Berlin Rail Hub, a 'Nibbled Wiener', Riles Architect, Critics
Bloomberg: Jan. 6
Berlin's new main railway station, the city's biggest ever building site, has sparked the bitterest dispute of architect Meinhard von Gerkan's 40-year career.
Deutsche Bahn AG first forced von Gerkan to slice 100 meters (330 feet) off a steel-and-glass roof overarching the tracks. Then the German state-owned railway company changed the design of an underground ceiling. That was a step too far for von Gerkan, who took the company to court, accusing it of distorting his plan. Deutsche Bahn denies any breach of copyright rules, which in Germany protect the integrity of work by artists and architects.
"I'm far from giving up,'' von Gerkan, 71, said in a Dec. 22 interview at his office overlooking Hamburg's harbor. "I will not distance myself from this station in the same way that I wouldn't distance myself from a child burdened with a hereditary disease. It's my child and I will try to heal the disease.''
The $840 million station, the biggest non-terminus rail hub in Europe, is designed to handle 300,000 travelers and visitors a day. It caps 15 years of rebuilding to unite the separate infrastructures of east and west Berlin after decades of division. The station is located in the wasteland left behind after the fall of the Berlin Wall, meters away from the new Chancellery, from where Angela Merkel runs Europe's largest economy.
The clash over its construction pits von Gerkan against Deutsche Bahn Chief Executive Officer Hartmut Mehdorn, who demanded the shorter roof as part of a push to complete the building in timefor the soccer World Cup that Germany is hosting, starting in June. The alterations meant the roof could be completed in just four months, according to Deutsche Bahn.
Von Gerkan says the changes pushed the cost of the roof up by 55 million euros ($65 million) from his original plan. The new design, ridiculed in German newspapers such as the Sueddeutsche Zeitung for resembling a "nibbled Wiener sausage,'' will force some passengers to step on and off trains in the rain.
"At the end of the day, it's a train station,'' said Deutsche Bahn spokesman Michael Baufeld. "Sometimes, you need to take unpopular steps.'' He declined to comment on the price of the changes, saying only that the new design didn't save any costs.
The trigger for von Gerkan's court case was Deutsche Bahn's decision to replace his underground ceiling, designed to resemble a cathedral's nave, with a flat metal ceiling by another architect. Von Gerkan said he first found out about the new plans when copies were sent accidentally to his office, rather than to the rival architect hired by Deutsche Bahn.
Mehdorn says that as the main contractor, he has the right to make changes as he sees fit. "We ordered a station from the architect, not a cathedral,'' he told journalists during a tour of the construction site in October.
The judge ruling in the case has asked Riga, Latvia-born von Gerkan, who designed Berlin's Tegel airport at the age of 30, to show how the new ceiling distorts the building. The final verdict won't come this month, said Katrin-Elena Schoenberg, a spokeswoman for the Berliner Landgericht, the regional court handling the copyright case.
The court's decision will have "national significance,'' the daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung wrote on Nov. 21. Sueddeutsche Zeitung said on Oct. 18 that the ruling will set a precedent for Germany's "culture of building.''
Deutsche Bahn calls the main station, now known as Lehrter Bahnhof, a gateway from the capital city to the rest of the world. The building's shell consumed 85,000 tons of steel and half a million cubic meters of concrete, enough to build 40 miles of highway, Deutsche Bahn estimates.
Since Deutsche Bahn's changes, Berliners are less impressed.
"I feel physical pain every time I see this building, which has transformed into a crouching toad,'' Horst Bredekamp, an art history professor at Berlin's Humboldt University, said in a Dec. 15 interview. "It's an act of idiocy by Deutsche Bahn, because no building will come close in the next decade in terms of significance.''
It isn't the first time Mehdorn has raised hackles in Berlin. Last year, the Bahn CEO riled Berlin Mayor Klaus Wowereit and other politicians with a plan to relocate Deutsche Bahn's headquarters toHamburg from Berlin, siphoning off thousands of jobs from a city where one in five people is unemployed.
"One man cannot be allowed to meddle with our architectural culture in this way,'' von Gerkan said of Mehdorn. "It is the most public building in Germany. It's an architectural document that makes a global statement about German building culture.''
The rebuilding of Berlin has attracted architects including Daniel Libeskind, Renzo Piano, Richard Rogers and Norman Foster since 1990. Many of them were forced to alter their original designs.
U.K.born Foster, who redesigned the Reichstag parliament building, originally conceived a flat roof spanning the entire building before the commission overseeing the construction asked him to discard it in favor of a glass dome accessible to the public that offers views of the debating chamber.
"There are perennial battles between the contractor and the architect, a showdown of characters, as both want to be the creators of something,'' said Bredekamp. "It's a symbolic fight over the line of command, and every construction site is also a site of conflict.''