I´m standing in front of the so called “Kommandantur”, a building which is situated in the beginning of the boulevard Unter den Linden in Berlin. It had been built in 1652, but enlarged and extended during the 18th and 19th century. Destroyed in the World War II its ruins have been removed years after. In 2003 it has been reconstructed and therewith completes the reconstructional activities, which took place during the 1950´s and 60´s and included amongst others three royal palaces, the opera house and the main building of Humboldt University. The “Kommandantur” houses now the representative office of the international media concern Bertelsmann AG.
Next to me stands a mother, who explains to her children: “Look, this is a historical building!”. Strictly speaking she is right, because the erection of the building happened in the past (4 years ago) and thus the “Kommandantur” is already a historical building. But in fact the mother in our story wanted to express, that she is looking at a house, that is a constructional realisation of a bygone era. If only because the “Kommandantur”´s façade has been reconstructed based on photos taken before the World War II., it represents now an image of a `historical`, old site. At the same time, the interrior and the back side of the house are designed in a modern way, that correlates with the building as a whole, that is contemporary.
This displays the constant conflict when dealing with old houses: does the word “old” describe the building´s historical material (stone, timber, windows, etc.) dating e.g. from the medieaval period? Or does “old” relate to the outer appearance? At the first glance there seems to be no contradiction, because old windows also appear as old windows and not as a modern glass-steel-construction. But what about medieaval windows, that had to be removed, because they were broken and unrepairable, and subsequently replaced by new ones recreated after the original? Are these windows still the original, because they have the same form, function and even construction details? Or are they components of our times, because their substance has been produced nowadays, but using the medieaval design?
Layers of History
Furthermore, it has to be considered, that all buildings change while being used. Every generation adds doors, removes walls or enlarges the construction, briefly: adapts the house to its special needs. Like an organism, that grows, developes and also ages. But how old is a building, whose cellars have been partly built in the Baroque period, the walls are mainly dating from 19th century whereas the interior design has been made in the 1950´s?
For architects and historians dealing with the preservation of monuments and historical buildings it is always a difficult process to decide which layer of history in building shall be the most relevant and therefore needs protection and preservation. Has the design to be maintained like it has been at first? What about later generations, that contributed their part to the building´s history? Do more recent changes have the same value as the older parts? Every house has its character and story, that’s why every single case demands its individual answer.
An example could be the school complex built 1929/30 for the German Trade Union by the Bauhaus architect Hannes Meyer. Additions to the building made in the 1950´s were acknowledged as parts of high architectural value (which they have indeed), whereas later modifications were seen only as merely pragmatic and thus removed during the renovation.
Experts in preservation of monuments estimate, that there have to pass about 30 years or one generation, before we appreciate the constructional achievements of the preceding times. Today the interest in buildings of the 1960´s and early 70´s grows steadily, though the 80´s are still out of fashion. Maybe in about 30 years, the current reconstruction of the “Kommandantur” will be recognized as one of the most important reconstructed buildings of the early 21st century.