The Pantheon and Reichstag: An Architectural Dialogue with the Past

01 Nov 2016

Having been constructed over two millennia ago, it is nothing short of wonder that the Pantheon in Rome has preserved its ability to impact visitors. The monument enjoys “ “a presence at once unique and universal in western architectural tradition,” and as such has inspired generations of architectural works (Marder) One resonating form is Norman Foster’s rebuilding of the German Reichstag in 1995. These buildings are worthy of comparison as great illustrations of the use of superimposition to create a cultural, ideological and architectural dialogue with an old form. While both superimpositions serve the purpose of marking a new epoch, they respect the stack of achievements that they’re built upon. In Foster’s case, the glass dome and its resulting light symbolize the end of a dark era for Germany, one tainted by war, dictatorship, and partition whereas in the Pantheon, the concrete dome and oculus symbolize the outdoing of Hellenic excellence. In both cases, the focus is not on erasing or forgetting the past, but rather using the past as a foundation for the future. Foster accurately describes the use of superimposition as a way “to respect the history of the past and to make a clear break with that in a good-mannered way, so that the awareness of the past is sharper and the awareness of the intervention of the present is clearer,” a message that resonates for both the Reichstag and the Pantheon (Rebuilding the Reichstag).

Before jumping into the similarities and dissimilarities between Foster’s work for Germany and the Pantheon’s conversation with its Greek precursors, it is important to lay a historical foundation for discussion. While the histories recounted occur thousands of years apart, there are common themes that weave through both.

History and Form

Pantheon

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The construction of the modern Pantheon (figure 1) has been a topic of great historical debate due to difficulties with dating material. The building was initially proposed by Marcus Agrippa, the Roman general, as a monument to honor and deify his close friend emperor, Augustus. Cassius Dio, a 3rd century consul documented that Augustus refused to be deified in the building, requesting that Agrippa deify his adoptive father, Julius Caesar instead. The initial temple was completed in 27 BC likely included a portico, an elliptical element and a transitional block to pair them. The concrete dome as it exists now, however, could not have been part of the original building since that technology was not readily available at the time. Instead, Agrippa’s ellipse most likely resembled a Domitian-era military base found in Chester, England (figure 2). In 70 AD, Agrippa’s building burnt down in a fire and was thereafter rebuilt by Domitian. In 110 AD, Domitian’s Pantheon was struck by lightning and burnt down. Due to brickstamps demarcated with the dates of Trajan’s rule, it is now thought that the last reconstruction of the Pantheon was, in fact, not initiated by Hadrian in 125 AD, but rather by Trajan. When Trajan died, Hadrian took over and began a process of rebuilding and rededicating many of the great buildings of Rome. By 127 AD, the Pantheon had been completed and rededicated to Marcus Agrippa. The new building, despite sharing the same plan, looked very different in elevation.

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Modern building techniques allowed Hadrian and his architects to develop a 44m wide dome with a 9m wide oculus that brought a new light into the structure. The dome was constructed by laying six layers of concrete, each of a lighter density than the one beneath it. The bottom layers of heavy travertine easily supported the higher levels of pumice and pozzolanic ash. This new construction was “emblematic of Roman architecture and engineering” and finally showed clear dominion over Greek forms. Later changes were made to the Pantheon in the form of restorations. Two important ones to note are Septimus Severus and Caracalla due to their recognition on Pantheon inscriptions (Marder).

Reichstag

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The Reichstag was a Neo-Baroque parliamentary building originally built in 1894 by architect Paul Wallot to serve as a symbol for a newly united Germany. By 1933, however, it suffered the misfortune of becoming the “coffin of democracy” when it mysteriously burnt down (Rebuilding the Reichstag). Seizing the opportunity, Hitler blamed the communists and declared a state of emergency, allowing him to take executive control of the country. During the war, the Reichstag was of great importance to Hitler, who planned to construct a massive dome on the spot. The Große Halle or Volkshalle as it was known, was designed by Albert Speer, Hitler’s Architect, to be something along the lines of a German Pantheon. In fact, it is well documented that Hitler was particularly fond of the Pantheon, stating: “From the time I experienced this building – no description, picture or photograph did it justice – I became interested in its history[…]For a short while I stood in this space(the rotunda) – what majesty! I gazed at the large open [oculus] and saw the universe and sensed what had given this space the name Pantheon – God and the world are one” (Giesler). Plans for Große Halle, however, were cut short by the raising of the Soviet flag over the Reichstag in 1945, signifying the end of German control of Berlin.

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After the war, most Germans stayed away from the half-destroyed Reichstag due to its association with both the Nazi party and the national shame that came with losing the war. As a matter of fact, the only Germans who seemed to use the building were those who were tearing its interiors apart for firewood. During the separation of Berlin, from 1945 until 1989 when the Berlin Wall was knocked down, the Reichstag fell into disrepair as a result of wartime injuries, looting, and a political stunt that demolished the once-great dome.

Once the wall came down, there was a small push to harken back to the 1890s and celebrate a stronger reunified Germany by both moving the capital back from Bonn in 1991 and making the decision to rebuild the Reichstag and harken back to Germany’s reunification. Winning the 1992 competition to redesign the building, Norman Foster developed a plan that would flip the status quo. He placed the citizens visibly above politicians and called for a new era of transparency and democracy in Germany while at the same time respecting Reichstag’s long history. He balanced the past and the present/future by focusing on “revealing all of the layers of history, but keeping the new dominant”.

Qualities of Light

Both the Pantheon and Foster’s Reichstag are famous for their domes, which effectively use light to capture the heavens. In the Pantheon, the oculus is the union of the earth and the sky, employing Vitruvian qualities of Symmetria and Eurythmia when contrasted with the 5,000-ton dome. In the Reichstag, lighting designer Claude Engel best described the quality of heaven by claiming that the dome is a “sky-catcher and not a sunlight catcher” (Rebuilding the Reichstag). In both cases, light is very literally piercing the building.

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Another quality of light present in both buildings is the ability to make a visitor feel as though they have ascended into the heavens. In the Pantheon this is both a metaphorical and physical sensation. In Roman mythology the site of the building, Palus Caprae, is the location where Romulus, the founder of Rome becomes the god Quirinus and ascends into the heavens (also known as the apotheosis). Physically upon entering the building a spectator’s eyes are forced upwards into the skies, an act that led Cassius Dio to believe that the name Pantheon is actually referring to “the domed vault which represents the heavens” and the feeling of apotheosis, rather than an actual collective of deities. In the Reichstag, the spectator is physically walking on air. Not only does the transparent dome rise high above any nearby building, the double helix ramp that lines its interior is suspended rather than supported from below, leading to the physical effect of hanging from the heavens. Additionally, the “carrot,” the conical structure that pierces the building is covered in mirrors which further reflect light and give a visitor the feeling of floating.

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A third quality that creates heaven in these two buildings is the fact that they’re open to the sky. While the Pantheon is physically open and has a convex floor and series of drains to handle any rainwater, the Reichstag has the carrot, which is an exhaust pipe that constantly guarantees not only fresh airflow, but also sunlight, creating “outside” spaces throughout most of the interior of the building. Together, these three qualities elevate the status of both buildings to an encapsulation of heaven on earth and in the Reichstag’s case, a liberation from the darkness of the building’s past.

In Conversation with the Past

The Pantheon does not bother to hide its influences. The floor and walls are covered in marble from all around the empire including from Egypt, Turkey and Tunisia, showing dominion and wealth over other great historical powers. Additionally, half of the portico’s columns are cut out of stone from Mount Pendelikon, the same quarry that was used for the Parthenon. The Romans would not have gone through the trouble of quarrying at the other side of the empire had it not been for the necessity to prove their progress over the Greeks. Ironically, however, in using Hellenic art forms, it is ensuring the longevity of the style it is so avidly trying to one-up.

Stylistically, the building appears so “clumsily contrived” and disjoined that much debate has been had as to whether the idiosyncratically roman domical structure was built at a different time than the idiosyncratically Greek portico—it wasn’t. For the Romans, the portico is a concession to temple tradition and although the Greek style is the first thing a spectator sees, the homage is “forgotten the moment one steps across the threshold into the Cella” (Ward-Perkins). The lack of windows and prominence of the Roman oculus grasps attention and forces any spectator to look up and out of the building, forgetting the entirety of the exterior and once and for all showing Roman dominance over Greek style. But while the dome is a seen as a win for the Roman order, it is important to remember that the mathematical basis for the project was derived from Greek knowledge, specifically that of Archimedes, and therefore without the Greeks, there is no Roman greatness. A second mathematical relation to the Greeks is in the use of 28 coffers on the interior of the dome. 28 is a perfect number, defined by Pythagoras as a number equal to the sum of its factors.

Within the Pantheon there exists a different historical stack and architectural superimposition – that of Hadrian’s Pantheon over Agrippa’s. With regards to Hadrian’s superimposition of Agrippa’s Pantheon, the interaction is of pure respect with Hadrian rededicating the building in Agrippa’s name by placing the lettering that would have been found on the 27 BCE building on the building built 150 years later. This is particularly interesting when one turns to the Reichstag for comparison. Rather than destroy any reference to the Reichstag’s dark era in his redesign, Foster emphasizing a respect for all historical layers by offering them to the public. He uncovers and varnishes graffiti from the Soviets, keeps bullet holes in walls and even prominently displays the Soviet flag that once signified the defeat of the Germans. One of the more prominent exposures of the historical stack that Foster plays with in the redesigned Reichstag is the fact that the building had many times been used as a forum for dictatorship. Foster directly challenges this notion by placing the debating room on the lowest floor with a direct vantage point to the dome. Government officials therefore inadvertently look up and are reminded by the ceaseless foot traffic on the dome that they are there to serve the citizens, a kind of failsafe for democracy. Overall, showing respect for the past and exposing its layers to the public, not only serves as a separator of epochs, but also brings about a greater status for both buildings, allowing them to serve as both as mirrors to the past and forecasts of the future and eternalizing their place in architectural history.

Works Cited

Cocceianus, Cassius Dio. (1987). “Book 53: 25 B.C.” Roman History: The Reign of Augustus. New York: Penguin Books. pp.149-150.

Foster, Norman. Rebuilding the Reichstag. Woodstock, NY: Overlook Press, 2000.

Giesler, Hermann (1977). Ein anderer Hitler: Bericht seines Architekten: Erlebnisse, Gespräche, Reflexionen (2nd ed.).

MacDonald, William Lloyd. (1977). The Pantheon: design, meaning, and progeny. Harvard University Press. pp.11-19.

Marder, Tod A., and Mark Wilson Jones. The Pantheon: From Antiquity to the Present. Cambridge University Press, 2015.

Jones, Mark Wilson. Principles of Roman Architecture. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2000.

Rebuilding The Reichstag. Directed by Frederick Baker. Produced by Frederick Baker. British Broadcasting Corporation, 1999. Accessed November 1, 2016.

Sudjic, Deyan. Norman Foster: A Life in Architecture. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2010.

Ward-Perkins, John. Roman Imperial Architecture. New Haven U.a.: Yale Univ. Press, 1990.