Germany's 'Kohlosseum'

The tour guide jokes with passengers as the boat cruises up the Spree in Berlin. "This building is an exact copy of the train station in Baku," he quips, pointing toward a towering block of gray concrete vaguely suggesting a socialist monument. The tourists gape in awe at one of Berlin's biggest construction projects, a sprawling mass that stretches the length of 3i football fields between the left bank of the river and the fresh spring green of Berlin's Tiergarten park. Eight stories high, it's a melange of stark walls, irregular columns, and metallic green trim. Because of the giant, oval window in the facade, says the guide, "Berliners call it the 'washing machine'."

That washing machine happens to be the future office of German Chancellor Gerhard Schroder. This week he and his staff move into the just-completed German Chancellery, part of the gleaming new government complex rising in the center of Berlin. But among all the new ministries, embassies and public works, the Chancellery is the one building tour guides, commentators and ordinary citizens alike love to hate. With its massive dimensions (it's eight times larger than the White House, and 10 Downing Street could fit into the foyer), the postmodern, deconstructed edifice offends many Germans' sense of proportion. And its new resident isn't impressed either. "Too showy. A size smaller would have done just as well," pooh-poohed Schroder after touring the construction site last month, grumbling that it was "tailored to fit another politician's frame."

Indeed it was. Schroder's predecessor, Helmut Kohl, approved plans for the 235 million euro building in 1995, after Parliament decided to abandon its provincial postwar capital in Bonn and move the government back to Berlin. Since then the former chancellor has been discredited by revelations that he ran a sophisticated political machine fueled by millions in illegal contributions. Many see the building as a monument to the fallen leader's lust for power and contempt for Parliament. In fact, the new Chancellery's hefty girth outsizes even the classical Reichstag across the square. The hapless architects, Berliners Axel Schultes and Charlotte Frank, say they had to fight to keep Kohl from pushing through an even more massive design.

Schroder's own tastes are more modest. Since taking office, he's been trying to tone down the building. To make the five-story columns guarding the entrance less imposing, he's had shrubs planted on top of them. A flowing white canopy now softens the stark facade. Inside, he's cheered up what he says was a gloomy office by having the wood-paneled wall painted white, while his favorite artist, abstract expressionist Markus Lupertz, is finishing up brightly colored wall murals. Schroder's wife, Doris, is redesigning the executive apartment on the eighth floor, which the family will use along with their private residence in Hannover, where Schroder is from.

While these touch-ups will make the building more like a home and less like a fortress, they won't stop the flood of derision Germany's chattering classes are heaping on it. "A concrete monster," hisses the Berlin daily Die Welt. The weekly Der Spiegel calls it "a stranded tanker," while the leftist daily Tageszeitung calls it the "Kohlosseum." With predictable earnestness, German intellectuals are beating their breasts about the building's historical symbolism, debating whether its monumental pillars and heavy arches are reminiscent of Nazi bombast. After half a century of architectural modesty in Bonn, says architecture critic Nikolaus Bernau, "the size and massiveness [of the Chancellery] look like they portray new great-power ambitions for Germany."

After 50 years of proving their democratic credentials, Germans can probablyafford to lighten up a bit more. Yes, there's a new, monumental style to the political architecture of the "Berlin Republic," as political-science types have dubbed reunified Germany. But the ongoing debate about the role of a unified, more powerful Germany in the world has little to do with the scale of its public buildings. In fact, the critics should take a closer look. Within its imposing exterior, the complex is quintessentially P.C.: Sun-drenched atria and airy spaces commune with nature. Spacious rooms for press conferences, receptions and art exhibits lend it the air of a public forum; and the rooftop solar collectors discourage energy waste. In other words, this is not your grandfather's Chancellery--or his Germany.

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