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The bellyache of an architect

The Berlin District Court has ruled that Deutsche Bahn must rebuild whole sections of the new Hauptbahnhof according to the architect's plans, setting a spectacular precedent. By Andreas Zielcke

Berlin's new main train station, the Hauptbahnhof, cuts a solitary figure in the surrounding wasteland as it awaits an urban development that will complement its ambition, aesthetics and vast dimensions. But the verdict pronounced by the Berlin District Court on Tuesday November 28 has brutally nipped this development process in the bud. The judges ruled that the German rail company Deutsche Bahn has unlawfully violated the intellectual property rights of the station's architect, Meinhard von Gerkan. The rail company must rebuild the station according to the architect's plans. The station opened in May this year after a 13-year construction period.

Berlin Hauptbahnhof architect, Meinhard von Gerkan.
Photo © Wilfried Dechau

For Deutsche Bahn, and in particular for its chairman Hartmut Mehdorn, the verdict is a terrible defeat, a debacle. The station is one of the most important and controversial construction projects in Germany, and for Deutsche Bahn it was the crowning glory of all its modernisation projects in recent years. But the wrangling between rail boss and architect dates back to long before the inauguration. At stake was the length of the upper platform hall which Deutsche Bahn, in breach of Gerkan's plans, had shortened by almost a third, and also the ceiling design on the "audience-intensive" subterranean floors. It is on this latter point that the District Court has now ruled in Gerkan's favour.

For the two lower platforms buried deep below the earth's surface, the architect had foreseen a vaulted ceiling construction, which in contrast to the usual underground station ceilings, would lend the space an unusually light and airy atmosphere.

The original underground ceiling design by GMP Architects. © GMP

More importantly, the aesthetics of the underground floors were designed to complement the grandeur of the construction above ground. But in Autumn 2005 Mehdorn hired another architects' office, Winkens Architects, without even informing Gerkan, to alter his designs and replace the vaulted ceiling with a simple flat ceiling construction. The decision was final, and the Bahn boss remained entirely impervious to Gerkan's protestations. The new ceilings were installed and Gerkan filed his suit in October last year.

The ceiling design currently
installed by Winkens Architekten © GMP

The court's verdict now allows the architect to reverse the changes, have the ceilings built to his original plans and drill a new multi-million hole in Deutsche Bahn's pocket. According to Die Bahn, the reconstruction will cost around 40 million euros and take years to execute. Gerkan's office says it will be a maximum of 20 million euros, and claims the work will not interfere with the running of the station. But the case is not settled yet. Deutsche Bahn has announced it will appeal the verdict and has refused to make any statements before the judgement is set out in writing.

The legal battle, which has set a spectacular precedent in the history of architectural intellectual property, is about both the communication between architect and building owner and the extent to which the architect's intellectual property rights hold up against the building owner.

Mehdorn might have saved himself a lot of bother had he and other representatives of Deutsche Bahn not made and acted out decisions behind the architect's back. It was obvious that such an ignorant and cavalier style of communication – no matter which party had the final say in the eyes of the law – was going to sting and enrage the architect. Mehdorn's high-handed approach set him on clear course for escalation and legal battle. (Here he would have had a good deal of confidence, as few architects fear anything more than court cases with their clients over intellectual property rights: future clients might be a little more wary.)

But the real problem is determining the point where the undisputed rights of the architect and creator concerning his building end, and the rights of the building owner to have the construction built to his requirements begin. If the contract does not explicitly stipulate that the architect has to surrender to the builder his legally chartered intellectual property rights completely or at least in the deciding details, the cut off point has to be decided according to general copyright law. Whatever happens, the architect is under no obligation to tolerate any violations of his intellectual property rights in respect to his architectural plans, if this violation unequivocally alters the artistic identity of the building. Were the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao for example to stick a rectangular clinker-brick tower onto Frank Gehry's artificial and sophisticatedly amorphous metal construction, it would be a clear case.

It is not only on first appearances that the Hauptbahnhof underground ceiling case is not so clear cut. Cost limits, construction time limits, issues of practicality, all these are legitimate considerations that an architect has to consider in respect to the builder's situational constraints. Yet the stronger arguments are still on Gerkan's side. Not only because the subterranean floors make up a considerable part of the building, much more and in fact because, aside from the silhouette of the Hauptbahnhof as a whole, these lower floors represent the public face of the train station. It is here that the people flow takes place, here that the national and international travellers make their exchanges, it is here that the new arrivals receive their first and decisive impressions of the aesthetic of the building as a whole.

And cheap DIY-store flatness cannot be what a building with a stature this imposing wants to express.


This article originally appeared in the Süddeutsche Zeitung on 29 November, 2006

For more information about the Hauptbahnhof see our feature "Bodily harm to a train station" by Horst Bredekamp.

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