Visit The Reichstag Cupola At Night

The Illuminated Summit Of Reunified Germany

The sun sets on the Reichstag like any other building. Except inside, a colossal fountain of mirrors reflects the fading light across patented-blue plenary seating. Public access to the glass-and-steel cupola that contains this unique tower on top of the building is possible by prior online registration, affording visitors a birds-eye-view of the plenary chamber and official proceedings that take place there throughout the week. In contrast to the impenetrable Wilhelminian Neo-Baroque/Renaissance body of the structure with its ornamental majesty, the unadorned cupola offers a clear view of the parliamentary chamber of the organisation - the Bundestag - based here. The symbolism of this disharmony could not be more apparent; that which is old and traditional forms the base, but the defining summit of the structure is its forthright and honest dome. Lacking the imperial aspirations of Prussian pastel colours or the imposing features of dictatorship that found their place in 20th century Germany, instead there is the simple candour of glass and metal. No other building but the Reichstag thus better stands to represent the troubled evolution of the German nation - and the distinctly introspective current political climate of the country.

Due to the building’s position in the city, and proximity to some of Berlin’s major sights, the roof and cupola of the structure also offer an exceptional 360º panorama of the city skyline and the landmarks nearby. Notably, after the sun has set, however, the defining glass dome takes on a more enchanting quality, as a beacon atop the building, surrounded by the darkness of the former royal hunting ground - the Tiergarten - on one side, and the Band des Bundes (the Federal Band) of the German government district (Regierungsviertel), and slow-moving River Spree, on the other.

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Completed in 1894, twenty-three years after the formation of the German Empire, the Reichstag building was designed by Paul Wallot, a relatively unknown German-speaking architect of French Huguenot descent. Wallot’s concept - inspired by the Memorial Hall in Philadelphia - was chosen as the winning design in a competition held by the parliamentary commission. The proposed location of the building was occupied by a palatial residence, owned by a Polish-Prussian aristocrat - unaware of the plans to dehouse him and entirely reluctant to part with his established position until given a prominent place of resettlement.  

As one of Imperial Germany’s main democratic institutions, the original Reichstag organisation (Imperial Parliament) - from which the building gets its name - served as the lower parliament of the country. The members of this parliament vested with legislative powers to introduce laws and amendments to the country’s political system; although at that time subservient to the monarch - William II - who ruled the country from 1888 until 1918. The construction of the Reichstag from 1884 would take place under the reign of three successive Emperors. The latter, William II, was so averse to the parliament that after it was finally completed under his rule he took to referring to the Reichstag as the 'imperial monkey house' (Reichsaffenhaus). Surely as every king needs a crown; every circus needs a tent.

The original Reichstag would meet for over twenty years in a former porcelain factory on Leipziger Strasse (No. 4) until the completion of Wallot’s design in 1894. Like the present day form of the building, this original design also featured a glass domed roof - considered revolutionary at the time - that ensured natural light would illuminate the proceedings below. Although, it was not possible for members of the general public to gain access to the roof as a viewing area. This original structure was seriously damaged in 1933 following an outbreak of fire - the so-called funeral pyre of democracy - blamed on the German Communist movement. An event that would help secure the Nazi takeover of power in the country. Undoubtedly a large part of the National Socialist's success lay in their ability to pose as a solution to the very disorder they sowed, and although it is often speculated that Hitler's followers and not the Communist movement conducted the attack on the building, the matter remains unresolved. Ever concerned with the theatrical, the Nazis would move the parliament to the nearby Kroll Opera House for the duration of Hitler’s rule. With the gutted shell of the Reichstag left empty until the end of the Second World War; cast in a supporting role as physical proof of the damage inflicted on the country by the Communist movement, and the failure of Weimar-era democracy.

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Rebuilding is a national pastime in Germany, borne out of necessity. The devastation left by the flying armadas of British and American airpower, the ground invasion and division of the country in 1945, left Germany, and Berlin, in a state of imposed (and self-inflicted) decrepitude. While the East of the country suffered under the burden of Soviet reparations and national neglect - so-called Ruinenschaffen ohne Waffen (Ruins without weapons) inflicted by the East German regime. The Western part of Berlin and Germany was soon treated as the shop-front window of the western world - flush with Marshall Plan money and the type, and quantity, of western products meant to represent the flourishing success of western capitalism. Despite this and although it would serve as the backdrop for speeches - with de facto mayor of Berlin, Ernst Reuter, issuing a rallying cry against the Soviet blockade of the city here to a crowd of 300,000 people in 1948 (“People of the world. Look upon this city!”) - the Reichstag would remain symbolically empty throughout the Cold War. On the frontline of the conflict, as the Berlin Wall (erected on the dividing line between the district of Mitte and the Tiergarten) ran directly behind the building.

A purpose built capital would be established in Bonn, close to Cologne, jokingly justified due to West German leader Konrad Adenauer’s desire to remain close to his personal rose garden. Although Berlin had always served as the capital of a united Germany, the division of the country would see two separate states establish two separate capitals - the West German (Federal Republic of Germany) government based in Bonn and the East German (German Democratic Republic) government based in East Berlin, on the site of the former City Palace. The message sent by the East German government that Socialism had finally triumphed over the old Imperial state and was now based in the heart of the former Prussian regime. To the Western government, establishing a base in Bonn meant for a more centralised capital - striving for a European Germany rather than a German Europe - away from the encumbrance of the dark episodes in the country’s past that Berlin represented. 

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When confronted with the question of deciding on a suitable capital for the unified country in the 1990s, the German government had to weigh returning to Berlin against the continued use of Bonn - and the already purpose built capital city (the Canberra, the Washington D.C, the Brasilia, the Ottawa of the country) there. Bonn however represented the West, Berlin perhaps more than geographically the East. But Bonn could also be seen as the future; and Berlin the past. The ghosts of the country's chronology remained largely in Berlin, but what better place to finally confront them? Balancing Berlin’s size, as the largest city in the country, with the fact that Bonn was located in the country’s most populous region, North Rhine Westphalia - the German parliament voted on June 20th 1991 to answer 'the capital question'. The result remained in doubt until the last minute - with Berlin announced as the chosen city with 338 votes to 320.

British architect Lord Norman Foster - responsible at that time for the terminal at London Stansted Airport, the HSBC headquarters building in Hong Kong, and the Faculty of Law at Cambridge University - was chosen to resurrect the Reichstag in preparation for the arrival of the new unified parliament. Reflecting on the recent unification of the country, Foster proposed a consolidation of four elements in the building's redesign - historical significance, the importance of the democratic forum, accessibility, and environmental issues. In Foster’s own words the building has in fact become a ‘living museum’ of German history - with illuminated info tables surrounding the glass tower inside the distinctive cupola detailing Germany’s tumultuous path to federal parliamentary democracy. Soviet graffiti from the capture of the building in 1945 can be found by the discerning eye along with sharpnel damage and maintained patchy repairs - the scars of the building's key role in one of the great catastrophes of the 20th century remain visible.

From above the structure resembles a figure of eight, with two inner courtyards visible from the roof. As the sun moves around the building during the day, a giant automatic reflector tracks its path to block any unwanted solar gain in the main parliamentary chamber. Not only does the cupola provide ventilation for the plenary - with the peak open to the sky - but at the top of the walkway that visitors can take around the inside of the dome is a huge funnel. Prussian king, Frederick the Great, famously said that a crown is simply a hat that lets the rain in. The cupola crowning the Reichstag is designed to do just that. Symbolically open to the elements and as a pathway to the stars. Like the Pantheon in Rome; or the similar Neue Wache in Berlin on nearby Unter den Linden; the cupola on the Reichstag - and the building itself - is now open to the world - a skylit edifice that offers the sun, rain, and the wind - not to the gods or a mother mourning her son - but to the beating heart of political life in Germany.

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In order to experience the Reichstag cupola at night, it is best to visit during the winter months, when the sun sets early enough to catch the building still open for public visitors. While during the day the dome on top of the building looks from a distance like a huge glass ant farm - at night it stands to resemble something more futuristic and otherworldly as the lights are turned on - the spaceship effect. Entering the enclosed concourse inside the cupola visitors can follow a pathway that spirals upwards to a final platform - armed with a free sensor-activated audio headset. Standing in a different location on the spiral pathway triggers different audio commentary on the headset.

Many of Berlin’s major sites remain illuminated in the evenings, with the city bathed in darkness, the landmarks of the historic central district, in particular, pin-pricked with light. The Brandenburg Gate and Pariser Platz are visible to the south of the Reichstag - along with the Mt. Fuji peak of the Sony Centre at Potsdamer Platz - follow the River Spree to the east of the building and you’ll catch the trains on the old Paris-Moscow line that runs through the city enter Friedrichstrasse station. Behind the station building is the glowing gold dome of the Neue Synagoge in the city’s former Jewish Quarter; the TV Tower (Fernsehturm), Germany’s tallest structure, hovering over the city like the Death Star in Star Wars to the right. To the north of the Reichstag is the current government quarter and the glass leviathan of Hauptbahnhof (the central train station), the German chancellor’s office can also be seen lit up on the edge of the former royal hunting ground.

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Although perhaps more important than what can been seen after the sun has set; is what is obscured. Following the redesign of the Reichstag building, and its reopening in 1999, a number of memorials for the victims of National Socialism were constructed nearby - to the south of the building, mainly in the Tiergarten. A memorial for the ninety-six politicians murdered by the Nazis, the Roma & Sinti, the Jews, Homosexuals, and the victims of the T4 euthanasia program. While the dramatic landmarks and great architectural achievements of the city are visible - towering in the darkness - these places of remembrance sink into the night - tenebrous. Their proximity to the Reichstag building though remains pregnant with meaning. The affairs of state and deliberations of parliament must now be conducted adjacent to these sites. Visible in the light of day, they are present as reminders of the misuse of power and the responsibility the parliament has to recognise and remember the victims of these crimes. Much as the daylight reveals this responsibility of remembrance, it also offers visitors to the Reichstag building the opportunity to look down and ensure the democratic accountability of the parliament while watching over the elected representatives of the German people. At night, the drama of the futuristic cupola and glowing cityscape surrounding the building is inspiring in its magnificence. Emerging from the darkness during the day, the parliament is bathed in the light of illumination; and the light of introspection. An unmistakable monument with transparency and reflection unmistakably at its heart. Hugely symbolic during the day, additionally a hypnotising spectacle at night.


Address: Platz der Republik 1, 11011 Berlin
Additional Information: To make a reservation to visit the Reichstag Cupola click here


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Did you know:The Reichstag was designed by architect Paul Wallot to resemble Memorial Hall in Philadelphia?

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