In spite of Sir George Gilbert Scott’s dislike of competitions, the Berlin Reichstag was the first of two major architectural competitions of 1872 that he could not avoid entering: they both involved personal friends who were enthusiastic supporters of his work and wanted him to win. Henry Cotterill returned from South Africa when a competition for his new cathedral at Edinburgh was being launched, while August Reichensperger was a driving force behind the Berlin competition. The Spring Gardens organisation needed constantly feeding with new commissions. Major works, such as the Home and Colonial Offices and St Pancras, were well advanced and with the Albert Memorial nearly completed, Scott would have felt that these two prestigious competitions could provide new work for the office. Perhaps because the Berlin competition coincided with Caroline’s death, John Oldrid helped his father with the design.
The competition was launched in November 1871 but it was not until March 1872 that it appeared in The Builder. From Baker King’s letter, it is clear that Scott had been warned well in advance of its announcement in the British press and before Caroline’s death he instructed Spring Gardens to proceed with the work. In his letter to Irvine, telling him of Caroline’s death, Baker King says that they have just commenced the drawings for the Berlin Parliament competition in February. The Crown Princess Victoria possibly influenced this decision but it was Reichensperger’s determination to have a Gothic building that ensured that Scott would enter. In 1859 Reichensperger was appalled when a competition for a Prussian parliament building in Berlin attracted very few Gothic entries and a classical scheme was selected. But nothing more happened until the German Empire was proclaimed in January 1871 and Reichensperger seized his opportunity. A new Reichstag was required in Berlin to accommodate 400 members from all over the newly united Germany. In the meantime, a former porcelain factory was hurriedly converted into temporary home for the Reichstag. In March 1871, Reichensperger was elected a member of the new Reichstag and almost immediately he managed to become a leading member of the committee formed to draft the programme for a new building. He also became a member of the parliamentary jury to examine the entries and tried to load an equivalent jury of architects with Gothic members. But Berlin was traditionally a classical city and the Berlin architectural establishment ensured that only two out of the six architects appointed to the jury were sympathetic to Gothic, while Scott’s arch-rival Gottfried Semper was among the other four.
By the submission date, 15 April 1872, 101 projects were sent in, and as was now usual, they were put on public display before being assessed. The juries eventually started their work in June. Submissions came from several European countries and the United States, but after those from Germany itself, the next greatest number, fifteen, came from Great Britain. The Scotts submitted nine drawings, including one external perspective and two internal views. One of these was an elaborate drawing by Francis Ebenezer Jones (d. 1926), who was just completing his pupilage with Scott and became an assistant to both Scotts. The main feature of the design was a tall 75 feet diameter dome, over a central lobby, with wings projecting from it in four directions, an arrangement obviously inspired by Barry’s plan for the Houses of Parliament. Scott says that he gave considerable thought to the style of the building but it appears as a re-statement of that used on St Pancras with elements from his Gothic submissions in the Government Offices Competition. He claims that it is the development of mid-thirteenth century German architecture if it had not been disturbed by the importation of French architecture. But when it comes to his dome, or cupola as he calls it, he says that it â€˜was semi-mediaeval in its origin at Florence, though its more complete realisation at Rome was in another styleâ€™. In other words, he was determined to build a domed building, regardless of style. As he said, ‘For a great and dignified national structure I can conceive of no feature so appropriate or so desirable as a vast and lofty central cupola’. Although Scott was delivering two Royal Academy lectures at this time devoted to domes, these were largely discussions about their practical applications and he says nothing about their symbolic value. They were generally seen as appropriate images of state government; several other competitors included domes in their designs and in the United States, most of the new state capitols across the country were mimicking Thomas Walter’s great iron dome of 1855 on the Washington Capitol.
Scott proposed that his dome, like Wren’s at St. Paul’s, and incidentally Walter’s on the Capitol, would have a cone inserted between the inner and the outer layers of the dome to support the lantern on top. ‘The great advantage of the system is that it enables the designer to make the height of his cupola to suit the eye both within and without’. Scott’s hybrid Gothic creation would have been a strange companion to the severely classical buildings of Berlin, particularly the great Doric Brandenburg Gate which stands a few yards to the south of the site chosen for the competition. This is the east side of what was then called the Konigsplatz, a parade ground on the edge of the Tiergarten, which became the focus of Prussian patriotism. Here, in 1864, Strack erected a Victory Column to celebrate the Prussian victory over Denmark, and in 1866 he altered it to include the defeat of Austria. The monument was removed on Hitler’s orders to the centre of the Tiergarten, where it stands today, although the present-day Reichstag still occupies the competition site.
In 1872 the competition juries whittled the 101 submissions down to five. They decided to award the first prize to Ludwig Bohnstedt, who was placed third in the Hamburg Rathaus competition of 1854, for a design for a monumental classical building which would have been highly appropriate for the site. Scott and the other three finalists were all awarded second prizes. Scott was immensely proud of his achievement and immediately presented a set of photographs of the orginal competition drawings to the Institute. In 1875, he exhibited five of the drawings at the Royal Academy and Jones’s drawing of the domed lobby provides an illustration to the chapters on domes in Scott’s Mediaeval Architecture. But the German architectural establishment was furious at Scott’s success. This was the third time that this English architect had beaten the resident architects. The editor of the Berlin journal Deutsche Bauzeitung, Karl Fritsch, waged a fierce and unremitting war against Scott and his design. It started even before the judging commenced and continued after Scott’s death. Behind Fritsch’s attack there was a feeling of resentment against Reichensperger. Here was a Rhinelander trying to foist a romantic symbol of German unification on the people of Berlin who had won their position by force of arms.
But nothing happened about the building. Amazingly, the government did not own the competition site. Negotiations had been underway, but these became enormously protracted and it was not until December 1881 that the government acquired the land. It was then decided to ignore Bohnstedt’s plan and hold another competition which would be limited to architects ‘of German tongue’ or any of the prize-winners in the 1872 competition. This, in practice, meant that Scott was the only foreign architect allowed to compete, but he had died four years earlier. By the end of June 1882, the jury had selected the classical design of a Frankfurt architect Paul Wallot (1841-1912). However, in the summer of 1872, any disappointment that Scott may have felt over the outcome of the Reichstag competition would have rapidly evaporated in the rush to complete the Albert Memorial, and the news of the honour that this was to bring.
Lewis, M. J., The Politics of the German Gothic Revival, August Reichensperger (M.I.T. Press, Cambridge, Mass., 1993), pp. 242, 246-50, 252.
Fisher, G., Stamp, G. and Heseltine, J., (eds), The Scott Family, Catalogue of the Drawings Collection of the Royal Institute of British Architects (Avebury Publishing, Amersham, 1981), 86.
The Builder, XXX, 9 March 1872, p. 191.
Cole, D., The Work of Sir Gilbert Scott (The Architectural Press, London, 1980), p. 155.
Royal Commission for Historic Monuments (South), letter to Irvine, 25 February 1872.
Cullen, M. S., The Reichstag: German parliament between monarchy and federalism (be.bra verlag, Berlin, 1999), pp. 16, 19-21, 26, 28.
Scott, G., Sir, Lectures on the Rise and Development of Medieval Architecture delivered at the Royal Academy (John Murray, London, 1879), vol. II, pp. 228-90.
Directory of British Architects 1834-1914 (Continium, London, 2001), vol. I, p. 1035.
The Builder, XXXIII, 28 August 1875, p. 775.
Hitchcock, H. R., Architecture, Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries, Pelican History of Art (Penguin Books, Harmondsworth, 1963), pp. 16, 166-7.
Peterson, C. E. (ed.), Building Early America, Contributions towards the History of a Great Industry (Chilton Book Company, Radnor, Pennsylvania, 1976), p. 221.