Federal Constitutional Court in Karlsruhe An Architectural Icon Resurrected

Federal Constitutional Court in Karlsruhe
Federal Constitutional Court in Karlsruhe | Photo: Stephan Baumann

The Federal Constitutional Court in Karlsruhe, a building complex from the 1960’s, has been lavishly renovated.

Today, Karlsruhe, the former seat of the grand dukes of Baden, is often called the “Residenz des Rechts” (i.e. seat of the law) as the Federal Supreme Court and the Federal Constitutional Court are both located here. And whenever high court decisions by the guardians of the constitution are reported about on television, the cameras also focus on the Sixties-modern building of the constitutional court. But for two and a half years the building had vanished from our screens. The judges in red robes made way for workmen in blue overalls and had moved into temporary quarters.

Their office, the pavilion ensemble right next to the baroque palace, had begun to show its age. The judges complained about heat in summer, draughts in winter and leaky roofs. The energy balance had taken on downright unconstitutional dimensions; a thorough-going renovation was unavoidable.

Transparency and dignity

The building is the achievement of Berlin architect Paul Baumgarten (1900-1984). Inaugurated in 1969, it was the first court building in Germany, perhaps even world-wide, to deliberately avoid expressing power and dignity by means of magisterial forms of architectural representation. Baumgarten dispensed with Renaissance and Baroque, portico and monumental columns. He required no fortress walls, symmetrical arches or other symbols of authority intended to intimidate the citizenry and reinforce the state’s claim to power.
 
  • Bundesverfassungsgericht Karlsruhe Foto: Stephan Baumann
    Bundesverfassungsgericht Karlsruhe
  • Bundesverfassungsgericht Karlsruhe Foto: Stephan Baumann
    Bundesverfassungsgericht Karlsruhe
  • Bundesverfassungsgericht Karlsruhe Foto: Stephan Baumann
    Bundesverfassungsgericht Karlsruhe
  • Bundesverfassungsgericht Karlsruhe Foto: Stephan Baumann
    Bundesverfassungsgericht Karlsruhe
  • Bundesverfassungsgericht Karlsruhe Foto: Stephan Baumann
    Bundesverfassungsgericht Karlsruhe
  • Bundesverfassungsgericht Karlsruhe Foto: Stephan Baumann
    Bundesverfassungsgericht Karlsruhe
  • Bundesverfassungsgericht Karlsruhe Foto: Stephan Baumann
    Bundesverfassungsgericht Karlsruhe
  • Bundesverfassungsgericht Karlsruhe Foto: Stephan Baumann
    Bundesverfassungsgericht Karlsruhe
Since according to the constitution, power derives from the people, laws are made in Parliament in a transparent process, whereby legislative procedure and implementation require transparency and control on the part of the citizenry. Transparency and dignity is therefore the creed to which the architect felt obligated; that for him was programme and symbolism at once. The judges in the courtroom, the litigants and trial observers sit in a glass house, they have their surroundings continually in view, they see the city and its people, the people, the sovereign.

Floating constructions

Baumgarten had allocated four flatter, pavilion-like buildings to the three-storey court building; one for the judges, a library, a casino with a restaurant open to the public and an administrative building. A glassed-in passageway connects the buildings with each other. It floats above the grounds and over the judges’ offices in an elevated construction with an inner courtyard, called the “Richterring” (i.e. judges’ ring): the neighbouring Botanical Garden surrounds the ensemble, indeed the green space flows in part beneath the floating, light volumes. Surprisingly, there are still no fences or walls.

Sensitive renovation

It was no easy task for the Baden-Baden Building Department responsible for the project, since the building is a listed building. Department director Wolfgang Grether, who ran the 55 million Euro undertaking, also pursued the goal of producing a building in the end that corresponds so much to the original building that only experts are able to identify the alterations. The extent of the renovations also gave the conservation experts quite a headache. The wooden windows with triple panes, the exterior walls with up-to-date insulation, the roofing, the entire outer skin is brand-new. However, the facade panels of cast aluminium characteristic of the building were cleaned and remounted.

Conservation purists also deplore the great loss of original building substance in the interior. But one can scarcely accuse the Building Department of insensitivity in its approach. On the contrary, what could be saved was preserved, in part at great expense. Thus, wooden wall panelling and extension elements were carefully refurbished. Above all, care was taken not to alter the optics of the architecture. New cooling ceilings look like the previous constructions without secondary functions; all lights were recreated and fitted with LEDs. New safety glass looks like the old glass that no longer meets requirements. New, required fire doors were adapted to the design. Installation of the comprehensive building and communications technology in roofs and channels with only limited space reserves caused considerable headache. For instance, the state-of-the-art technical equipment of courtroom is invisible. Except for the discreet loudspeakers, it looks exactly as it did in Baumgarten’s time.

Art in discourse with architecture

What is unquestionably new is of course the building art. Franz Ackermann was tasked with painting several interior wall segments. His large-format paintings in the corridors of the judges’ building, some of which cover two storeys, at first glance abstract, decidedly colourful compositions, at second glance associate to architectural structures (“zwei Lasten” / i.e. two loads), signage (“Der Treffpunkt” / i.e. the meeting-place) and communications networks (“Strömung” / i.e. flow). Vaguely urban-looking structures begin moving and dissolving under colourful thunderstorms. Ackermann makes use of his artistic freedom to enter into correspondence with the architecture and to plöay with it, comment on it. At the same time, he questions hierarchical systems of order, including, naturally, that of a seemingly fixed system of law. A painterly discourse, therefore, that does credit to the court – and that is enjoying an extent of general acceptance unusual for contemporary art thanks to its appealing aesthetics.

Paul Baumgarten was very much present in standard reference works on architecture in the early Federal Republic, for example in connection with the rebuilding of the Berlin Reichstag (which Lord Norman Foster recently remodelled as the Bundestag), but not with the Federal Constitutional Court. But that is going to change. Now that it has been renovated in exemplary fashion and has been resurrected in all its glory, this building, which until now has been somewhat underappreciated in expert circles, will take its rightful place in the Federal Republic’s architectural history as an icon of Sixties architecture.
 

Literature

Falk Jaeger, BVerfG und BMUB (Hg.), Transparenz und Würde – Das Bundesverfassungsgericht und seine Architektur, Jovis Verlag, Berlin 2014, ISBN 978-3-86859-286-3
Annette Menting, Paul Baumgarten – Schaffen aus dem Charakter der Zeit, Gebrüder Mann Verlag, Berlin 1988, ISBN 978-3-7861-1777-3