Architecture as a Process

Over a period of more than 20 years, the plans for the government quarter in the Federal Capital City of Bonn (1972–1992) reflect a checkered development history. Without an approach that hinged on construing a building as an open, not completed, and therefore mutable structure, it would not have been possible to plan the ensemble that was completed in 1992 in Bonn. The outcome is a multifaceted collage that for all the social changes and political resistance was shaped by different architectural minds.

The evolutionary process reflects the heterogeneous character of the place and the notion of the provisional-incomplete. At the same time, the long planning history (no less than eight Presidents of the Bundestag were in office over the course of the period in question) highlights the constancy and future resilience of the underlying idea of the “architectural landscape” that was then realized. It persists independent of changed formal fashions and technological developments: the plenary hall as a place for discussion, approximating the ideal of an “outdoor” assembly venue – the idea of the building as landscape projected inwards. 

Glass facades, light, and transparency were qualities Günter Behnisch regarded not as superficial means to translate the public principle underpinning democracy into architectural transparency and accessibility, but as a metaphor for the wish for a “democracy not as is, but as it should be.” He believed what was democratic about construction was the process by which it arose, the design approach, the way form was construed, plans made, and architects granted latitude.

“The question of democratic architecture is not a question of the external appearance of the architecture. It is the processed where democracy resides.”
Günter Behnisch 1982

Central Area of the Deutscher Bundestag Campus

Behnisch & Partner

The deliberations on a redesign for the government quarter in Bonn centered around the plenary and presiding council sections of the German Bundestag. The building of the teacher training academy, which had been converted into the Federal House, was simply not large enough to handle the constantly growing needs of government and the members of parliament. From 1972 until completion of the ensemble in 1992, the brief was changed on countless occasions, as was the scope of the planning – moving from grandiose new urban plans to additions and modernization, all of it happening all at once or one phase after the other. Not until 1987 was it finally decided to build a new plenary hall, by which time changed requirements again had to be considered, such as accommodating 150 additional members of parliament representing the new federal states.

Projekt architects:
until 1984 Claudio Novello
from 1984 Gerald Staib
Matthias Burkart, Hubert Eilers, Arnold Erhardt, Eberhard Pritzer, Alexander von Salmuth, Ernst-Ulrich Tillmanns, with the collaboration of Christian Kandzia

Hans Schwippert’s plans for the Federal House in Bonn, 1949–1972 

The Pedagogical Academy’s building in Bonn (Martin Witte, 1930–1933) served from Sept. 1, 1948, as the premises where the Parliamentary Council consulted on a new constitution. In November 1948 Hans Schwippert was appointed to handle the conversion measures to turn it into a Federal House. He attached a plenary hall to the former sports hall of the teacher training college, and a north and a south wing as well as a restaurant arose the same way. He opened up the sides with floor-to-ceiling glass walls and outfitted the closed, textile-covered rear wall with the coats-of-arms of the federal states. In 1953, the Bundesbaudirektion extended the hall and closed the sides with annexes. On the rear wall hangs the Federal eagle designed by Ludwig Gies.

“Architectural structures reflect the forces at work in their creation.”
Günter Behnisch 1977

Competition for urban planning ideas and revision stages, 

The large-scale plans to integration the Federal government buildings into the newly organized urban fabric of Bonn started in 1972 with a competition for urban planning ideas. Behnisch & Partner‘s proposal was the first one formally purchased. This was followed in 1973 by the competition for realization of the Federal government buildings, and the practice was rewarded with one of the four 1st prizes bestowed. Behnisch proposed a differentiated weave of circular standalone volumes for the areas for the members of parliament intended to reflect the principle of the division of powers in a democracy. They lie like islands in the meadows on the banks of the Rhine and obey a landscaping concept that envisaged extending the green zones right as far as downtown. 

“It is the architect’s task to reconcile the environment, technology, the necessities of daily life with people – or to reconcile people with these necessities. The preconditions for this are creative skills, and to a greater extent human and artistic qualities.”
Günter Behnisch 1972

Urban planning for the Federal quarter and considerations for a Green Heart, 1976–1979

After the failed attempt between the two architectural practices to cooperate previously recommended by the experts, Behnisch & Partner in 1976 were awarded the contract to develop the plenary sections of the Bundestag and Bundesrat North of the “Long Eugen.” A central Federal plaza, the Bundesplatz, was intended to act as the nodal point and linkage to the city proper and have prestigious functions. In 1978-9 this planning idea was expanded in an additional step and transformed into the concept of the “Green Heart.” It was intended to provide space for popular assemblies and link the buildings to a form a spacious, greened overall pattern between the Rhine, the meadows along the Rhine’s banks, and Heussallee.

“In our design for the parliament buildings in Bonn, as in Munich we wanted in a programmatic way or according to predefined notions or ideals, to represent something of our democracy not only as it is, but also definitely to convey something of our thoughts of what it could be.”
Günter Behnisch 1977

Outdoor areas and facades of the plenary complex, 1992

The ensemble as realized includes the plenary hall with the presiding council’s area on the Rhine side, the annex for the vice presidents, the entrance building, and the restaurant. The outer appearance is characterized by an elegant, slender load-bearing structure made of anthracite-colored steel and clear, cool materials. The facade is differentiated in layers, subdivided by brise-soleil elements made of bright metal, lattices for climbing plants made of untreated wood, and finely-structured emergency stairwells and balconies. The floor-to-ceiling glass facade ensures light penetrates deep into the interior and functions as the transition to the detailed inner facade. These practical/functional systems serve to bear the loads, provide climate protection, and offer security, too.

“Our form of government is supposed to be characterized by the fact that it is open to everything, even to weak forces, that it is open to stimuli, that it does not become encrusted. [...] I believe that culture should not only be a reproduction of our difficulties but should also incorporate desires and hopes.”
Günter Behnisch 1977

Plenary hall, 1992

The plenary hall has a lower hollow at its center in order to emphasize the links to the outside landscape. The hall enjoys daylight from all sides, and the multiple layers of the facade afford views at numerous points from Görresstrasse through to the Rhine meadows. It is surrounded on the inside by a likewise circular glass skin by way of an inner facade. The rear wall bears the Federal eagle designed as a three-layer aluminum sculpture in keeping with the 1953 plaster version created by Ludwig Gies.

“I think that authoritarian approaches to work inevitably lead to an architecture that has authoritarian aspects – and if this is the case, then democratic, open approaches to work must likewise lead to one with democratic and open features.”
Günter Behnisch 1980

Building for the vice-presidents, 1992

The two-story presiding council building on the Rhine side deploys a layered facade principle derived from that of the plenary hall but has a formal language of its own. Restrained, refined facade sections with brise-soleil elements and wrap-around escape-route balconies define the building’s outer look. The inner facade features an array of mutable elements made from a variety of materials. Translucent, seemingly Japanese cherrywood sliding elements with a Scobalit filling are combined with folding blinds made of fabric; in other sections, flexible wooden lattices or louvers function to protect spaces from prying eyes and to demarcate them. Along with the light which penetrates deep into the interior they create constantly changing light and shadow effects with an almost ornamental feel to them, adding a further immaterial layer to the building. 

“We make our society more human by rendering the time, the ways, and the means we avail ourselves of more human. We cannot start with the final product, in this case architecture.”
Günter Behnisch 1989

Light roof, 1992

A purpose-developed light roof ensures the light in the hall is natural: Different translucent levels in the roof create a variety of effects that correspond to the time of day and season. A system consisting of electronically controlled prisms aligned to the height of the sun reflect the direct sunlight but allow diffuse light to fall through the large round opening below. Beneath the insulation glazing there is a newly developed optical grid system made of glass and reflecting lenses as well as special lenses that direct dazzle-free daylight into the hall; this can be rounded out with artificial light. The underbelly of the roof is painted in high gloss on the sides to reflect the light and nature outside and thus generates a flowing transition that once again responds dynamically to brightness. 

“The momentum, the political will, the public interest that had sustained us and our planning for the Olympic facilities in Munich, there was none of that in Bonn. [...] It seems that size – sheer quantitative size – and power are two major evils. Power renders insensitive and hard, and size, in order to be manageable, has to be organized.”
Günter Behnisch 1982

Restaurant, 1992 

The restaurant with its terraces and gardens opening out on the Rhine side served as early as 1949 as the link here between the Bundesrat and the plenary hall. It boasts sections of different sizes and qualities. The large cafeteria abuts the wintergarden and the transition to the terrace outside. A circular, somewhat lower zone intervene in the outside world and its character as a special place is emphasized by a water basin. Likewise, there is a snack restaurant, bar and club room. Special features are the restaurant ceiling designed by Nicola De Maria and made of irregular surfaces in strong, bright colors and with “light holes” as well as deep blue wall areas, among others at the restaurant entrance. 

“The image of a free spatial order – reduced to spaces, energies [...], such an image allows many possibilities for the development of architecture. It lets you move away from the idea that a house with four walls has to be created. [...] And it was in this countryside – not in an enclosed house but in these open Rhine meadows, that the German Bundestag then convened.”
Günter Behnisch 1998

Ambulatories, 1992

The plenary hall is surrounded by ambulatories, small halls, podia and interim levels that all very clearly underscore the idea of a fluid space and the significance of the “spaces in the landscape.” Seating and private sections boasting various designs as well as platforms in part with balcony like protrusions serve as spaces with different qualities to them. They are outfitted with a variety of furniture, customized to the particular space, including armchairs by Alvar Aalto (“Tank” and “Paimio Chair”), red and black versions of Eileen Gray’s “Bibendum” armchair and the chrome-and-glass “E.1027” tables, black leather seats by Le Corbusier (“LC2” and “LC3”), the “Diamond Chair” by Harry Bertoia, Zaha Hadid’s seating sculpture “Woush” and other classics, including items by Marcel Breuer, Charles and Ray Eames, Egon Eiermann, Arne Jacobsen, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, and Eero Saarinen. 

“We should not determine the shape, the form of things we plan, and certainly not from the outset; rather, we should seek that form. And this can be a long process, depending on whether we manage to consider and go over many moments, many aspects and many areas of the task at hand, or whether we approach a goal quickly.”
Günter Behnisch 1995

Bird’s nest stairs, 1992 

The “bird’s nest stairs” emphasizes the transition to the presiding council’s section which was later added to the plans. In line with the concept of an assembly place that required no building, it functions as a metaphor for the branches of the trees outside. The structure made of maple rods bonded without any screws was developed using a model and in situ, and truly highlights how Behnisch & Partner worked through processes. 

“It is a fact that open concepts are also open to misuse. That is why responsibility must always be taken for them. But do they not therefore correspond precisely to our political situation, in which we must always be responsible for our activities and our behavior, and must never cede this responsibility to others, especially not to the powerful?”
Günter Behnisch 1979

Entrance building and lobby, 1992 

Unlike the outer appearance, on the inside collage-like arrangements and a plethora of colors, shapes and materials defined things. The foyer’s upper level offer a broad view out over the entire area through to the plenary hall and the meadows on the Rhine riverbank. Resembling so many terraces, the levels cling to the topography and are staggered along a broad staircase that runs down at an angle to the center of the hall. Numerous different oblique-angled railings and parapets, as well as ‘freely set’ light reflectors and lighting strips function to provide guidance in movement. Colored ceiling strips made of colored glass interact with light to create reflections that wander across the floor and walls. The dissolution into line-like elements and mirrored surfaces creates a great sense of permeability firmly in keeping with the concept of a building without walls. 

“Over the course of time spontaneous debate has become the norm rather than official statements to an audience. This is what gave rise to the circular shape.”
Günter Behnisch 1982

Circular seating layouts for the new-build plenary hall, 1987–92 

After it was resolved in 1987 to build a new plenary hall, the circular seating layout as chosen was then once again debated, but the decision upheld. In the further course of planning, Behnisch & Partner then examined numerous variants and shapes. In 1989, Günter Behnisch presented solutions with a three-quarter circle and a central aisle to the Council of Elders. The Federal government and the Bundesrat were positioned to one side of the presiding council, with the members of parliament seated in a three-quarter circle around them. 

German Reunification called for yet another change: The “Bonn Model” of two seats per desk had to be abandoned as some 150 additional seats were required for the members of parliament representing the new Federal states. The first six rows featured end-to-end tabling, while the five rows at the back had no desks. This way, the center of the hall and the existing hall gallery could be retained unchanged. 

“We never favored the circle with the intention of using it to establish democratic architecture or symbols for architecture. In the Plenary Chamber of the Parliamentary Building in Bonn, we created the seating arrangement in a circle. The members of parliament wanted a parliament based on debate, not one based on lectures.”
Günter Behnisch 1990