Berlin Train Station Derailed

Clashes between architect and client have led to a high profile court case in Germany. The real losers? The passengers

The Lehrter Train Station in Berlin, the colossal flagship for the German rail company Deutsche Bahn (DB) completed last May, may already get a massive renovation if a judge’s November decision holds.

Well-known German architect Meinhard von Gerkan and Jürgen Hillmer, a designer in his firm, sued DB claiming that their copyright for the building was violated. According to Hillmer, the railway company did not use the original plan for the subterranean-level ceiling, which included barrel arches over the platform hall of the tunnel—instead installing a flat suspended version that “razes the spatial structure and disfigures the main station.”

There is on average one architectural copyright case taken to German courts each year, according to Tillman Prinz, head of the Federal Chamber of German Architects, the licensing and advocacy group for the industry. He also estimated that only one-fifth of contemporary buildings would even qualify architecturally for copyright status.

In the case of the Berlin terminal, Prinz concurs with von Gerkan’s view. “DB wanted a palace for the main station so they wanted a fabulous design and hired a famous architect. If DB wanted this architecture, they can’t change their mind and say they want a regular ceiling.”

The terminal was constructed over 10 years, for nearly $900 million. According to DB, it opted for the ceiling created by Karl-Heinz Winken of the German firm Winkens Architects after von Gerkan’s design could not be built for the allotted price tag. Von Gerkan’s firm was under the impression the ceiling was approved and only discovered the design was not going to be used “by accident,” Hillmer recalls, when a copy center sent plans to the firm. Even when the cost of the original ceiling was calculated to be higher than expected, the designers still presumed a green light, and that they “would save expenses in other parts of the interior design.” After discovering the proposed change, the firm tried negotiating an agreement with DB for more than 15 months. Hillmer says none of their proposed solutions were accepted.

DB will appeal the court’s decision, although there is no specific timeline for doing so. And while the company would not confirm the rumored $40 million cost to rip out the ceiling entirely, a spokesperson did concede that the court-ordered project’s noise and mess would prove a significant inconvenience to passengers. More than 300,000 people and 1,000 trains pass through the station daily.

“What we hope for is another solution. Something that is financially feasible and aesthetically correct,” Prinz says. “The court weighs the architect’s concerns versus those of the Deutsche Bahn and, of course, an important point in all of this is the financial concerns.”

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