Home   Architects   Styles  













Name   Reichstag, New German Parliament
Architects   FOSTER, NORMAN
Date   1999
Address   Berlin, Germany
Floor Plan   61166 SQ.M.

Built at the end of the war-ravaged 20th century, the new German Parliament building is significant for the refurbishing of a tarnished image—not of the Reichstag itself, but of German national identity. The conversion of the Reichstag by Sir Norman Foster, completed in 1999, was the building’s most optimistic incarnation of its troubled history. The Reichstag always had symbolized a democratic German forum, although it was not until 1999 that a fairly elected democratic body convened within its chambers. In 1871 the German Parliament, operating under the strict control of Kaiser Wilhelm and Chancellor Bismarck, had very limited power. Traditionally convened at the convenience of the emperor, the appointed parliament was finally allowed to have a meeting place of its own in 1882. After two competitions, the design was awarded to Paul Wallot, a little-known German architect. The neo-Renaissance building was constructed between 1884 and 1894 after many design compromises negotiated between the Kaiser, Bismarck, and the parliamentarians. The building was a gift from the Kaiser to his people, but he actively hated it— reluctantly inscribing Dem Deutschen Volke (“to the German people”) over the entry in 1916, while privately referring to it as Reichsaffenhaus (“the imperial monkey house”).

The seating arrangement reflected the emperor’s power—his ministers and officials sat on a raised rostrum at the end of the room, presiding over the members. Members could only address the body formally; interruptions and debate were rare. A fire, rumored to be an act of arson by the Nazis, devastated the building in 1933. The scarred building was then shelled and vandalized by the Russian army in 1945, leaving it a ruin. A poorly executed partial renovation in 1961 restored the building’s functionality, but parliamentary sessions were not held due to political opposition by Russia and England—two of the four occupying forces in then-divided Berlin. Existing in the shadow of the Berlin Wall, the Reichstag was the backdrop of several historic takeovers, protests, speeches, and concerts. In 1991, two years after the fall of the Berlin Wall and reunification of West and East Germany, the Bundestag narrowly approved a move of the capitol from Bonn back to Berlin. It was a controversial decision; the wrecked and ill-regarded Reichstag was chosen over the popular provisional Parliament Building then nearing completion. A competition for converting the Reichstag was held in 1992. In the second stage of the competition, Foster and Associates were awarded the commission. Reconstruction began in 1995 after a dramatic wrapping of the building by the environmental artists Christo and Jean-Claude. Work was completed in 1999, and the first parliamentary session was held on 19 April 1999. The competition’s winning scheme called for a light steel and glass roof hovering over the entire Reichstag. This proposal could be seen as similar in spirit to the elegant wrapper Foster designed for the Carré d’Art in Nimes (1984–93). As the design of the master plan of the surrounding area evolved, the huge glass cover was eliminated. Design emphasis was shifted to a new dome that would become a lantern for the building. From the exterior, the renovation was restrained. The sleek interiors of metal and glass were visible behind the old masonry colonnade. The gigantic dome, mostly glass and striated by spiraling ramps, was the most visible change to the 19th-century facade. Internally, the old and new materials were clearly separated and placed in dialogue. Exposing layers of history found during the renovation became part of the design strategy. Marks of the masons, 19th-century decorative moldings, Russian bullet holes, and graffiti all were framed by fresh plaster walls. The main organization of the original building was preserved—a central parliament chamber flanked by two exterior courts. The chamber was semi-circular and gently raked with a concentric public viewing gallery cantilevered from the second floor. In a notable departure from the 19th-century room, the ceiling of the chamber followed the geometry of the dome above. Light was distributed evenly through a series of mirrors and filters. A central reflective element formed the hub of a bicycle-wheel cable system anchored at the spring point of the dome. Light and airy, the room’s focus was an enormous eagle, an icon moved from Bonn. Circulation in the building was organized to reflect a genuine democracy. Citizens, lawmakers, and visitors all entered through the same portal and used the grand stair. The formality of the original plan was restored, removing the many small revisions from the 1960s renovation that had obscured the secondary axes. Most of the massive masonry walls were retained, but a new transparency was gained through skillful manipulation of natural and artificial light.

At the end of the public sequence was the spectacular glass dome with intertwining double helical ramps. The structure of the 40-meter dome, along with ramps and central mirror, all are hung from the original masonry walls. This required the construction of a significant temporary structure and the use of a 40-meter crane (one of only four in Europe at the time). From the dome, visitors gained a panoramic view of the city as well as a limited view down to the parliamentary chamber illuminated beneath. In the middle of the dome was a mirrored sculptural element that had multiple functions: it directed light, which was diffused by a shade, to the chamber below; it reflected focused artificial light beams across the city at night; and it acted as a heat chimney, exhausting hot air from the chamber below. Appropriate to Germany’s innovative environmental legislation in the latter part of the 20th century, the Reichstag followed many sustainable building practices. The building adapted the original 19th-century heating and cooling strategy, relying on two existing aquifers. These underground lakes were used to store heated or cooled water, which then flowed into radiators in the floors or ceilings. Power was generated by burning vegetable and seed oils, renewable resources that burned with minimal waste.



Sennott R.S. Encyclopedia of twentieth century architecture, Vol.3.  Fitzroy Dearborn., 2005.


The transformation of the Reichstag is rooted in four related issues: the Bundestag’s significance as a democratic forum, an understanding of history, a commitment to accessibility and a vigorous environmental agenda. As found, the Reichstag was mutilated by war and insensitive rebuilding. The reconstruction takes cues from the original fabric; the layers of history were peeled away to reveal striking imprints of the past – stonemason’s marks and Russian graffiti − scars that have been preserved as a ‘living museum’. But in other respects it is a radical departure; within its heavy shell it is light and transparent, its activities on view.

Public and politicians enter the building together and the public realm continues on the roof in the terrace restaurant and in the cupola, where ramps lead to an observation platform, allowing people to ascend symbolically above the heads of their representatives in the chamber. The cupola is now an established Berlin landmark. Symbolic of rebirth, it also drives the building’s natural lighting and ventilation strategies. At its core is a ‘light sculptor’ that reflects horizon light down into the 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.

The building provides a model for sustainability by burning renewable bio-fuel – refined vegetable oil − in a cogenerator to produce electricity: a system that is far cleaner than burning fossil fuels. The result is a 94 per cent reduction in carbon dioxide emissions. Surplus heat is stored as hot water in an aquifer deep below ground and can be pumped up to heat the building or to drive an absorption cooling plant to produce chilled water. Significantly, the building’s energy requirements are modest enough to allow it to produce more energy than it consumes and to perform as a mini power station in the new government quarter.



Bernhard Schulz, Norman Foster, Wolfgang Thierse, The Reichstag The Parliament Building by Norman Foster

Cullen, Michael, “Reichstag Revisited,” Architectural Review 193, no. 1153 (March 1993)

Davey, Peter, “Democracy in Berlin,” Architectural Review 206, no. 1229 (July 1999)

Gregotti, Vittorio, “A Lost Opportunity,” Casabella 601 (May 1993)

Jones, Peter, “Parliamentary Precedents,” Architectural Review 193, no. 1153 (March 1993)

Taylor, Ronald Jack, Berlin and Its Culture: A Historical Portrait, New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 1997

Photos and Plan    






New Projects






Support us