Wednesday, December 06, 2006

The Arch of Compromise

Recently the courts ruled that the ceilings of the lower floors of the Hauptbahnhof, Berlin’s new central train station, must be rebuilt at a cost of 40 million Euros. The ruling came after architect Meinhard von Gerkan sued Deutsche Bahn for altering his original plans for arched ceilings without the architect's consent, indeed, without even telling him. The flat ceilings that Hartmut Mehdorn, leader of the Bahn, chose to build in the face of rising costs represent violation of contract to von Gerkan and apparently also for the courts. Now the ceilings must be altered at a high price and lower transportation efficiency, just when the city was giddily excited about its finally-functioning train station.

The assertion of the architect’s rights before those of the paying client’s has been received as wondrous and revolutionary right of entitlement—an act that will single-handedly change the history of how structures are commissioned. But what is truly revolutionary is the aesthetic implication of the court’s decision: that the part is representative of the whole, a metonymy that mustn’t be violated for risk of injuring the entire the entire structure. In contrast to the back-and-forth history of much architecture, where parts are viewed as subject to change without damage to the work’s integrity, this act signifies a holistic understanding of architecture. Some might say that it’s about time; after all, if a Picasso canvas were partially painted over, it couldn’t be pawned off as original, yet buildings frequently receive face-lifts or alterations while retaining their creator’s name or representative associations.

However, compromise as a hallmark of the architectural process doesn’t necessarily breed disappointment. For example, the transparent cupola of the Reichstag, from which one can look down into the German parliament or out over the city, presents a pleasing space-as-democracy metaphor for representative government as well as visual charm. However, it is a product of negotiation; Santiago Calatrava, who was taking part in the rebuilding of the Reichstag complex, asked the government to ensure that the Reichstag be created with a cupola that he had been earlier informed would exist and according to which he had shaped his own designs. The government, in turn, requested that Lord Norman Foster round out his intended flat roof. The result has become a proud symbol of the Berlin Republic.

So is the decision “a good thing?” Legal precedent does not necessarily apply internationally so it is difficult to say if this decision will affect commissions outside of Germany, or even how far-reaching the local consequences will be. It may, however, scare clients into creating a new contractual culture whereby changes to the existing model are allowed only under clearly defined financial strain. But where does this leave client satisfaction, if changes may only be introduced under certain limited and constrained conditions? If Mehdorn and his company paid the artist for a service rendered, do they not have some say in how the “service,” in the case, an aesthetically pleasing yet functional and affordable train station, is enacted?

The keystone, then, to propping up the fluid process of building creation remains old-fashioned negotiation. In the matter of the Reichstag cupola Foster agreed to the government’s requests, but his contact also contains a clause outlining his right to review future suggested alterations to the Reichstag’s exterior (shown here) and interior. Mehdorn was wrong to hire another architectural firm to design flat roofs without von Gerkan's knowledge or assent; it would have been wiser to consult him and attempt communication. Now von Gerkan's resulting fury has found legal validation. He refuses to back down, pointing out that thousands of people would see the alterations to his design and associate the damaged, flat-roofed work with him. The secondary problem, then, after miscommuincation, is ego: what perhaps hasn't occured to von Gerkan is that these thousands of people will also be moving through an efficient new train station, grateful for the services it provides to the city. When the new arched roofs are installed, these people will be made to suffer delays and inconveniences, to say nothing of possible ticket price increases if the Bahn looks for ways to cover additional costs. What will these people think of von Gerkan then?

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