March 1, 2007
A blistering legal battle over Berlin’s new main train station raises the question: Who really controls a public building’s design—the architect or the client?
Even before the legal wrangling began, in a city already packed with architectural firsts, plans for Berlin’s principal train station commanded the spotlight. Built on the site of the old Lehrter Train Station in the former no-man’s-land surrounding the Berlin Wall, the new Hauptbahnhof would knit together east-west and north-south lines in a glass vault flanked by towers, a startling drop of modernity amid the rubble-strewn grasslands. After 13 years of planning and construction, the 1.9 million-square-foot station—one of Europe’s largest—opened amid blazing pyrotechnics in May 2006, just in time for the World Cup.
But the real fireworks had only just begun. In late November 2006 lead architect Meinhard von Gerkan, of Hamburg-based von Gerkan, Marg and Partners (GMP), won a landmark legal suit against the German railway company Deutsche Bahn over unauthorized changes to his station design. The court ruled that Deutsche Bahn must pay to rebuild the lower-level platform ceilings—conceived as airy vaulted arches but executed as flat paneling—at an estimated cost of $25.9 million–$51.7 million. Troubles began in 2001 when Deutsche Bahn, led by chief executive Hartmut Mehdorn, ordered the upper platform hall shortened by a third, from 492 yards to 350 yards long; von Gerkan reluctantly complied. But fur began to fly, legally speaking, when Deutsche Bahn replaced the architect’s subterranean ceilings with a design by another firm, Winkens Architects, without—von Gerkan alleges—his knowledge. Berlin’s regional court upheld the architect’s claim that Deutsche Bahn violated his intellectual-property rights by building a “considerably defaced” version of his original design. “What’s contractually agreed upon should be built,” von Gerkan said at the suit’s conclusion. “For the last forty-one years, our firm has always been able to find mutually agreeable solutions with our clients. What the Bahn did has simply never happened to us before, and it went too far.”
The decision has unleashed virulent debate in Germany, with the newspapers supporting von Gerkan’s architectural vision as the populist tabloids bemoan the added costs. Deutsche Bahn is now appealing the original ruling. (Because of the pending lawsuit, both Deutsche Bahn and GMP declined comment for this story.) Further complicating matters, gale-force winds in a January storm tore off a two-ton steel girder from the station’s edifice; though no one was injured, Deutsche Bahn has filed an injunction against the architect, who has made public claims that the railway is responsible for the accident.
The implications of what the Süddeutsche Zeitung called a “spectacular precedent in the history of architectural intellectual property” raises questions that have captured international interest. Who really controls a design, the architect or the owner, and where is the dotted line of collaboration between the two drawn? What constitutes a material breach of an architect’s intellectual property? And when taxpayer money funds a public project, do any of these dynamics change?
At first, the issue might seem clear-cut: “Whoever pays, decides,” opined a Der Tagesspiegel reader briskly, echoing Mehdorn’s complaint in court. “The owner of a private property wouldn’t let the architect dictate what kind of ceiling he’s getting in his living room,” the chief executive said. Berliner Zeitung concurred: “Architects are not creative artists but part of a service industry whose function is to plan houses on behalf of others.” Changing a design to save time or money is standard practice—presuming, of course, architect and owner agree, and the changes actually result in savings.
But as the melee surrounding the suit suggests, some of Deutsche Bahn’s last-minute changes may have actually increased costs. Germany’s parliamentary budgetary committee is pressing Mehdorn personally to explain how the budget expanded from $905 million to $1.3 billion. Only two months after relegating architects to mere service providers, Berliner Zeitung weighed in this way on the cost question: “In 2001 the Deutsche Bahn chief decided…that only with a shortened hall would the train station be able to open in time for the 2006 World Cup. However, the glass sheets for the roof were already produced; they’re still in storage.…According to a Deutsche Bahn statement, building the truncated roof cost around $82.6 million, more than the $47.7 million calculated for the original, longer version.” While there is no guarantee that von Gerkan would have met his cost estimate, his résumé of public projects—including Berlin’s Tegel airport, Berlin’s international hub station in Spandau, and an expansion of Stuttgart’s airport—certainly suggests an informed projection.
The vaulted lower-level ceilings also came onto the chopping block to save costs, but the facts surrounding this change are murkier. “It was all about cost,” says a source familiar with the project who requested anonymity. “The architect raised cost estimates, and the Deutsche Bahn just couldn’t bear any more. Von Gerkan refused, then offered to redesign, then dragged his heels on producing that new design.” To stay on schedule, the source says, a new architect was hired to create a more affordable standardized ceiling. Von Gerkan has never publicly addressed the question of cost, focusing instead on Deutsche Bahn’s violation of both their agreement and his original design. In an imaginary opening-day speech titled “Indignant,” which was published in Süddeutsche Zeitung right after the station’s opening, he wrote heatedly: “The second visual disaster is the flat roof with its built-in dents and banal lighting inside the building. It was planned in secret…and utterly destroys the planned spatial experience in the lower hall of the station.”
The Bund Deutscher Architekten (BDA), the equivalent in Germany to the American Institute of Architects, also wants to redirect discourse from cost to what they see as the central issue: the legally binding nature of approved designs between architect and owner. “Contrary to the tabloid press version—in which the suit between architect Meinhard von Gerkan and Deutsche Bahn boils down to a [$51.7 million] satisfaction of the architect’s stylistic whim—the ruling…clearly signals the validity of mutual responsibility between partners in a building contract,” wrote Olaf Bahner, BDA spokesperson, in an official statement. “In addition to meeting customary cost and time restrictions, the owner can expect the architect to deliver a solidly built construction with a specific architectural value, as specified in their agreement. Just as the architect commits to providing this service, so too is the owner obligated to respect the architect’s professional judgment as to necessary components of the design.”
If the questions of cost and collaboration favor von Gerkan, what about the intellectual-property claim: Was the design materially compromised by the Bahn’s changes? Almost universal scorn has rained down on Deutsche Bahn for its modifications. The Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung pronounced the flat-ceiling solution “claustrophobically oppressive…[it] evokes suffocation, a bunkerlike feeling.” Former German chancellor Gerhard Schröder said the shortened upper hall looks like a sausage bitten off at one end. And Humboldt University art history professor Horst Bredekamp wrote stingingly in a FAZ opinion piece, “The interplay between the length of the ribbon of glass and the height of the towers, originally in a charged equilibrium, now insults any sense of proportion. One can imagine what a cinematic effect the trains would have offered, accelerating out like bullets from a gun. Now they will just chunter off into the open air.” Not to mention a more practical gaffe: the truncated hall exposes first-class passengers to rain and snow while coach class stays snug under the roof, a mistake Deutsche Bahn will address with an umbrella service. Ugliness aside, it’s tough to see von Gerkan’s intended design at all in the flattened reality, which seems a mere rip-off of bland ceilings in train stations worldwide.
Finally, where does the public fit into all this? With more than $1.54 trillion in federal deficit spending dedicated to rebuilding Berlin and the East, German taxpayers may feel that intellectual-property rights are an awfully abstract reason to sink additional millions into a brand-new functioning station. In a city that has been thick with construction cranes for almost 20 years, Berliners can be forgiven if their idea of beauty boils down to something remarkably simple: a blissful construction-free silence.