The origins of the building
The urban planning challenge was enormous, the opportunity unique. With the reconstruction of the Classicistic façade of the City Commandant's Headquarters, a remarkable building has reclaimed its traditional position in the historic city center of Berlin. Together with the Crown Prince's Palace and the Crown Princess's Palace, it forms a harmonious ensemble at the eastern end of Berlin’s grand Unter den Linden boulevard.
The façade of Bertelsmann's representative premises at Unter den Linden 1 has been restored to its 19th-century appearance. The history of the building, however, dates back much further to the 1650s, when the first building was constructed on the site: the residence of the then renowned architect Johann Georg Memhardt. The Elector Friedrich Wilhelm had bequeathed to him the land near the Hundebrücke bridge (now the Schlossbrücke) for the "faithful and diligent services he has provided to us over four decades,” and probably also in the expectation of further services.
18th century – Unter den Linden 1 gradually takes on its current appearance
Johann Memhardt died in 1678; his house was sold the following year, and changed hands several times during the subsequent century. A little rundown, it was thoroughly renovated in the 1790s and gradually began to take on the appearance of the building as we know it today: the pillared entrance hall, the light-colored brick façade on the ground floor, round arched windows below, rectangular windows above. However, the building still had a hipped roof rather than what is today the second upper floor.
In any case, it was considered sufficiently high-end for the Prussian Central Government to acquire it, probably in 1799, to serve henceforth as a residence and office for the Commandant of Berlin. It may have been coincidence, but the design of the façade perfectly reflected the function of the house: the ground floor was used for work and receptions and decorated in a correspondingly grand style. In contrast, the more spartanly designed façade of the first story concealed the living quarters of the Commandant. It was an attractive official residence – for which, incidentally, the Commandant paid 300 Thaler per year. By way of comparison, at that time a printer or typesetter in Berlin earned between 150 and 200 Thaler per year and the total living costs for a family of five in the tradesman class were in the region of 250 Thaler a year.
Construction of the façade as it looks today
In 1873/4, the City Commandant's Headquarters underwent a major conversion: the hipped roof was replaced by an additional story and the "rusticated" rectangular stonework facing was extended to all three floors. The result was an architectural jewel, built at a time when Berlin was preparing to become a political power of global significance. Quite a few observers will have watched the military parades that reflected this growing ambition from the balcony on the building’s first floor. Just a few decades later, others will have looked on during the events of the 1918 revolution when the Berlin SPD politician Otto Wels was the City Commandant caught between the front lines of the Spartacists and the Council of the People's Deputies.
Traveling on in time, observers would also have witnessed the failure of the Hitler assassination plot of July 20, 1944. Paul von Hase, the City Commandant at the time, participated in the conspiracy, ordered the arrest of important representatives of the Nazi regime and sealed off the government quarter. The assassination attempt failed, of course, and Paul von Hase was hanged after a show trial.
Bomb damage and house-to-house fighting in Berlin ensured the almost total destruction of the building by the end of the war, and it was demolished in 1950. The GDR leadership built its Ministry of the Exterior nearby while the original site of Unter den Linden 1 remained empty. After the demolition of the former GDR Ministry of the Exterior in 1995 – no further use of the building was contemplated – discussions began with the aim of finding a new use for the area. It was at this point that Bertelsmann entered the process. The company had been considering creating a forum for political, economic and cultural exchange in Berlin since the early 1990s.
The final hurdle: an architectural competition
The opportunity to achieve this ambition presented itself in the summer of 1999 when the Berlin Senate announced an architectural competition for the reconstruction of the City Commandant's Headquarters. Bertelsmann submitted its entry with a design by the Cologne architectural firm Thomas van den Valentyn and was the clear winner. The judges felt that Bertelsmann’s design provided a perfect synthesis of historical style and modern architecture.
Before the groundbreaking ceremony could take place for Bertelsmann Unter den Linden 1 in November 2001, archaeological excavations had to be made into the historical foundations of the City Commandant's Headquarters. The Berlin architectural firm Stuhlemmer & Stuhlemmer was commissioned with the reconstruction of the classical façade.
The work was much like conducting a meticulous criminal investigation. A historical photograph from the Prussian Photogrammetric Institute, a 40×40 cm glass plate negative dating from 1910, was used to gain an impression of the building in the period 1873/74. The outline of the building was determined using an original cadastral plan produced in 1880. Chemical analysis of the surface coatings of archaeological fragments discovered during the excavations in 2001 proved that the building was constructed from Silesian sandstone. In order to replicate the original as faithfully as possible, the reconstruction also used Silesian sandstone – obtained from the same quarry as the original material.
The majority of the time-consuming work of reconstruction, which took over 11 months, was performed by Denkmalpflege Berlin – the authority responsible for the preservation of historical monuments in the city. One of the greatest challenges was finding craftsmen with the necessary skills to build the walls, which incorporated seven different sizes of brick, using traditional methods. Reconstruction of the façade began in October 2002 and a total of 138,000 bricks and 312 tons of sandstone were used in its completion. The most striking feature of the front of the building is the 3.5 m wide relief "Achilles among the daughters of Lycomedes", a scene from Greek mythology. The eight terracotta eagles on the roof are the work of the sculptor Karl Möpert, who was also involved in the restoration of the Zeughaus and the nearby Crown Prince's Palace during the GDR era. These majestic figures were installed on the edge of the roof in June 2003. Each has a wingspan of 1.5 meters and weighs 500 kg.
The past revived on the outside, the vibrant present on the inside
The interior of the international media group Bertelsmann’s premises in Germany's capital city easily meets the most up-to-date standards of open-plan architecture; the focus here is on communication and dialog.
Bertelsmann’s new representative premises at Unter den Linden 1 celebrated its official opening on November 6, 2003.