Ideology and Architecture – Haus am Werderschen Markt

by Emilie Ellehauge

Haus am Werderschen Markt is the name of the building currently used as the back premises of the German Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Haus am Werderschen Markt was built in 1939 during the nazi-regime. The Third Reich needed a building to fit their new Reichsbank into, so they issued a competition where they turned down the suggestions of the two Bauhaus architects Walter Gropius and Ludwig Mies von der Rohe, who both later had to flee the country. Instead Heinrich Wolff won the competition for a design which seems to be in concordance with the ideology of that time.

But strangely enough the building was kept in use by the government first in the GDR and later in the reunited Germany. It is therefore interesting to treat Haus am Werderschen Markt in the light of the ideological use that the different institutions during the three different political systems have or could have utilized in using the building.

Haus am Werderschen Markt

Going for a walk in Berlin’s city centre, the feeling of awe you get when walking past this mastodon of a building is striking. But it is not a feeling of an idolizing awe, more like a submissive awe. The awe you feel is of the greater power. This effect that the building has on the viewer is indeed in concordance with the Nazi-ideology on how the individual should be subdued for instead having the government as spokesman of the individual interests.

So how did Wolff give this effect on its viewer? He made the viewer feel smaller by enlarging the different parts of the building and by the use of optical illusion. First of all, he designed the building without any breaks in the surface from the pedestrian level to the roof. By giving the building such a clean surface and not breaking the building up in sections the building is perceived as one giant unit rising before you, seeming almost impossible to perceive in its whole. If you look at the windows, it actually seems like the first floor is on the level of the large row of windows, which makes the bottom row of windows the basement of the building. When you are walking alongside the building the basement windows are still taller than you, making you feel very small in relation to the building. The three top rows of windows are in the same shape and design as the big ones, but much smaller, which is hard to notice when standing closer to the building. This gives you the optical effect of the building to seem much larger than it really is. Also the window frames are quite deep and the windows are quite dark, so that the building seems closed to the bypasses and a bit intimidating.

Window Reichsbank

After the war the building being situated in the former GDR it was being taken into use by the Ministry of Finance. Though the building now had almost the same function as before, the building had to represent the ‘opposing’ ideology: communism. And this fact is interesting. Does this tell us something about the two ideologies being not that far from each other in reality? Or does it merely mean that the two ideologies had to turn to the same strategy of branding? Or maybe they just had to reuse the existing buildings because of economic limitations? One thing is certain: both ideologies demanded subjugation of the individual to the collective’s interests and the state. In 1959 the building was turned into the headquarters for the Socialist Unit Party and you can’t help but think that the powerful effect of the building appealed to the party.

But after the peaceful revolution in 1989 the GDR ceased to exist and Germany was reunified. Why is this building today under the liberal and democratic system of contemporary Germany chosen to be a part of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs? An institution that is to reach out beyond the borders of Germany and bid international diplomats welcome inside Germany. Here in this later use something seems rather off. Does the modern state of Germany really want to use the effect of the building, evoking almost a fear in people, in the same way as it was previously done in Germany’s ideologically deviant past? I don’t think so. Especially not while there has been a tendency to try and make the governmental institutions as see-through and open as possible (e.g. the dome of the Reichstag). So maybe the choice of re-using the building is instead a way of accepting the history of Germany and not just brushing it to the side and thereby not learning anything from it. Maybe by choosing to use these controversial old buildings to house state institutions they let the mistakes of history keep on reminding the employees, politicians and even us to govern the country to a brighter future and never again turn into another totalitarian regime.

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