Upon winning the commission to master plan Berlin’s new government district, Axel Schultes remarked, “the challenge posed by the competition was to coax the soul out of the Spreebogen, the genius loci, to pour its historical and spatial dimensions into the mold of a new architectural allegory.” Schultes and his partner, Charlotte Frank, had generated public enthusiasm with a design anchored by a Band des Bundes (or “ribbon of federal buildings”) spanning the Spree twice and traversing the former boundary between east and west. Supporters saw the plan as symbolically repairing the rent urban fabric and suturing together the formerly divided city. Indeed, Schultes and Frank’s design thematized the Spreebogen’s status as a frontier in need of rehabilitation—a historical zone of rupture, movement, and surveillance, from the course of the Berlin Wall along the Spree to the spectral presence of Albert Speer’s imposing north-south boulevard.
Yet it is in Schultes’s reflection that the Spreebogen’s vexed history must be refigured as a “new architectural allegory” that the complexity of the project is unexpectedly revealed. This paper finds its theoretical foothold in Walter Benjamin’s discussion of allegory, a mode that he believed to emerge at moments of political disturbance. According to Benjamin, allegory is noteworthy for its fragmentation and lack of unity; that is, “Allegory is in the realm of thought what ruins are in the realm of things.” In Schultes and Frank’s plan, unity (whether political, historical, or urban) manifests as a desire rather than a reality; the band of federal buildings does not represent a mythical post-Wende German state, but rather invokes the yearning subtending the very idea of unification. Read allegorically, the Spreebogen frontier emerges as a zone not of fixed significance, but rather of migration, transit, and motion, of meaning that is continuously contingent, deferred, or absent.