Berlin divided over rebuilding palace

Opinion is sharply split on recreating a historic baroque landmark with critics labelling the controversial project an unimaginative fake.

A scale model of the proposed new baroque palace.
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BERLIN // Berlin is hoping to seal its rebirth as Germany's capital by recreating the baroque palace of the Prussian kings in the most controversial building project since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, with critics labelling it an unimaginative fake that will fail to represent Germany's modern identity. The palace, gutted by fire in a Second World War bombing raid and then razed by East Germany's communist rulers in 1950 as a hated symbol of Prussian absolutism, will fill one of the last gaping holes left by Berlin's turbulent past.

It will rise from the rubble of the Communist-era Palace of the Republic, a concrete and steel monstrosity that was erected in its place at the end of the famous Unter den Linden boulevard in 1976 to house East Germany's rubber-stamping parliament, restaurants, a concert hall and a bowling alley. The Palace of the Republic was closed in 1990 because it was contaminated with asbestos, sparking years of debate about what to do with a location that symbolises the vagaries of German history like few others.

It was from here that the Hohenzollern dynasty of Prussian kings ruled in the 18th and 19th centuries, that republican revolutionaries took to barricades in 1848, that Emperor Wilhelm II proclaimed the start of the First World War to tens of thousands of Berliners. For years, opponents of the reconstruction said there was no justification for recreating the "stronghold of the Hohenzollerns" that symbolised an era of absolutism, militarism and colonialism.

The debate also pitted easterners who wanted their old parliament building preserved against westerners who wanted to restore Berlin's classical centre to its former grandeur. In a survey last month, 68 per cent of eastern Germans said they thought rebuilding the palace was a waste of money. A decision was finally taken in 2002 when the German parliament voted with a clear majority to rebuild the palace. The reconstruction is to cost ?552 million, (Dh2.8bn) the bulk of which will be funded by the German government, but there are fears the costs could be much higher and that the financial crisis may yet scupper the project.

Building will start in 2010 and is due to be completed in 2013 at the earliest after a jury picked the winning design in November, a faithful reconstruction by Italian architect Franco Stella who plans to recreate three baroque façades and incorporate one modern one facing east. The replica is intended to house a museum of non-western art, a library and restaurants and cafes. The design led to a new outburst of controversy although supporters heaped praise on it, with Klaus Wowereit, the Berlin mayor, applauding Mr Stella for creating an "exciting synthesis of form and usage".

Monika Grütters, a member of parliament for Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats involved in the selection, said: "At last the most gaping urban hole in Germany can be filled. Germany will be able to prove that it is seeking a national sense of self in the 21st century." And conservative newspaper Die Welt wrote: "This is good for Berlin as Germany's capital. The barren, unhistorical vacuum in the centre is ending. Berlin's historical face will be brought back to life in an architecture that calmly melds the past with the present. The Germans will be proud of this palace."

But critics said Mr Stella has missed a unique chance to create a bold new building that could evoke the country's new identity in the 21st century - democratic, unified, self-confident and peaceful. The influential news magazine Der Spiegel wrote last month that the jury had chosen the tamest design with the kind of aesthetics that had become standard in any upmarket western shopping arcade. It described the plan as "shatteringly unimaginative, even monotonous".

"His victory is a defeat. A mock-up, a mere simulation is being erected with the purpose of creating a real national identity. This contradiction represents the biggest construction flaw," wrote Der Spiegel. Wolfgang Pehnt, an architecture historian, said recreating the palace and using it as museum amounted to a manipulation of history. "After more than half a century of non-existence, façades are being put up again for contents that those façades weren't intended for. In the history of construction, façades have always made a statement about what content they represent. Here it's the other way round. First the façade, then the content."

"We're writing historical fiction," said Mr Pehnt, adding that creating replicas would end up undermining public faith in any building that looked old. The weekly Die Zeit wrote: "We don't need a landmark that only tells of our own emptiness. The palace promises identity and can only break this promise. That's because there's no such thing as an unbroken identity for us Germans. It can't be invented, not even with the most beautiful baroque ornaments."

Arnulf Baring, a historian, said the new palace should be used as a representative venue for grand state occasions rather than as a museum. "Germany doesn't have a single large hall in Berlin where state guests or citizens can be invited to a ball or to state ceremonies," Mr Baring wrote in an editorial in the political magazine Cicero last week. The government constantly had to opt for large hotels whenever it hosted major conferences in the capital.

"I think the time has come for us to re-think the way in which we present ourselves," Mr Baring wrote. dcrossland@thenational.ae