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24  |   A R K
Raumwerk, 1993–1996 : Wall sculpture and design concept for the Großer Sitzungssaal (“Great Assembly Hall”) of the Deutscher Bundestag, Wilhelmstrasse 60, Berlin, and its anteroom

Commissioned by the Bundesrepublik Deutschland [Federal Republic of Germany].


As we all know, the Berlin Wall fell in November 1989, and Germany celebrated its unification a mere eleven months later. And because the agreements regulating the German Democratic Republic’s accession into the Federal Republic of Germany included a resolve establishing Berlin as the soon-to-be-amalgamated federal government’s seat, the relocation of the Bundestag and ministries from Bonn—Cold War West Germany's provincial, and initially provisional, headquarters on the River Rhine—soon began in earnest. For the former Hauptstadt der DDR, this meant a dizzying curriculum of renovation and construction, which of course went hand in hand with much furious jockeying for position, since Berlin had suddenly become the architectural boom town of the European continent.

As a direct result of this expansive mood, in 1993, I had the great good fortune not only to be asked to take part in a Kunst-am-Bau ( an “art-for-buildings” ) competition, but to win it as well, going on to develop my proposal for the general design concept and wall sculpture of the main conference and assembly hall in the Bundestag Building at Wilhelmstrasse 60: the Raumwerk ARK. Being invited to compete is always half the battle in such cases, and Jörn Merkert—museum director, invaluable friend to artists, and generous supporter of my work throughout the years (who, that same year, was incidentally commissioner for the German delegation to the Toyama triennial)—had recommended me to the competition’s organizers, the Bundesbaudirektion (“Federal building authority”) and its sizable jury, consisting of governmental and art world “experts.” Being awarded the contract in what had been the first architectural art competition for the Bundestag in Berlin gave my professional spirits a considerable boost—and me the unprecedented opportunity to realize a site-specific work on a grand scale that was not to be plagued—as I PURITANI had been, ten years earlier—by the financial limitations that ordinarily straiten my endeavors nor by the usual restrictions regarding a spatial work’s duration.

The Great Assembly Hall, gutted, 1994.

Using artistic means and methods, I set out to permanently redefine the Großer Sitzungssaal (“Great Assembly Hall”) as what I like to call a Raumwerk, a work that is, ideally, synonymous with the space in which it occurs. Apart from the building’s walls, which had been stripped to their bare masonry, there were no preëstablished design features to make allowance for, and I was able to take every planning decision, large and small, myself. In fact, the sole proviso was as self-imposed as it was self-evident: that a marriage of utility and utopia be achieved: the hall, and its anteroom, were to be experienced through the “natural” kinæsthetic of daily use.

Location of the building complex in relation to the Brandenburg Gate and Pariser Platz, ca. 1930 (left) and 1960 (right).

Photos © Landesbildstelle Berlin.

Great Assembly Hall (black rectangle) in the Prussian MInistry of Culture (left) and the new composite complex (right); location of ARK’s wall plaque (black arrow).

A direct neighbor to the Brandenburg Gate at Pariser Platz, the Großer Sitzungssaal is located at the western end of the block formed by Unter den Linden, Glinkastraße, Behrenstraße, and Wilhelmstraße, in a Bundestag building complex comprising three distinct, if linked, architectural units. The Sitzungssaal itself is located in the oldest and smallest of those sections, a vestigial remnant of the former Prussian “Ministry for Spiritual, Educational, and Medical Affairs,” built in 1849, and the rest of which was destroyed, together with its late-neoclassical additions, during World War II. Next, chronologically, there is the massive Palazzo-style extension that had doubled the size of the original ministry, in 1904, and emerged as one of the few unscathed buildings in the National-Socialists’ center of ministerial power on Wilhelmstrasse, in 1945. And last—but, aesthetically, without doubt least—there is the L-shaped, reinforced concrete addition erected on the block’s completely razed northwest corner, in 1965.

Until 1989, and the demise of the GDR, the complex had housed East Germany’s “Academy of Educational Sciences,” where Margot Honecker had the whip hand as Minister of Education, a post she held for more than thirty-five years. (Frau Honecker was the uncompromising wife—and later, until her death, in 2016,  the uncompromising widow—of Erich Honecker, himself, from 1971 to 1989, the equally hard-line “General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Socialist Unity Party of Germany,” a position the title of which speaks to East Germany’s Orwellian proclivities.) One of the many spoils of the Cold War, this rabbit warren of offices, corridors, and connecting passageways—which nicely combined Wilhelmine turgidity with an unmistakably East-bloc flair for sixties architectural barbarisms—had fallen to the Lower House of the new German Parliament on the cusp of the new millennium, so that, in 1993, it was in the earliest stages of being gutted, renovated, and generally readied to fulfill its various new functions—this time with a sixth sense for exploiting the more objectionable building practices of the 1990s.

Edward Hicks, Noah’s Ark, 66 x 76 cm, oil on canvas, 1846. Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Given this convoluted chronicle, I saw that, as far as Form was concerned, my re-planning of the Großer Sitzungssaal would have to take both the traditional and the modern into consideration—to exorcise the past without obliterating it—but that, above all, respect should be paid to the original geometry of the space. Regarding Content: even before having seen the building or the hall itself, I had decided to realize a long cherished, though of late dormant, desire with this project, namely, to employ the narrative and iconography of Noah’s Ark in my work. No doubt a vestige of my early and extravagant adoration of anything with four legs and fur (or, in a pinch, feathers and two), I would have given much to join the ranks of artists the likes of Edward Hicks and render that peaceable parade of creatures wending their way, two by two, towards the Ark. But I knew the situation here called for a more conceptual solution, and that I’d need to content myself with, and concentrate on, an allegorical interpretation: a structural and structured presentation of this Biblical fable, less literal than literary.

An aspiration to have Word and Number lend form to both Raum ( “room, space” ) and Werk ( “work” ) showed me a way to merge my ambitions and the actuality with which I was confronted. As a first step, I turned to the Book of Genesis, where I found directions for building one of the quintessential symbols of our Judeo-Christian history: the Ark itself, a box-shaped boat measuring 30 by 300 by 50 cubits. The cubit is an ancient unit of measurement approximately half a meter in length, so that substituting centimeters for cubits in the above formula produced a cuboid corpus not dissimilar in volume to that of a good-sized animal’s body: dimensions, that is, a good deal more workable in the present context than those of the original would have been. The idea of using a pair of such box-like forms as building blocks for the work in hand seemed to recommend itself, so that, as I looked at the plans of the Großer Sitzungssaal for the first time, I was struck—as anyone would have been—by the long, windowless east wall as the ideal location for an as yet to be defined wall sculpture, as well as by the 1:2 ratio of the hall’s 8-by-16-meter floor plan.

Terms of the Fibonacci Row, expressed in decimeters [dm = 10 cm], as applied to ARK.

As I turned to arranging seven pairs of these boxes on the wall—the beasts and fowls were taken into the Ark in “sevens” of “the male and his female”—I soon realized that the dimensions of the oblong forms themselves, as well as those involved in placing them on the wall and in the room, were (when expressed as decimeters) all terms belonging to the ever-gratifying Fibonacci Series: 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, ….

[In the early thirteenth century, Leonardo of Pisa, known as Fibonacci, made use of Hindu-Arabic numerals—so important to the advancement of accounting and mathematics in the Western world—to devise the unending additive progression we now call by his name. The ratio of any two consecutive terms in this series of integers, in which each subsequent number is the sum of the previous two, tends (as Johannes Kepler was to point out four hundred years later) toward that of the Golden Mean.]


Thus, in a very short time, I was well provided with literary and numerical raw material: words from the Old Testament, as a guide to form and content, and numbers closely related to the Golden Section, as modular standards for the organization and construction of room and work. (I even went so far as to consider an acoustic manifestation of the words and numbers that lend form to ARK, composing—a word I use in its most pedestrian sense of “putting together”—a duo for flute and vibraphone, which was to be performed as a musical offering at the official presentation of the completed work, an event that, however, for security reasons—read: lack of sufficient official interest—never took place.)

My color scheme—with a knowing wink at the German national colors black, red, and gold (whereby, my gold is not the maize yellow of the Republic’s flag, but actual gold [leaf] )—was borrowed from Constructivism; and, in compliance with a cardinal rule of that rigorous school of art and design, as well as logical for a Kunst-am-Bau project, only materials accepted in the building and construction (hence the movement's name) trades were to be employed—wood, plaster, glass, brass, gold leaf, and a lot of enamel paint in various colors and degrees of gloss: high-gloss, "piano finish" black for the boxes; semi-gloss for the pale yellow walls and deep-red doors; and semi-matte white for the stucco and woodwork. As a title, I chose the English word “ark,” which occurs not only in the combination “Noah’s Ark” ( German : Arche Noah ), but in “Ark of the Covenant” ( German : Bundeslade ) as well.

The North Wall of ARK.

Entering the hall through the door in the south end wall, one sees, on the opposite, north, end wall, what seems to be a wooden beam completely covered in 24-karat gold leaf. Measuring 7.2 meters in length and 10 by 10 centimeters in section, this beam is mounted between the door frame and the heavy cornice that runs around the entire room at a height of approximately 5 meters. (This cornice, and the cove of the ceiling above it are the only extant features of the room’s earlier design.) In raised letters on the golden “timber”—in reality, a hollow-core press-board construction—one reads the following legend:

Mache dir einen Kasten von tennen Holtz / Drey hundert Ellen sey die lenge / funffzig die weite / dreissig die hoehe.

[Gen. 6 :14–15, trans. Martin Luther, 1545 ; the King James Version ( KJV ) reads : “Make thee an ark of gopher wood ; … The length … shall be three hundred cubits, the breadth … fifty, … the height … thirty ….”]

Lettering on the golden “beams.”

The un-serifed, and unsentimental, form of the letters seems to be at odds with the crabbed poetry taken word for word from the original Early New High German speech and spelling— and blackletter type—of Martin Luther’s Bible. This groundbreaking opus’s first edition had been published eleven years before the final authorized edition of 1545 from which I quote in ARK—and the content and composition of whose woodcut illustrations Luther himself had specified and overseen. That embellishing the story of the Flood shows Noah’s Ark adrift on rising torrents, surrounded by the wicked, desperate, and doomed: drowning men, women, and beasts, writhing and flailing in the foreground, in marked contrast to the vessel itself, depicted as a matter-of-fact box-like shape, albeit one drawn accurately to the biblical, God-given specifications above, and looking for all the world like an outsize packing crate, equably bobbing in the middle distance, amidst what looks like so much flotsam from an ancient shipment of comestibles.

Illustration of the Flood with Noah’s Ark from Martin Luther’s Biblia, 1545.

The fact that Luther’s Old and New Testament translations had contributed so decisively to the linguistic and cultural cohesion of German national life was chief among my considerations in deciding to quote from them verbatim. (As the linchpin of the Reformation, it had gone on to influence the development of the English vernacular Bible, King James Version, published in 1611, from which the English translations in this text are taken.) For, there I was, designing a work for a showcase location in the former capital of—successively—Prussia, the Kaiserreich, the Weimar Republic, the “Third Reich,” and the Deutsche Demokratische Republik: a work that was to celebrate the latest German union of two post-war Germanys, East and West, in what had become the seat of their common federal government. Berlin had done its penance; its mortification was to end.

The long East Wall.

Beneath the rhythmic constellation of ARK’s “black boxes,” on the long east wall—which it shares, coincidentally, with the Embassy of the Russian Federation—at eye-level with a seated adult, runs a second golden beam twice the length of the first, upon which further instructions stand :

Vnd du solt in den Kasten thun allerley Thier von allem Fleisch / Von den Vogeln nach jrer art / von dem Vieh / nach seiner art / vnd von allerley Gewuerm auff erden / Von den allen sol je ein Par zu dir hinein gehen / das sie leben bleiben.


[Gen. 6 :19–20 ; KJV : “And of every living thing of all flesh, … shalt thou bring into the ark … Of fowls after their kind, and of cattle after their kind, of every creeping thing on the earth … two of every sort shall come unto thee, to keep them alive.”]

The south end wall.

And on a third and final beam high up on the south end wall—mirroring the first—one reads :

So lange die Erden stehet / sol nicht auffhoeren / Samen vnd Ernd / Frost vnd Hitz / Sommer vnd Winter / Tag vnd Nacht.

[Gen. 8 :22 ; KJV : “While the earth remaineth, seedtime and harvest, and cold and heat, and summer and winter, and day and night shall not cease.”]

The long west wall.

The long west wall is dominated by four large and lofty window openings, the top edge of which dictates that of the upper row of black boxes on the opposite wall—which in their turn determine the dimensions of the windows’ louvered indoor shutters and reveals. Shutters such as these are a traditional form of window shade in southern climes that one seldom encountered in Northern Germany when I was developing ARK. Far more common there, if no less traditional, is the newly laid parquet floor of honey-colored beech wood and dark, smoked oak. Laid out as a grid, it elaborates the 1:2 ratio of the floor plan already demonstrated by the lengths of the lettered beams. Along the north and south end walls, a beech wood border frames the floor pattern, the matrix of which appears to continue through the long east and west side walls and thus to extend beyond the confines of the hall.

Somewhat reduced in size, the grid of the floor is reflected in that of the suspended portion of the ceiling (a concession to acoustic expediency), so that the inside of a square in the floor grid measures 144 centimeters, the same length as the outside of a square in the ceiling grid (the profile of whose moldings is derived from the widths of the strips of dark wood in the floor, namely, 7 and 5 centimeters, and identical to that of the central battens of the casement windows in both the hall and its anteroom).

Formally, historically, and practically, I viewed this anteroom as a kind of lock, or floodgate, between the Großer Sitzungssaal and the later, more prosaic parts of the building complex. The floor level actually does fall away here by nearly ten centimeters, gradually rising again in the passageway to the main building, where architectural business as usual predominates.

The anteroom and brass fittings.

The entrance to the hall from this anteroom is marked by a row of five red double-doors, whose panels measure 30 by 50 centimeters, with a raised field of 20 by 40 centimeters: the dimensions of the hall’s black boxes in section and the 1:2 ratio again, respectively. The wings of the door on the far left belong to the actual entrance; of the rest, some conceal built-in closets and fuse boxes, while others are fully articulated blind panelling. The entire row is reflected, together with the white panelling that covers the opposite wall, in a floor-to-ceiling mirror that forms the end wall of this entryway-cum-cloakroom.

Like all the other brass mounts and fittings in both spaces—door, window, and shutter handles; shutter catches; and closet pulls—the coat-hooks in the anteroom were individually made to my specifications, as the sharp contours of the line which informs ARK, from its beams and boxes to its battens and baseboards, were, perhaps understandably, not to be found in commercially available wares.

The proposed furniture.

The furniture, however, posed a pricklier problem. Apparently, as the tale came down to me, due to an awkward incident involving the voluminous Bundeskanzler’s tight squeeze into—or rather failure to squeeze out of—an armchair designed by a prominent German architect, a ministerial directive had recently been issued interdicting artists of all stripes from designing seating prototypes for use in federal buildings, so that the original, happy plan for me to develop a chair as part and parcel of the Raumwerk had to be abandoned. After much perusal of design catalogues, however, I hit upon one, created c.1920 by Walter Gropius for the legendary Fagus-Werk, that would be ideal in line, scale, and historical reference—indeed, far better than the one I had been working on myself promised to be—and which was, and is, still being manufactured. Nonetheless—as the Ideal doesn’t seem to possess much leverage in such circles—there was yet one major problem to be dealt with: the chairs were not found to provide the amount of creature comfort to which the parliamentary members who literally sat on the critical committee had become accustomed. (When I had this finding decrypted by someone in the know, it turned out to mean that it might not be possible to nod off in them during conference sessions.) And so, despite a number of alterations by the manufacturer, the Fagus-Sessel have, for the nonce at least, failed to find favor. [More on this tale of woe in the Postscript below.]

With black wooden legs and armrests, upholstered to order in dark-green leather, this definitively modern chair and the table I designed to go with it—a correspondingly substantial black wooden frame, whose top is inlaid with dark-green linoleum—were to make up the hall’s furnishings. The entire ensemble of tables and chairs was designed, or chosen, to be on a scale that allowed the Großer Sitzungssaal to do its name justice, that is, to appear generously and gracefully sized. An additional advantage to these chairs was that, due to their upright backs, even if pushed up against the baseboards, their backs could not rub against, and thus soil or damage, the walls’ carefully spray-painted enamel surfaces; nor would the tables disturb the rhythm of the floor pattern, as the surface area of a tabletop was exactly half that of a square in the parquet grid—and thus in the fundamental proportion of 1:2.

ARK, wall plaque, brass foil on wood, 120 x 240 cm, 1996.

At the opposite end of the complex, a large wall plaque measuring 1.2 x 2.4 meters also exhibits this proportion. Installed in the building’s richly restored main staircase, it is surrounded by extravagantly veined, green cipolin-marble columns and rubbed brass elevator doors. The raised letters of its gilt surface slowly reveal the Deluge’s aftermath to the patient and persevering reader :

Das ist das Zeichen des Bunds / den ich gemacht habe zwi­schen mir vnd euch / vnd allem lebendigen Thier bey euch hin furt ewiglich. Meinen Bogen hab ich gesetzt in die wolcken / der sol das Zeichen sein des Bunds / zwischen Mir vnd der Erden. Vnd wenn es kompt / das ich wolcken vber die Erden fuere / So sol man meinen Bogen sehen / in den wolcken / Als denn will ich gedencken an meinen Bund / zwischen Mir vnd euch / vnd allem lebendigen Thier.
[Gen. 9 :12–16 ; KJV : “This is the token of the covenant which I make between me and you, and every living creature that is with you, for the perpetual generations : I do set my bow in the cloud, and it shall be for a token of a covenant between me and all the earth. And it shall come to pass, when I bring a cloud over the earth, that the bow shall be seen in the cloud : And I will remember my covenant, which is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh.”]

ARK began with the bald stonework of empty rooms. When everything had been plastered and panelled, painted, gilded, polished, and appointed, I hoped the Großer Sitzungssaal had come to reflect a certain flawless normality, in which one might sit in comfort, think clearly … and act accordingly. If so, the Utopia that had there grown out of Word and Number, and which defined both Raum and Werk, would prove a resource of great practical and ideal value.



This rapturous description of the finished work’s ideal state ignores the fact that, ostensibly due to pressing budgetary concerns, the Raumwerk ARK has never yet been furnished as originally envisioned. Instead, great, hulking chairs and equally unwieldy tables—hostile aliens, of which, in striking contrast to the room’s design, every edge and contour that might conceivably be rounded is rounded—line the walls and choke the floor of what was to have been an elegant, though nonetheless utilitarian, space.

Having served to seat the pan-German parliament’s constituent assembly at the Reichstag in 1990, these behemoth hand-me-downs now effectively preclude that discreet manipulation of scale which Gropius’s chairs and my made-to-measure tables were to have achieved. Rather than perceive the Großer Sitzungssaal as spacious and serene, the unwitting visitor—wondering what on earth those big, black boxes on the wall are good for—can now be forgiven for suspecting he has stumbled into a large and airy storeroom by mistake (and not be too far wrong, at that ).

It will surely come as no surprise to you that, following the heady days of watching ARK materialize according to my drawings and directions, it is a thorn of no inconsiderable size in my side (or “in my eye,” as the equivalent German expression has it) to see the project end in such a shambles—especially since, owing to an odd but lucky happenstance, I’d been pretty much assured of getting what I was asking for in the carpentry department. This was due to the fact that, besides work on medical and technical educational films, my earlier freelance graphic contracts had included the preparation of vocational training material,  such as worksheets and overhead transparencies, for the instruction of aspiring young carpenters and cabinetmakers Thus, I’d become versed in the language of woodworking diagrams and technical draftsmanship, and when the time came, had been in a position to prepare the plans and drawings for the entire ARK-project myself. 

Construction drawing.

But all those plans and drawings were to prove powerless against the legislative class’s philistine propensities, as—in addition to the orphaned chairs and tables that have made themselves at home there—the hall has come to house a veritable jungle of antediluvian sound technology as well. A bizarre canopy of mismatched loudspeakers now hangs suspended above the huddled masses of that bulging furniture, whose tabletops are cluttered with thickets of microphones, the cables to which disappear into a tangled mess beneath them. In the planning phase, exhaustive discussions concerning the acoustics of the hall and their technical ramifications had been held, expressly to forestall all such contingencies, so that, to me, having to fall back on ever more piecemeal solutions seems outrageous—particularly as thus distorting ARK’s sense and sensibilities makes of the not insubstantial funding already expended on the Großer Sitzungssaal’s rehabilitation just so many more unconscionably squandered resources.

Unable to regard this anticlimax to the project as the final verdict on it, and unwilling to acknowledge the precedence of parliamentary etiquette, I spent hours writing letters to, and meeting with, everyone from committed, but ultimately ineffectual, ministerial officials to equally impuissant (or simply reluctant ?) members of congressional committees. To date, my last stand has been three-quarters of an hour spent on site with the then-President of the Bundestag (and her note-scribbling staffers). She herself quickly grasped the situation—her summation, as brusque as it was brief: Wenn es so aussehen soll, hätten wir uns die ganze Mühe mit der Kunst sparen können (“If it’s going to look like this, we could have saved ourselves all the trouble with the art”) or words to that effect—and then proceeded to extemporize an eminently workable solution. Both politic and “cost-neutral,” it was, however, pronounced with the caveat that the Bundestag was a democratic institution, and she no potentate but rather its presiding officer. However, despite or—taking the devices and desires of party politics into consideration—perhaps because of her perspicacity and good will, the situation only worsened before she left office a year later. Today, her predecessors’ colleagues and subordinates have yet to follow through on the proposal; and thus, whereas I cannot endorse the status quo, I have no recourse other than to grin and bear it.


P. P. S.

In 2010, I was surprised to recognize the gilt surface of ARK’s wall plaque on the evening news, where it was serving as a backdrop for Germany’s well-spoken, well turned-out (and but one short year later, thoroughly disgraced) Minister of Defense, as he addressed a surprised press corps on the subject of abolishing the draft. I was pleased to see that, whereas an incidental excerpt of, say, a Neo-Expressionistic painting tends to strike a jarring note when glimpsed in such a context, I found myself, in the case of ARK, relishing the discrepancy between the clarity of the panel’s lettering and its (in this context and this severely truncated form) indecipherable message, both of which so nicely matched the silver-tongued politician’s clear-worded double-speak.

Yet, as gratifying as this moment was for me, I cannot decide whether, in the long run, it has made me feel better or worse about the outcome of my three years’ work on ARK and the Great Assembly Hall. On the one hand, I have witnessed a convincing, if brief and oblique, demonstration of the Raumwerk’s potential to provide an artful background for republican declaration, deliberation, and decision-making ; on the other, I have to acknowledge that its potential is not to be realized. So grant me, if you will, this parting shot : Art in the halls of power—be the halls in question those of governance, justice, finance, or commerceought not to be instrumentalized to ornament, condone, or glorify the shenanigans that nowadays pass as leadership and law-making, nor should it flatter or vindicate the perpetrators of such folly, be they democrats or despots. As a vanitas, not as a show of vanity, a work of art should hold a mirror to our posturings and posings, throwing back an image of our better selves.


Or had it better keep its distance?