The accessibility of the Reichstag building, home of the Bundestag (parliament of the German Federal Republic) has become integral to a design vision that aims to make the workings of democracy transparent. Construction work that took place within the walls of the largely destroyed former Reichstag building made accessibility planning easy. The Bundestag contributes in more than one way to the understanding of the meaning of accessibility in a modern democracy.
Principal access interventions
- Visitor information
- Accessibility, rights and memory
- The Bundestag lies in the immediate vicinity of the Brandenburg Gate in the centre of Berlin.
The neo-classical Reichstag opened in 1894 as the assembly of the German Reich. Burnt in 1933, severely bombed during WW2, partially re-built during the 1960ies/early 70ies, the building (except its external walls) was entirely re-designed to house the Bundestag (parliament) of re-unified Germany in 1999.
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Heritage significance and attractiveness
- the dimensions and the outer walls of the original Reichstag remain
- home of the parliament of the re-unified German Federal Republic
- the last building of Berlin to be captured by the Soviet Army in 1945, symbolising the end of WW2
- one of the most celebrated re-designs of any heritage site (9 Awards)
- the most popular tourist venue in Berlin (3,000,000 visitors a year come to enjoy the spectacular architecture and views, but also to learn about the workings of parliamentary democracy)
- the steep and imposing front stair case does not allow for level access
- blind people of Germany did not know what the Reichstag looks like and deaf people had no information about it
- the need to provide comfortable access to politicians with disabilities
- making the work of parliament understandable to people with learning difficulties
Accessibility was part of the design and construction brief for the new home of the Bundestag, the parliament of re-unified Germany, both for visitors and politicians.
The inside of the Reichstag building has been entirely redesigned to meet contemporary needs. Battle scars and restored graffiti left by Red Army soldiers are reminders of recent history (photo 1), while the light flooded parliamentary chamber can be viewed by visitors through glass walls, symbolising the transparency of a modern democracy (photo 2).
Photo 1 – Copyright Marcus Weisen
Photo 2 (with the lectern of movable height, lowered for Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble who uses a wheelchair) – Copyright Bundestag
Members of parliament, the state of Berlin and national disability organisations begun discussing accessibility early on in the planning. The federal state of Berlin had progressive access policies in place from the early 1990ies, which helped provide a framework for action.
Physical access was easy to built into the design. An award winning tactile model of the Reichstag and the city of Berlin for blind people was launched in 2007.
Around this cluster of accessibility provision, new projects have been added, contributing meaningfully to a vision of an accessible, equal and inclusive society: e.g. guided tours for groups, visitor information in German Sign Language, information for people with literacy difficulties, and, also, the memorial to the victims of the Nazi regime’s programme of extermination of people with severe disabilities unveiled in 2014 in nearby Tiergarten.
Entry and internal organisation
The steep and imposing front stair-case of the neo-classical Reichstag building does not allow for level access. Visitors with mobility difficulties enter the building via a ramp that has been fitted to the right of the central staircase, which leads to a staff entry at raised ground floor level.
A lateral view of the tactile model of the Reichstag, which shows the access ramp for visitors with mobility difficulties – Copyrights Marcus Weisen
Visitors then take a lift to the entry hall inside the building, at the top of the staircase. The debating chamber of parliament, “a vast bright space, a near-circular, non-confrontational sea of blue swivelling armchairs” (Jonathan Glancey) can already be viewed through its glass walls on this floor.
Light being funnelled down into the debating chamber from the dome – Copyright Bundestag
Access to the flat roof from which the glass dome rises is via lifts. The dome allows light, carefully filtered through a screen that moves around the dome, to wash down into the chamber. It can be climbed by a double-helix made of two lightweight steel ramps. On the pinnacle a panoramic viewing platform overlooks Berlin.
Indoor ramp – Copyright Bundestag
The gradient of the ramp is 7% which is more than the recommended 5%. The dome, which is already much higher than the original Reichstag dome, could not have been raised further. Visitors using wheelchairs are seen frequently, often accompanied. The gradient does not appear to be an obstacle. Disability associations from Stuttgart and Lüneburg who visited rated the visit of the dome highly and stated that ramp did not present any difficulty.
Accessible visitor information
A range of facilities are on offer to enhance the visitor experience:
- tactile models and tactile mages with accompanying audio guide
- a multi-media guide with German Sign Language
- guided tours for groups are available on request in easy German, induction loops, German Sign language and audio description
Award winning tactile models
The tactile model of the Reichstag has been built on a scale of 1:100. It is large enough to allow for the representation of key architectural features, yet it can be held in the outstretched arms of an average size adult (which makes memorisation easier). The two interior courtyards and four turrets of the building are easy to recognise and invite detailed exploration.
Tactile model – Copyright Bundestag
Great care was given to using materials with an “authentic” and pleasant feel. The careful mix of synthetics and sand used for the main parts of the model echo the qualities of the lime-stone with which the Reichstag was built. The dome and windows, on the other hand, have a glassy feel.
Located close to the 3D model, is a tactile image representing a section of the interior design of the Reichstag. It provides a clear picture of the dome, the debating chamber and its layout.
Tactile model of the Reichstag and its nearby environment – Copyright Bundestag
The tactile models of the Reichstag models received a Design for All Award given by the Design for All Foundation in 2014.
Audio guide with tactile images
In 2012, the Reichstag launched a portable pack with 10 tactile images of iconic buildings of Berlin, hat can be viewed from the roof terrace and the dome, accompanied by an audio guide with audio descriptions. The aim is to provide visually impaired people with an experience of the panorama, which is a main attraction of the Reichstag.
Tactile image with the 10 buildings represented on the same scale, and their their location in relation to the Reichstag – Copyright Marcus Weisen
The audio guide player is very easy to use. Commentaries and descriptions start automatically as visitors pass specific spots on their path to the viewing platform of the dome.
Informal feedback about the tactile images and audio guide has been positive. The rigidity of the tactile images enables users to explore it while standing, without any support. However, users found the portable box heavy and somewhat cumbersome.
Taken together, the tactile models and images represent a highly sophisticated resource. It is one of few projects, which not only represents heritage buildings, but presents them as part of an overall visitor experience, which one aims to make accessible.
Accessibility, democracy, memory
Access the Parliament
Many visitors come to learn about the functioning of the German parliament. Commitment to accessibility in the Bundestag shows in design details. The lectern from which parliamentarians address parliament is of changeable height.
The lectern is lowered while Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble adresses Parliament and the lectern is higher for Chancellor Angela Merkel – Copyright Bundestag
Hearing and learning about Parliament
Some groups of visitors with disabilities come to visit their Member of Parliament. Like other groups, they will receive information in accessible media for visually impaired people, in easy German, German Sign Language and with induction loop, as requested.
The German Parliament has an information service for citizen wishing to ask questions. The service is available over the phone in German Sign language.
A newsletter in easy German about key decisions made in parliament was launched in 2012.
Memorial for disabled victims of the holocaust
In 2011, the German Parliament took the decision to erect a memorial in the memory of some 70,000 people with severe disabilities who were gassed as part of the Nazi euthanasia programme (1939-41) and some 90,000 who died from ill treatment in institutions (1941-45) in the nearby Tiergarten. The 24 meter memorial was unveiled on 2 September 2014 and located on the very spot where the Nazi administration planned the T4 extermination programme.
The memorial complements memorials in the vicinity of the Reichstag remembering victims of the holocaust who are Jewish, Sinti and Romani and/or gay and lesbian.
The “Topography of Terror” museum, also initiated by the German Parliament, launched a detailed and throughly documented travelling exhibition about the T4 extermination programme of severely disabled people in 2014.
Little remains of the original Reichstag building, yet visitors from all over the world want to discover its history, including that of contemporary German democracy, the building’s remarkable new architecture and the urban panorama.
A number of access facilities have been created for all these dimensions of the visitor experience. As a case-study for heritage accessibility, the Reichstag is unique, in as much as it also provides powerful lessons about disability history, the representation of people with disabilities and accessible government.
Players and processes
- Client: the Federal Government of Germany
- Architect: Norman Foster and Partners
- Heritage preservation and access advisors : the heritage preservation service of the state of Berlin (Landesdenkmalschutz Berlin)
- Access advisors: disability organisations, e.g. German Blind Union
Berlin’s urban heritage protection agency, the Landesdenkmalschutz, had developed a collaboration with the Technische Universität Berlin, to create a giant tactile model to complement its significant collection of town models. These are being used for purposes of town planning. Many of the concepts developed and tested during this project found an expression in the tactile models in the Reichstag (2007) and the tactile images of iconic buildings of Berlin that can be viewed from the dome. The models were developed in close association with Germany’s and Berlin’s federations of blind and partially sighted people. Their construction involved two hundred students.
La maquette tactile du centre ville (2012, échelle 1/2000ème) au Lichthof, département de planification urbaine, Berlin