with two problems. Firstly, it had to define a democratic model in which the citizens would be in contact with their representatives. Trust does not exclude control.

The new Reichstag succeeds magnificently in materialising in a single architectural ensemble the symbolism of transparency, proximity and openness. In the end, the conditions of access remain very flexible in view of the strategic importance of the premises and tend to be more democratic. The Reichstag was seen as the showcase of the new Germany, through its architecture and the services offered to the general public. Beyond political considerations, a visit can be satisfied with the visual to enjoy a panorama and a grandiose architecture.

Secondly, there was another challenge, namely the relationship to the past. The Reichstag, it is worth mentioning, was not rebuilt but renovated. The renovation work modernised a pre-existing complex whose current foundations are original. In other words, the stone reminds us of where we came from and the glass shows where we are going: from the earth to the sky.

Foster's achievement is essential to the policy. There is no denial of history. German democracy does not erase the nation's past, however dark and tragic it may be. Therefore, a visit to the Reichstag building is a must for every visitor to the German capital.

Reasons to go

  • An architectural feat

  • The strength of the symbols

  • The very democratic access conditions

Reasons to avoid

  • The lack of sufficient public toilets

  • An idealised view of the German democratic system

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