Humboldt Forum opens doors amid ongoing pandemic confusion

Walking around the building is a remarkable experience, it’s hard to know where to begin

The Humboldt Forum, a reconstruction of the old Berlin Schloss in Berlin. It will eventually showcase thousands of ethnological artifacts, many of which were acquired during the colonial era. Photograph: The New York Times

The Humboldt Forum, a reconstruction of the old Berlin Schloss in Berlin. It will eventually showcase thousands of ethnological artifacts, many of which were acquired during the colonial era. Photograph: The New York Times

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On a chilly August day in 2014, I accompanied a tall 38-year-old around Berlin’s biggest building site. Perched on an open concrete platform on the second floor, wearing a hard hat and high-vis vest, a smile rose on the face of Georg Friedrich Prinz von Preussen, the head of the Hohenzollern family and man who would be kaiser. 

Rising beneath his feet again was the palace that, for centuries, served as his family’s seat of power until 1918, before it was demolished in 1950.

The new building may look like the old palace but has nothing to do with him or his family. Yet the gleam in his eye that day reminded me of Gloria Swanson as Norma Desmond, returning to Paramount Studios for a moment of glory in Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard. Something, I felt, was stirring.

This week, after 30 years of bitter debate and a decade-long building project, the Humboldt Forum opened its doors. Europe’s newest complex for art, culture and science is a staggering sight, even for someone who has watched it rise over the last years.

A modern building wrapped in a largely baroque Prussian facade, it has changed utterly one of Berlin’s pivotal sites between the Brandenburg Gate and Alexanderplatz.

For some, this new state institution is a dream realised, returning to Berlin’s historic cityscape its architectural keystone and orientation point.

“In the years after wartime destruction, Berlin annihilated itself again to an extraordinary degree with post-war planning and architecture,” says Wilhelm von Boddien, a Hamburg businessman who co-founded the campaign to rebuild 30 years ago. When Bundestag MPs voted to rebuild the palace nearly 20 years ago, a condition was that von Boddien’s campaign would cover the cost of the historical, decorative elements. That amounted to €100 million of the total €600 million cost of the project – with the balance funded by the taxpayer.

Sitting in his fundraising office near palace, with 80 per cent of the €100 million funding delivered, von Boddien is quietly confident the new, old building will have a healing effect on the German capital’s ravaged core and “reconcile citizens with their city”.

That infuriates the many critics who see the building as a historical provocation, a revisionist revival of the seat of imperial Germany which, in their view, was the root – directly or indirectly – of so many 20th century horrors.

For yet others the building remains a confused example of finding a museum function to follow the form Germany decided it needed.

Walking around the Humboldt Forum is a remarkable, troubling and almost psychedelic experience. So much brand-new baroque stucco, so much history underfoot, and so many disputes lingering in the air, it’s hard to know where to begin.

The departure of Kaiser Wilhelm II from here in 1918 marked the end of Germany’s imperial era, and the Hohenzollern royal family. Three decades later, after brief flirtations with democracy and fascism, East Berlin’s new socialist regime demolished the palace – which had stood here in various forms since the 15th century – to demonstrate its victory over the imperialist militarism.

The site became a vast parade ground and, from the 1970s, housed the “Palace of the Republic”, a squat mixed-use complex with a smoked, mirrored glass façade that housed East Germany’s show parliament.

The end of East Germany in 1990, and vast deposits of asbestos discovered in the walls, sealed the socialist palace’s fate. The demolition began in 2006 under a wave of protest that modern Germany was repeating the historical mistake of 1950: razing an architectural reminder of an ideologically awkward past regime.

The vast new complex – 185m by 120m and 30m high – is largely the work of Italian architect Franco Stella. It combines three baroque sides and, facing the River Spree, one modern facade in his signature monumental grid style. The latter is a radical contrast to the rest, just as the original renaissance castle that once sat on the riverbank once competed with the rest of the palace, built in a baroque style to match the Hohenzollerns’ expansionist ambitions in Europe.

Given no plans existed of the vanished palace, just haphazard surveys and historical photographs, the reconstruction of the historical facades – and two courtyards – by court architect Andreas Schlüter are remarkable achievements in stone masonry and engineering skill.

But the new building, with its jarring external mix of modern and historical – and cool, modern interiors – has been almost universally panned by German architectural critics as a bombastic nightmare.

“There’s a wish among some in Berlin to eliminate everything that shows we had a war and division, to create some kind of historical postcard reality,” says Niklas Maak, architectural critic of the Frankfurter Allgemeine daily.

Then there are ongoing rows over the provenance of collection exhibits, many gathered during imperial Germany’s colonial era; Nigeria has sought the return of bronzes it says were looted from the Benin royal palace.

General director Hartmut Dorgerloh, aware of such ticking time bombs in his collections, insists the institution will not shy away from complex colonial themes, and points to the recent return of objects to Namibia and other countries.

“Such complex themes have an effect to this day,” he said. “We will argue about this here, not talk about others but with them; if anything, this debate shows how urgently we need places like this.”

For now, the Humboldt Forum exists in a bizarre limbo. Because of the pandemic, this week’s opening was online only, as museums in Germany are closed to the public.

If anything, the virtual launch has only heightened the expectation – but also the sense of confusion – over what the Humboldt Forum is, why it was built as it was built, and why it occupies its current site.

Until the staff can present their collections – more than 30,000sq m of floor space – and interact with a public that has bankrolled most of the €600 million project, the Humboldt Forum remains trapped in wooly language more familiar to interdisciplinary studies and property developer brochures. 

Enlightenment and education

According to its own promotional materials, the Humboldt Forum is a “unique place of inquiry and counters . . . for exchange, diversity and a multiplicity of voices . . . creating spaces for surprising experiments and inspiring encounters”.

Germany’s minister of state for culture Monika Grütters hopes the Humboldt Forum will reinvent for the 21st century the legacy of enlightenment and education of its name givers, brothers Wilhelm and Alexander von Humboldt. 

“Here, at the heart of the German capital, we do not position ourselves at the forefront of attention,” she said, “but instead define ourselves through exchange with others.”

The original Prussian palace was a triumph of arriviste architectural ambition, built by a family anxious to belong to Europe’s royal premier league.

Its replica is a unique example of modern German wishful thinking, spending €600 million as a home for cultural exchange while struggling to define one’s own cultural identity and offering.

The final irony is to open the Humboldt Forum, wearing a Hohenzollern facade, while Germany is locked in ill-tempered negotiations with Georg-Friedrich von Preussen over disputed former royal collection objects and properties.

Six years after visiting the building site, he described the Humboldt Forum as double win for the city: as a cultural project and as proof of the results citizen engagement can yield.

“That the initiative of idealists could close this architectural wound in Berlin’s cityscape . . . touches me deeply,” he told The Irish Times. “I hope those with political responsibility, particularly the city of Berlin, will do everything possible, both materially and in terms of ideas, to ensure the term Humboldt Forum is filled with content on an ongoing basis that lives up to the great [Humboldt] name.”

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