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Arts

Germany grapples with future of aging architectural treasures

Tourists flock to Germany, in part for its old architecture. But as the buildings age, Germany continues to be faced with a difficult question: rebuild them just as they were, or put something new in their place.

The Berlin City Palace around the year 1925

The reconstruction of the Berlin City Palace has been put on hold for budget reasons

For Wilhelm von Boddien, grappling with the issue of reconstruction is part of a day's work. He is the manager of the association for the rebuilding of the historic Berlin City Palace, which was largely destroyed by Allied bombing in World War II and completely demolished in 1950 by East German authorities.

Von Boddien's stance has made him a target for the project's many opponents, who believe it is too expensive and too unnecessarily fixated on the past. Although the German parliament decided in favor of the reconstruction in 2007, work on the palace has been delayed until 2014 due to budget cuts, sparking even more debate about the merit of such a project.


For von Boddien, the value of the project is clear. "What do people look at when they're on vacation and sightseeing in cities? They first go to see the historic areas and not some soulless modern constructions," he said.

Berlin's Museum Island, where the City Palace is located, is historically significant in itself. It is home to the Old Museum, completed in 1828, the Old National Gallery, opened in 1876, and the Berlin Cathedral from the turn of the 20th century. But according to von Boddien, this cannot compensate for the absence of the City Palace.

Wilhelm von Boddien

Wilhelm von Boddien says tourists want to see historic buildings

"The palace may not be everything, but without it, everything is nothing," explained von Boddien, pointing to what he sees as a void in the island's historical composition.

Emotional decisions

Ursula Schirmer from the German Foundation for Monument Protection has some doubts. In her opinion, a reconstructed palace is basically a new building that is financed by public money. She said that when it comes to allocating money, some older buildings needing restoration not stand a chance against the City Palace, simply because they are not spectacular enough.

Schirmer is not sure whether the highly controversial demolition of the Palace of the Republic - which was built under the East German regime on the site of the former Berlin City Palace - was the right decision, as it was a "political" one.

"From the perspective of monument protection, this is a questionable matter - we're still too close to it emotionally," said Schirmer. "It takes a few generations before an objective decision can be made. But such a time frame is simply not considered in the case of some buildings."

Carl Zillich from Bundesstiftung Baukultur - an organization that monitors the relationship between construction in public space and quality of life - said that "every era should leave behind its own impressive architecture and not foster an architectural still-stand."

However, there does not seem to be a consensus on the side of the investors. "Money for the reconstruction of historic buildings can be obtained far more easily than for well-designed new projects," commented Zillich.

Overcoming traumas

According to Zillich, most reconstructions and restorations in Germany were decided on "in the heat of the moment" and were meant to help overcome the trauma of the destruction suffered during World War II. One prominent example is Dresden's Church of Our Lady, although in contrast to the Berlin City Place it was reconstructed using original remaining materials.

Wilhelm von Boddien, however, cannot understand all the hype surrounding the issue of authenticity. Reconstructions have been carried out many times over the ages, he says, and no one is really interested in the fact that the bell tower of St Mark's Basilica in Venice is a reconstruction of the original.

"Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, six million square meters have been allocated to Berlin's modern constructions," said von Boddien. "Why is it such a problem now if we take up just 150 thousand square meters to erect something that matches this historic location?"

The ruins of Dresden's Church of Our Lady, pictured in 1990

Dresden's Church of Our Lady, pictured in 1990, underwent 10 years of reconstruction and reopened in 1999

Brain power and creativity

The vice-chairman of the association planning to reconstruct the Potsdam City Palace, Hans-Joachim Kuke, holds a similar view.

"Reconstructions are legitimate buildings projects and have always been a significant need for many peoples and nations," said Kuke. "After all, communities are not prepared to give up buildings that are important to their identities."

Kuke believes that reconstructing a building's facade according to the original, but redoing the inside, is also a legitimate approach. "A facade is incredibly important," argued Kuke, adding that most people probably would not want to use an old-fashioned toilet that was reconstructed according to the original design.

"A reconstruction is a highly artistic project - I don't understand why it's often dismissed like this. You need a lot of brain power and creativity to integrate modern features, such as insulation, into a historic reconstruction."

The City Palace has yet to be rebuilt, but with its many historical buildings, Germany will have plenty of other opportunities to choose between new and redone.

The exhibition "The History of Reconstruction; the Construction of History" at the Pinakothek in Munich currently examines societies' decisions to rebuild valuable buildings which had been damaged by time or war. Click through the picture gallery below for some examples.

Author: Nadine Wojcik (ew)
Editor: Kate Bowen

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