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Shaping Berlin's Heart

Mathis WinklerAugust 21, 2006

A proposal to build a temporary art museum on Berlin's palace square has reignited the heated debate about the space's future: Should the old imperial palace be reconstructed or should future generations get to decide?

With the palace soon gone, it's still unclear what will one day stand next to the cathedralImage: picture-alliance/ dpa
In the heart of Berlin, construction workers are stripping a building that's alternatively been described as a socialist-era monstrosity and an important architectural relic of East German history.
Abriss des Palastes der Republik in Berlin
The East German palace of the republic is slowly disappearingImage: picture-alliance/ ZB

The so-called Palast der Republik, or palace of the republic, which housed the former communist parliament and served as an entertainment venue for the select masses, already stands stripped to the girder. Passersby can see pieces of sky through the waning skeleton, which will completely disappear by next year -- if workers don't find even more asbestos, that is.

After an earlier decontamination operation that cost millions, the cancer-causing building material has again surfaced during the dismantling and could stretch the palace's removal to 2008.

Berliner Stadtschloß
In 1993, supporters of the imperial palace set up a mock version to get people's attentionImage: picture-alliance/ dpa

It's yet another twist and delay in the saga surrounding the space's future that began soon after Germany's reunification in 1990. On the one side of the debate stood those calling for the preservation of the proletarian palace; on the other were proponents of reconstructing Berlin's imperial palace, which was severely damaged during World War II and demolished by the East German regime in 1950.

The latter group won the backing of Germany's parliament, which supports building a cultural and scientific center. Situated vis-a-vis the city's world-famous Museum Island and named after German researcher Alexander von Humboldt, the Humboldt Forum would house Berlin's non-European art collections, nearby Humboldt University's science collections as well as parts of Berlin's central library. An entertainment and convention center would compliment the complex, which would be modern on the inside while coated with the imperial palace's historic facade.

Green space vs. young art

But according to government officials, the palace's reconstruction -- not least for financial reasons -- won't begin before 2012. A green space is meant to fill the void in the interim. Before the best landscape proposals can be unveiled in September, the makers of Berlin art magazine Monopol recently presented an alternative idea: a temporary museum featuring the works of young artists.

Museum auf Zeit
Graft architects, known for redesigning US actor Brad Pitt's home, propose housing the temporary museum in an organic "cloud" structureImage: Graft

"We want to let contemporary art meet contemporary architecture," Ingolf Kern, one of the magazine's editors, said after architects from the firms of Schneider + Schumacher, Graft, gmp, Bottega + Erhardt and Sauerbruch Hutton unveiled their sketches for a museum.

Supporters of the project, including former German Culture Minister Christina Weiss, say that the space is too prominent to let it sit vacant for several years. But city officials give the temporary museum little chance of becoming reality.

Labyrinthgarten Berlin
A proposal to build a temporary labyrinth in the square might already be taking things too far for Berlin city officialsImage: Labyrinthgarten Berlin

"We want to use as little tax money as possible and still create a place that is accepted by the public," said Petra Rohland, a spokeswoman for Berlin's urban planning department. "An art museum would contradict this...There's certainly no plan to put a solid building there."

A case of palace sabotage?

Projekt Stadtschloss für Berlin
"Wilhelm von Boddien IS the palace," one commentator recently saidImage: AP

While museum backers did emphasize that the structure was not meant to stay, those pushing for a reconstruction of the imperial palace said they were concerned that the project was an attempt to thwart the Humboldt Forum.

"To me, this says: 'We're doing the exhibition hall to prevent the palace," said Wilhelm von Boddien, who has spearheaded the campaign to raise the 80 million euros ($102 million) needed to pay for the historic facade.

While critics say that Boddien will never be able to come up with the necessary funds, the Hamburg businessman said he's certain the money will be pouring in once the government has actually given the green light for construction.

Info-Box am Potsdamer Platz
Millions of people visited the red info box to watch construction at Berlin's Potsdamer Platz during the 1990sImage: picture-alliance/ dpa

He also said that an information center is badly needed on the sight to give people an idea of what is planned and get them excited about the project that's been misunderstood in his opinion.

"People associate the palace with monarchy, with absolutism," he said. "They fail to see that people have a yearning for beauty, for identity. We're returning Berlin's identity...It's the cure for an (architectural) ensemble, which had its core ripped out."

A slate for imagination

Architectural theorist Wilfried Wang begged to differ.

Schlossplatz in Berlin ohne Schloss
Will future generations come up with better ideas for the Schlossplatz, or palace square?Image: AP

"The palace is an expression of a lack of imagination of the political class," said the Berlin-based architect, who is a former director of the German Architecture Museum and teaches at the University of Texas at Austin.

"If you don't have any ideas, don't build any mistakes," he added. "It's better to leave this area blank for people who have a better idea, as a slate for imagination."

Since the current decision makers are still influenced by the East-West divide, it should be left for future generations "without tangible memories of what that space was." Wang added that he favored using the ground level of any future building as a covered fresh produce market with restaurants and bars.

"That way, I think the whole area would come to life," he said.