Kitsch or classic? Jury out on palace project


An exhibition in Dublin presents controversial plans to reconstruct Berlin’s vanished Prussian palace, writes DEREK SCALLY

The unremarkable barracks on Berlin’s western outskirts was, in the Cold War era, a repair shop for British tanks. Today it is the workshop for Europe’s most ambitious and controversial architecture project.

Sculptors are hard at work chiseling massive lumps of sandstone, while others mould moist clay. Three white Prussian eagles, poised imperiously on a shelf, survey the decorative detritus of Berlin’s once and future palace. It is a disorienting, decade-hopping jigsaw of new plaster elements lined up beside the blackened, muscular stone torso of a headless, legless statue.

These old and new elements will eventually be transported to a site opposite Berlin’s cathedral on the River Spree and incorporated into a complex that has an eye on the future and a foot in a burdened past.

For 500 years this site at the heart of Berlin’s “Mitte” city centre district, was occupied by a royal palace of varying shapes and styles, reflecting the local rulers’ eventual rise to Prussian king and Kaiser of the German empire.

East Berlin leaders demolished the structure in 1950 and later erected their own “Palace of the Republic” here. It, too, vanished in 2008 after German MPs voted to create the “Humboldt Forum”, a hybrid museum, library and education facility named after the famous German brothers.

Using a wealth of blueprints and old photographs, three facades will reproduce the old baroque palace exterior, while Italian architect Frank Stella has designed one modern facade, as well as an interior including a glazed courtyard.

Long before Prof Stella unveiled his daring design, however, the palace had become a proxy war over Berlin’s architectural and historical identity.

Critical reconstruction

The palace is part of Berlin’s critical reconstruction movement to correct the more drastic urban modernism decisions taken in the post-war city – particularly in its eastern half.

“The reconstruction of palaces destroyed in the second World War is normality,” says Prof Stella. “The singular thing about this reconstruction is the large part of the new building, serving as the Humboldt Forum.”

Modernist architectural critics see the palace/Humboldt Forum as a capitulation to the past and its backers as captives to architectural kitsch.

There are historical criticisms, too. Just as East Berlin eradicated the Prussian palace, some see the removal of the East German palace as the second attempt to sideline an out-of-favour regime.

Disagreement rages, too, over whether the project is a timely recognition of the burdened past or part of a wider campaign to rehabilitate the militaristic memory of Prussia and German Kaiser, Wilhelm II.

“It must be possible, in the 21st century, almost 70 years after the disaster of the last war, for Germany to find a new way of looking to one’s past – and to the future,” said Manfred Rettig, chairman of the Berlin Palace-Humboldt Forum Foundation.

After decades of heated debate the palace proponents won out; their main argument: a Palace 2.0 would restore a missing architectural bookend to Unter den Linden, Berlin’s historic boulevard which ends at the Brandenburg Gate.

“Both wars and political decisions . . . saw European cities lose many of their landmarks and, with it, part of their identity,” says Prof Stella, who sees his job to restore part of that urban and architectural identity.

UCD professor of art history Kathleen James-Chakraborty, a critic of the project, says proponents have employed nostalgia to distort the historical understanding of the building’s importance.

“It was certainly large but it was never one of Europe’s great baroque palaces,” she says, “and it has never had the popular support of other reconstructions, such as the Frauenkirche in Dresden.”

The project raises questions relevant beyond the German capital, such as how much architectural heritage is necessary to secure a city’s future.

Can a reconstructed building recreate what was lost and a acquire its own patina of legitimacy over time? Or should architecture move ever forward rather than risk being strangled by the past? Until the Humboldt-Forum opens, expected in 2019, the Berlin jury is out

The exhibition Reconstructing Lost Buildings: the Berlin Palace as a Model for Ireland? runs until February 15th at the Irish Architectural Archive, 45 Merrion Square, Dublin 2. A panel discussion takes place in Trinitity College tomorrow evening.

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