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Long Good-Bye to Berlin's Palace of the Republic

Hardy Graupner (ncy)January 7, 2006

Berlin's city authorities have announced that demolition of communist East Germany's so-called Palace of the Republic in the heart of the city will begin shortly, despite continuing opposition.

Eyesore or cultural monument?Image: Bilderbox

Berlin's senator for city development, Ingeborg Junge-Reyer, said Friday that, if all goes well, demolition of the building would cost 12 million euros ($14.5 million) -- much less than the 20 million euros expected. The work is set to begin in mid-January and be completed by Easter 2007.

The modern and multifunctional building housed East Germany's rubber-stamp parliament until German unification in 1990, but was also a posh cultural center for ordinary people. For many Berliners, the decision to pull down the building is an extremely emotive issue.

The demolition was decided on long ago for two main reasons. To start with, the building was contaminated with asbestos. In addition, plans arose to rebuild a replica of the 18th century royal palace that once stood in the same place, but was blown up in 1950 by Communist rulers who saw in it a symbol of Prussia's military past.

Communist vs. royalist symbol

Berlin's Social Democratic mayor, Klaus Wowereit, has made no secret of the fact that he's all in favor of the forthcoming destruction of the Palace of the Republic. While most western Berliners are indifferent about what will happen, eastern Berliners -- particularly older ones -- think that pulling down the building is outrageous.

Palast der Republik soll 2005 abgerissen werden
The building has been used for cultural events since the asbestos was cleared outImage: dpa

"It was so beautiful inside," said one woman. "In spring for instance there was this huge carpet of flowers in the entry hall which made you feel you were in the middle of a dream. It really was a sight for sore eyes."

Her husband agreed. The building, which visitors used to call state leader Erich Honecker's lamp shop because of the numerous chandeliers hanging from the ceilings, should have been preserved as a part of Germany's history, he said.

"Politicians should really have more respect for those eastern Germans who put all their skills and expertise into constructing this unique facility," he said. "All we hear is that it was former state leader Erich Honecker's project. Maybe, but that doesn't justify tearing down the building. It cast such a spell on ordinary people and really was a perfect place to have a good time, complete with a bowling center, fantastic concert halls, bars and the like. Nobody claims that Honecker was a good guy, but the Prussian king who had the former royal palace built wasn't such a do-gooder either. He sent so many people to their deaths in various imperial wars. So why should anyone want to reconstruct the royal palace?"

No money for new building

Many politicians, historians, architects and ordinary Berliners want to do exactly that. They back a plan to fill the vacuum the demolished palace leaves with a reconstruction of the original facade of the Hohenzollern royal palace. The interior of the new building would be made accessible to the general public.

London-based architect Peter Wilson said that creating an exact replica of the castle would neither be feasible nor make any sense.

"It's not a realistic possibility," said Wilson. "I think one should not build a plastic Disneyland version. Many of us have proposed to use some of the geometries of the old palace, to use the shape, but to do a contemporary building."

Projekt Stadtschloss für Berlin
This is how the rebuilt royal palace could lookImage: AP

But while demolition of the Palace of the Republic seems unavoidable, despite ongoing protests, rebuilding the royal palace in whatever shape still seems light years away. Experts reckon that well over a billion euros would be required -- money that neither the state of Berlin nor private organizations are able to raise.