concepts
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© MICHAEL HANISCH

REMAKING A MONUMENT

During the conversion of the former GDR’s Ministry of the Interior into the future Federal Ministry of Health, the site’s history has been clearly evident at every turn. That has posed a real challenge to this joint venture of HOCHTIEF and BAM. However, the complex, which is a protected historical monument, is also revealing many fascinating secrets.

The phone cabinet near the former conference room of the GDR’s Ministry of the Interior is soundproofed and paneled in dark wood. It still breathes the spirit of the last century—and inspires speculation. What important matters were discussed in this small space? On the morning of November 9, 1989, four high-ranking officers met in the GDR’s Ministry of the Interior to work out a new set of regulations for travel abroad. One of them smuggled into the final text a sentence that would lead, that very evening, to the fall of the Berlin Wall, only about 100 meters away. “You can’t get more historical than this,” says Mayk Zieschang, 53, who grew up in the GDR himself. Zieschang has been the Project Manager of the Mauerstraße major construction site in the Berlin-Mitte district since July 2017. He’s in charge of the conversion and refurbishment of the former GDR Ministry of the Interior into the future Federal Ministry of Health.

Four decades of socialism have left their mark on these halls, rooms, and corridors, but the site is in fact even “more historical than this.” The complex, which consists of two gigantic buildings in the Berlin-Mitte district, started out as the Deutsche Bank in 1870. This was Germany’s first major bank, and it grew so fast that it soon occupied the entire intersection of Mauerstraße and Französische Straße and became a huge headquarters with 6,000 employees. The booming bank business was reflected in the splendor of the interior spaces. The vast counter hall stretched out under two elongated barrel-vault roofs with a dome in the center. The gigantic glass roofs allowed daylight to stream down on the bank activities of the Gründerzeit—Germany’s period of rapid industrialization. Customers filled out their checks at ornate wooden counters. Bank employees accompanied customers to the vaults in the basement. The spectacular glass roofs did not survive World War II. In 1945, Deutsche Bank moved to Frankfurt, and in 1949 the Ministry of the Interior of the recently established German Democratic Republic took over the property. The young Bauhaus architect Franz Ehrlich, who had been interned as a communist in the Buchenwald concentration camp during the war, was put in charge of repairing the war damage and converting the complex in line with the spirit of the time. Ehrlich had much of the ornamentation removed. The buildings were remodeled with straight lines and clear shapes. Ehrlich installed a flat ceiling in the old counter hall, and the space, which was now shut off from daylight, was repurposed as a 600-seat movie theater. Here policeman listened to civics lectures and audiences watched socialist propaganda films. “When we launched the project in mid-2017, everything inside these buildings looked exactly the way it had been left when the GDR collapsed,” Zieschang says. In this labyrinthine complex, with a total floor area of 68,000 square meters, it’s still possible to find decommissioned telephone systems and discarded files. But now these buildings are being made fit for the future.

By mid-2021, 600 employees of the Federal Ministry of Health should be moving into an office building that measures up to modern standards. But before that can happen, the buildings must be completely refurbished, without destroying any reminders of its two significant previous phases of use.

» YOU CAN’T GET MORE HISTORICAL THAN THIS! «

MAYK ZIESCHANG, PROJECT MANAGER

30 YEARS OF DISUSE

The construction problems begin in the buildings’ cellars. The level of the groundwater has risen, so the buildings are being sealed against moisture by means of waterproof concrete tanks. The cellars also have to be deepened in order to make room for modern building technology. Every detail that Zieschang points out during our tour makes it clear why no one dared to begin this construction project for three decades—it’s incredibly challenging. However, HOCHTIEF has the experience that’s required, especially in Berlin. For example, it restructured the former GDR’s State Council Building, a protected historical monument, into a business school that was opened in 2006. The process included removing porcelain tiles one by one, numbering them, and subsequently replacing them in their exact previous locations. The large glass windows of the historic building, which show scenes from Germany’s labor movement, were safeguarded and reused. The conversion process also produced a huge surprise: a room whose existence no one had suspected. HOCHTIEF workers discovered a basement bunker decorated with red velvet wallpaper and connected to a 30-meter-long escape tunnel leading to the State Council Building’s garden. The bunker’s emergency ventilation system had been powered by two old bicycles.

Another HOCHTIEF project that was also completed in Berlin-Mitte in 2006 was the conversion of the former Dresdner Bank headquarters into the Hotel de Rome. That’s how this bank from the Gründerzeit became one of the best hotels in the world. One of the project’s creative ideas was the construction of a spa complex in the former vault area. But despite the well-known health-promoting effects of saunas, the complex has not served as a model for redesigning the vault area of the future Ministry of Health. There are two floors of vaults under the former counter hall, separated by blocks of glass. “Incredibly modern,” says Zieschang, who is impressed by the architecture created almost 150 years ago. Nonetheless, the question of how to use these two floors has remained an unsolved brainteaser so far. Meanwhile, the concept for redesigning the once-splendid banking hall above it is much more concrete. It will become the foyer of a conference center, and its glass roofs will be restored. The walls of the GDR movie theater will be removed, and only the pillars will remain. Glass walls up to 12 meters high will revive the spacious feeling of the former banking hall. Remnants of the GDR such as Ehrlich Hall, formerly a banqueting hall for the GDR’s Ministers of the Interior and now a protected historical monument, are being integrated into the building’s new function. Many elements of the Bauhaus-inspired architecture will be retained. After the refurbishment, HOCHTIEF and BAM Deutschland will operate the complex, which is still a protected historical monument, for 25 years in a public-private partnership (PPP). The client is the Institute for Federal Real Estate. It’s already clear that the love of historical details and the strong sense of history shared by everyone working on this construction site are going to pay dividends for the project.