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Berlin plans to expand chancellery

August 23, 2021

A €600 million renovation plan will see the seat of the German chancellor balloon to be larger than the White House or the Elysee Palace. But why might Germans be opposed to their leader's seat of power being too grand?

Head of the Chancellery Helge Braun and architects Axel Schultes and Charlotte Frank examine plans to expand the chancellery
Schulte and Frank, the same architects who built the chancellery, are designing the controversial expansionImage: Bernd von Jutrczenka/dpa/picture alliance

If you take a stroll down Berlin's most famous promenade, Unter den Linden, duck through the crowds of tourists at the Brandenburg Gate and turn right in front of the sprawl of the Tiergarten park — you will find yourself in the government district. 

Your first stop: the Reichstag, the home of Germany's federal parliament (the Bundestag) and one of the most famous buildings in German collective memory. 

The history of the building is in many ways the history of the last 150 years of Germany. The 1894 neo-Baroque edifice was commissioned by the united German empire's first chancellor, Otto von Bismarck. It became the home of a democratically elected parliament in the Weimar Republic, before being burned down as a symbol of democracy by the Nazis in 1933. 

After the war, during the years of divided Berlin, it found itself located a few meters (yards) from the Berlin Wall on the west side and was left largely to fall into disrepair. It was finally renovated and reopened in 1999 as the seat of parliament of a reunified republic. Although not beloved by all, the Reichstag has become a symbol of continuity in German politics, with a nod to the modern indicated by its Norman Foster-designed glass cupola. 

Drawing of the Reichstag in 1918
The Reichstag building in 1918Image: Stapleton Historical Collection/Heritage Image/picture alliance

Old versus new 

 In stark opposition, the federal chancellery is a 25,000-square-meter (269,00-square-foot) slickly designed postmodern glass and metal creation, completed brand-new in 2001. It crouches a little further along the banks of the Spree River, mirroring the Reichstag. This is the seat of the German chancellor and, along with various ministries, constitutes the executive office of the German government. 

Completing the triptych is Germany's judiciary, the federal constitutional court, which sits in the western city of Karlsruhe. 

A government plan to expand and renovate the chancellery has been under discussion since 2010. After being postponed multiple times, work is now scheduled to begin in 2023 and will take at least four years. The plan would see the complex double in size — and will cost over €600 million ($720 million).

The architects are Axel Schulte and Charlotte Frank — who won a German Architecture Prize for their original design of the same building, even as others branded it the "washing machine" or the "elephant's toilet."

The modern federal chancellery
The federal chancellery is made of glass and concreteImage: Christophe Gateau/dpa/picture alliance

The complex history of the chancellery 

The plan has surprised some because the current chancellery building is only 20 years old. Before that, the small city of Bonn, tucked away in the Rhine valley, served as the provisional capital and seat of parliament and chancellor for West Germany in the years of division. But in the 1990s, following heated debate, they upped sticks and moved back to Berlin. 

The chancellery building includes a small apartment for the chancellor. But up until now, only one chancellor has occupied it: Gerhard Schröder, who lived there part-time until 2005. His successor, Angela Merkel, prefers to stay in the comfortable townhouse she shares with her husband a short walk away along the river. 

Instead, the chancellery has become a symbol of the state: It is the place where Merkel hosts foreign dignitaries and conducts most of her business.  

While the West German chancellor resided in a humble glass bungalow in Bonn, Berlin's predecessor to the building was the Neue Reichskanzlei that had been designed by Hitler's infamous architect Albert Speer in the 1930s. 

A 1938 photograph of Hitler's New Reichskanzlei
Hitler's architect ally Albert Speer designed the marble-fronted New ReichskanzleiImage: picture-alliance/akg-images

Architectural historian Emily Pugh, author of the book Architecture, Politics and Identity in Divided Berlin, described Hitler's building as an "overblown, marble-decked" townhouse. It was partially destroyed when the Allies reached Berlin and Hitler took his own life in a bunker underneath. 

Pugh says it is important in German cultural memory that the Reichskanzlei was never rebuilt — and that, unlike with the case of the rebuilding of the Reichstag and its glass cupola, no attempt was made to reflect the original style in the design of the new chancellery. 

"It is interesting that the modern chancellery took the approach of employing contemporary architecture and avoided references to historic periods or styles," Pugh notes. "Most likely, they wanted to avoid anything that could be interpreted as an overabundance of national pride. There was a desire to start afresh." 

Hitler's chancellery had also been built in response to the imperial chancellery that preceded it, indicated by its grand, palatial nature. This, according to Katja Hoyer, historian and author of Blood and Iron: The Rise and Fall of the German Empire, is another reason that a brand-new building was necessary.  

"Because of the way Hitler was associated with the old chancellery — there definitely had to be a new one," she explained. 

"It isn't a coincidence that the new one is virtually the opposite (of Hitler's Reichskanzlei) — abstract and transparent," Hoyer added. "The amount of glass is to show there are no dodgy dealings going on. The conceptual arguments far outweighed the aesthetics." 

Angela Merkel chats to Barack Obama in the background with the Reichstag in the front
The Reichstag's dome can be easily seen from the chancellery — where Merkel is seen with ex-US President ObamaImage: Guido Bergmann/Bundespresseamt/dpa/picture alliance

Expensive plan approved 

And the new extension will follow that aesthetic. 

Helge Braun, Chancellor Angela Merkel's head of the chancellery, said in 2019 the plan was necessary because the current space was inadequate. The staff is squeezed into the space, and many have to work in external offices, he claims. In addition to around 400 new offices, footbridges and tunnels, a winter garden and a helipad are planned to be integrated into the "campus" design by Berlin firm Axel und Schultes Frank, which resembles a large oval. 

Critics point out that the chancellery is already one of the largest seats of a leader in the Western world, and the new extension will make it bigger than the White House in the US and the Elysee Palace in Paris. And commentators have balked at the cost — but there is also a more subtle criticism at play. 

Head of the Chancellery Helge Braun with the plans for the new chancellery
Head of the Chancellery Helge Braun with the plans for the new chancelleryImage: Bernd von Jutrczenka/dpa/picture alliance

"New German megalomania," conservative daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung wrote in response to the latest blueprints in 2020, while a headline in liberal weekly Die Zeit suggested the extension represented an attempt to turn Germany into some kind of "grand presidential state." 

The Prussian palace that is the official seat of Germany's president, Bellevue, is located close by, but even its extensive wings will be dwarfed if the chancellery is built as planned. 

Rainer Holznagel, president of the German Taxpayers' Federation, was also dismissive, calling the plan "lavish." 

"Evidently the aim is not to erect a functional purpose-built building," he told DW in a statement. "I think this sends the wrong signal — especially in the coronavirus crisis with its record public deficit." 

The Federal Audit Office has also criticized the plan for its expense, pointing out that it will cost €18,000 per square meter and includes unnecessary designs, including the winter garden, footbridges and tunnels — which, it recommended, should be removed from the design to save tens of millions of euros. So far, however, the chancellery appears to be sticking to its guns. 

The humble chancellor 

Given what the chancellery represents, and the history of the buildings, historian Hoyer said it might be easier to understand why there is opposition to any expansion to government buildings.  

"People don't want too much power given to the chancellor," she said. "So any extent of their physical manifestations might be viewed with suspicion." 

After all, as it says in enormous letters on the front of the Reichstag, the parliament exists not to wield power but to serve "Dem deutschen Volke" — in service to the people of Germany. The same applies to the chancellor. 

The design of the buildings of the German government nod to a complex past while embracing modernity; it is a compromise solution. But a 50,000-square-meter campus with a high price tag may not sound like a compromise to many Germans who are all too aware of the lessons of the past. 

Kommentarbild PROVISORISCH Elliot Douglas
Elliot Douglas Elliot Douglas is a video, audio and online journalist based in Berlin.