Berlin′s city palace controversy refuses to die | German Reunification | DW | 07.01.2009
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German Reunification

Berlin's city palace controversy refuses to die

Berlin's Stadtschloss, or City Palace, is to be rebuilt on the site of the former East German parliament. But opinion is sharply divided on whether or not such an undertaking makes any sense in today's Berlin.

Computer image of the planned new Berlin City Palace

The new building was designed by a little-known Italian architect

It was the end of an era when the East German parliament shut the Palace of the Republic in the fall of 1990 -- and the dawning of a new one. Although the demise of the communist government itself met with broad acceptance, the decision to close down the building on the grounds that the building was riddled with asbestos triggered a debate that would last almost 20 years.

Discussion has centered around one issue: Should the erstwhile pride of the East German people, erected in 1976, be restored -- or should it be replaced by a copy of the Prussian palace built by Frederick I in the 17th century and demolished in 1950? How should the site in central Berlin be used in a way that made sense both in terms of history and symbolism? The rebuilding of the Stadtschloss became an issue everyone had an opinion on.

In 1992, Wilhelm von Boddien founded an association to lobby for reconstruction of the Stadtschloss. One year later, he had a painted facade depicting a one-to-one model of the proposed building erected on the site in order to drum up support. This bizarre spectacle brought the debate to a temporary climax in 1993/1994, with supporters arguing that it demonstrated how the palace could provide the missing link to the historical architectural line-up gracing the capital's city center: the Zeughaus, the Altes Museum, and the Berlin Cathedral.

"People have now understood to what extent the palace helped define the cityscape," explained Goerd Peschken, author of the book Das Berliner Schloss, published in 1982.

Rediscovering historic Berlin

After reunification, the area known as the Spreeinsel -- home to the controversial site -- played a major role in the government's decision to move from Bonn to Berlin. In October 2002, with a view to gathering and collating proposals on urban development in the historical heart of Berlin, the federal and local governments established a panel of experts charged with processing recommendations on use of the site and how this might be financed.

In July 2002, the Bundestag approved the panel's recommendation with a clear majority: to rebuild the imperial palace. The building was to be based on the original stereometry of the royal residence, recreating the Baroque facades on three sides but with the design of the eastern facade left to the architect's imagination. A further stipulation was the reconstruction of the cupola. In late 2007, the competition to find an architectural design for the reconstruction of the Berlin Stadtschloss was officially launched, with the cost of the whole project to be 552 million euros.

A winner from Italy

On Nov. 28, 2008, jury president Vittorio Lampugnani and Transport and Construction Minister Wolfgang Tiefensee, a jury member, announced the winner: the little-known architect Francesco Stella from Vicenza, Italy.

"The architectural challenge was to adhere to the Bundestag stipulations on the faithful reconstruction of the Baroque facades of the palace demolished in 1950 and to reconcile these with an innovative and contemporary use of this historical site," said Tiefensee. Only the winning entry met "the stringent demands we made with this competition."

In particular, Tiefensee and Lampugnani were impressed by Stella's spacious covered courtyard, the building's successful integration into its surroundings, the Belvedere on the eastern side and the architectural continuity between the palace and the garden. As a contrast to the historic facades, Stella's design foresees the eastern side as a simple grid of square loggias -- a visualization of the contrast between the old and the new.

Forum for intercultural dialogue

The new building has already been dubbed the Humboldt Forum -- named after the philosopher Wilhelm and his naturalist brother Alexander von Humboldt -- and will serve as a center for cultural, scientific and social exchange.

Most of its 40,000 square meters (430,000 square feet) will be used by the Humboldt University, the central and state library and the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, which will house its non-European art and antiquities collections there. A lobby area on the ground floor and basement, which will be known as the palace "agora" will be open to the public, with some 15,000 visitors expected every day.

Work on the Humboldt Forum is scheduled to begin in 2010 and be completed in 2015. In the meantime, a temporary gallery for international art opened on the site in October 2007.

Concerns ove imperialist past

But as for the political and cultural implications of rebuilding a royal palace that was once home to Hohenzollern rulers -- doubts still linger.

However, according to the Berlin city planning department, the Stadtschloss never actually served as Prussia's nerve center of power.

Power was simply there, where the ruler was -- and he would have divided his time between many residences in and around Berlin. Nonetheless, the Stadtschloss did have special significance.

Building first began in the 15th century, with the palace evolving in subsequent centuries into a complex that eventually boasted a total of 1,210 rooms. The most important construction work took place in the early 18th century under Frederick I, who commissioned architect Andreas Schlueter to create a representative building reflecting his Absolutist rule.

Opponents of the latest reconstruction plans have dismissed the project as "sheer stage-set architecture."

Adrian von Buttlar, president of the state office for historical heritage and a professor of art history at Berlin's Technical University, has referred to a "cloned palace" that whitewashes Prussian history. Personally, he would have preferred to see the Palace of the Republic which once housed the East German parliament retained as a testimony to the city's more recent past.

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