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BOOKS The architectural politics of power Capital Dilemma: Germany's Search for a New Architecture of Democracy by Michael Z Wise. Princeton Architectural Press, 1998. 192pp. £18.95

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This is a highly competent journalistic account of the architectural problems surrounding the re-establishment of Berlin as the capital of the re-united Germany. Architecture in Germany - and in Berlin in particular - is, of course, a highly charged issue. In the nineteenth century it was used to express nationhood, cultural aspirations and military triumphs, while this century it has represented political power of the most authoritarian and alarming kind. Now - inevitably - architecture is being used again for, as Wise observes, 'no nation is more attuned to the political manipulations of built imagery than Germany'.

But recent experiences mean that there is a great deal of nervousness surrounding the creation of any building that is monumental or carries an overt political message - a phobia which led, in West Germany at least, to a quest for an architecture which was as bland, neutral and inoffensive as possible. The government buildings of Bonn are the most obvious expression of an architecture whose only meaning is - to all intents and purposes - to be utterly meaningless.

The story of twentieth-century architecture in Germany is complex and bizarre but Wise guides the reader through a maze of sad, incomprehensible, and sometimes unintentionally hilarious events with skill. First he identifies underlying architectural trends in the design of government buildings by describing the creation of the very different post-war capitals of the divided Germany - self-effacing Bonn and, as it turned out, vainglorious East Berlin. Wise then discusses the design of the 'new images of power' for Berlin and, in a separate section, the 'burdensome legacies' of Nazi and Communist relics. He finally dwells on the only sort of meaning that it now seems legitimate to express through architecture and monuments in Berlin - sorrow and guilt about the war and a sort of manic faith in the democratic future.

It is in the sections dealing with 'burdensome legacies' and with monuments to misery that the study taps unexpected levels of grim humour and irony. Most extraordinary is the tale of the two major Nazi-era buildings to survive in Berlin: the former Reichsbank and Goring's massive Aviation Ministry. There is little doubt about the original meaning of these buildings; when laying the cornerstone of the Reichsbank in 1934, Hitler declared that 'our opponents will come to realise . . . our buildings are built with the aim of strengthening authority'. The East German regime - itself no stranger to authority - retained and used these two buildings but after the reunification of Germany both seemed set for demolition, which the government approved in 1992.

But this was a decision which failed to anticipate the Berliner's love for the few old buildings that were left, no matter what their 'meaning'. The Berlin government announced that in its view these tainted structures were in fact 'landmarks of the first rank'. Rather than risk a head-on battle between conservation and political correctness, the federal government has suffered these two monuments to Nazi power to remain and they are now about to enjoy new lives as government offices - the former Reichsbank as Foreign Ministry and the former Aviation Ministry as Finance Ministry.

The policy of conservation can have strange consequences in Berlin. For example, a proposal to clean the stone facade of the Aviation Ministry has caused great anxiety because cleaning may reveal that stones carrying Nazi insignia were not removed by the former East German government but merely turned round. The fear is that, if this proves to be the case, conservationists will campaign to have these stones turned back to their original positions because the insignia they carry form part of the original design and reveal the history of the building.

Inside, the architect responsible for the conversion and de-Nazification of the building, Hentrich-Petschnigg & Partners, has had a challenging task. The massive and once marble-floored ballroom in which Goring presided is to become the ministerial conference room. It has clearly been a tremendous battle to dilute the interior's powerful Neo-Classical presence, but the architect's perspectives suggest it has achieved a triumph of transformation. The room looks light, airy, almost anonymous (if not for the row of giant piers!) - but the masterstroke is to seat each minister in that triumph of Modernist design and American democracy, an Eames chair.

With stories like these to tell, this book can't but be a good read.

Dan Cruickshank is an architectural historian

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