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A Victory for the Old in Berlin

November 9, 2003

With the opening of Bertelsmann’s new Berlin headquarters and plans to reconstruct Hohenzollern Palace, someday, Germany's capital is looking back to the future.

Bertelmann's new Berlin headquarters.Image: presse

Steel- and glass- framed skyscrapers and other staples of postmodernist design have become the signature of post-unification Berlin. Among the best examples are the towers rising over Potsdamer Platz, I.M. Pei’s extension to the German Historical Museum and Rem Koolhaas’ stark new Dutch Embassy. Some even play to the city's lost architecture, but none have sought to recreate the past -- at least not until now.

Fans of classical architecture scored two major victories in the capital last week. The first was the city’s decision that it will destroy the former East German capital building, the Palace of the Republic, and eventually replace it with a reconstruction of Hohenzollern Palace, a spectacular edifice that once dominated the city’s center. The second coup is the opening of Bertelsmann’s new Berlin headquarters in a reconstruction of the city’s old Kommandantur building.

Goodbye Lenin, hello green space

Fewer stories in post-unification Berlin have been as complicated as that of the former Palace of the Republic. Along with the debate over the construction of a Holocaust Memorial, it’s been one of the city’s two never-ending stories.

Palast der Republik Berlin
Palast der RepublikImage: Bilderbox

But this week that chapter came one step closer to completion as the Cultural Affairs Committee of the Bundestag, Germany’s parliament, moved to raise the building, which has sat vacant for 13 years as contractors removed toxic asbestos from the building and it awaited a ruling on its final fate. The building, an East German prestige object beloved and feared by the communist country’s citizens – is also the place where freely elected parliamentarians in the East German Volkskammer, the then-parliament, concluded a majority vote in Summer 1990 adopting the rules of the West German constitution and clearing the way for reunification.

Though there are plans to reconstruct the 19th century baroque Hohenzollern palace, they are currently on ice until the city can turn around its own financial problems or find outside investors willing to put up hundreds of millions. Instead, the government wants tear down the Palace of the Republic as soon as possible and use it as a green space until the €650 million Hohenzollern project is financially feasible. On Thursday, the committee said that plans for the Hohenzollern palace facade should be "prepared as much as possible" so that construction could commence as soon as the money is there. But that could take some time.

Berliner Schloss
Berlin's former City Palace

The government has made little secret of the fact it will first focus its resources on continuing to refurbish the run-down museum island, a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Whatever happens with the Palace of the Republic, it will no doubt be controversial. Some would like to keep it, in some form, as a memorial to the both the good and bad aspects of East German communism. Critics of the building, who are fond of recalling the fact that it was the seat of Eric Honecker's totalitarian regime, want to see it subjected to the same fate as the Berlin Wall, permanently removing a painful part of the city’s history.

Bertelmann’s blast from the past

As the debate over the palace continued to simmer, fans of classic architecture had reason to celebrate on Thursday, just across the road. German celebrities from Chancellor Gerhard Schröder to tennis champ Boris Becker turned out on Unter den Linden for the magnificant rebirth of the Kommandantur building, which was badly damaged from World War II bombing raids and raised by the East Germans in 1950. It has now been reincarnated by the media conglomerate Bertelsmann to be used as its Berlin headquarters. Architect Thomas van den Valentyn has reconstructed the building’s historic shell while creating a thoroughly modern interior of glass and precious materials.

Bertelsmann completed the project in two years, with a shoestring budget of €22.1 million. As part of the deal to take control of the land that occupied the former Kommandatur, the city-state ordered the company to recreate the building’s historic facades in any construction it planned.

The building has special historical significance in the city because the last person to command the building was Paul von Hase, one of the men executed in a failed plot to assassinate Hitler.

Recreating the former facade presented countless challenges for Valentyn and his team of architects, since all original plans for the building had been lost. All they knew was that it was originally erected in 1653 and then remodelled in 1873. Persistent researchers later found a negative of a 1910 photo of the building and used it as the basis for drafting new blueprints.

Fassade des neuen Bertelsmann Gebäudes in Berlin Unter den Linden im Vordergrund die Schlossbrücke
The Kommandantur as seen from the front.Image: presse

The inability to recreate a precise and historically accurate Kommandantur, however, has drawn mixed reactions in a city where war-time and Cold War scars are still abundant. "A handsome dishonesty," wrote the architectural critic of the Berliner Zeitung newspaper. "It’s okay, really," wrote Die Welt.

The public and tourists, however, seem to be adjusting quickly to the Bertelsmann building, a report in Der Spiegel suggested.

In recent weeks, the newsweekly wrote, passersby could be heard saying: "It’s good that they’ve given that building a fresh coat of paint."