When people think of Berlin today, they think of the Brandenburg Gate, Checkpoint Charlie, the TV Tower and of course the Berlin Wall which (in case you hadn’t heard) fell nearly 24 years ago.
However, Berlin is not only the capital of the re-united Germany, it also used to be the capital city of the Kingdom of Prussia where in its ca. 500 years of reign, architects like Schinkel, Schlüter and Stüler created some of the most beautiful classic buildings in the city.
From conversations with fellow architects, I realised that the troubled history of one of the city’s most important historic buildings is in fact largely unknown outside of Germany – the Berlin City Palace.
Like no other building and site in the entire city, and ironically perhaps even more than previously the Wall, the City Palace has been disuniting the capital’s residents and dividing the population into supporters and opponents and has done so since the end of the Second World War.
The first parts of the Berlin Palace were built as early as 1443 when the prince-elector Frederic II of Brandenburg, also known as ‘Prince Irontooth’, began a castle building on the banks of the River Spree as a fort to control trade routes. This structure was erased during the Thirty Years’ War between 1618 and 1648 and a Renaissance style castle re-built after the end of the war.
In this earliest map of Berlin from 1652 (see above) when the city still consisted of the two towns of Berlin and Cӧlln, the early forms of the palace and its courtyards and the palace gardens south of the River Spree are clearly recognisable – as is the newly planted row of lime trees which today form part of the famous boulevard ‘Unter den Linden’ (‘Underneath the Lime Trees’) which leads up to the Brandenburg Gate.
Prussian Kingdom and German Empire
When Frederic I was crowned King of Prussia in 1701, he required a residence that would suit his new status as well as become a representative seat in his kingdom’s capital to pursue his official functions. He appointed the architect Andreas Schlüter to extend the existing structure and turn it into a large Baroque palace.
Later, Johann Friedrich von Eosander became the King’s architect. His plans for a large dome at the palace’s Western gate were realised in 1850 by the architects Friedrich August Stüler and Karl Friedrich Schinkel thus turning the palace into the building that for the next 100 years was largely unchanged (apart from a major renovation and installation of modern plumbing, heating and lighting commissioned by the German Emperor William II towards the end of the 19th century).
Cradle of History
At the outbreak of World War I in 1914, Emperor William II held a historic speech in front of tens of thousands of spectators from the balcony of the palace’s Eosander Portal to prepare the nation for the times to come.
Four years later, on 9th November 1918, William II abdicated as a consequence of the lost war.
Within only two hours of his abdication, both Social-Democrat Philipp Scheidemann and communist Karl Liebknecht declared the German Republic – Scheidemann at the Reichstag, Liebknecht a socialist republic, from the same historic balcony at the City Palace’s Eosander Portal.
During the Weimar Republic, parts of the palace were turned into a museum while other parts continued to be used for receptions and other state functions.
World War II
During the war, the palace remained largely unaffected for a long time. However, after having been hit by a first bomb in 1944, it suffered severe damage from an air raid in early 1945.
After the end of World War II, and as a result of the city being divided up between the allied forces of the USA, Great Britain, France and the Soviet Union into four sectors, the palace was now located within the Eastern Soviet Sector.
While parts of the building were still being used for exhibitions, discussions about the future of the building began. A panel of experts including architects, structural engineers and historians was summoned to assess the palace’s soundness and the feasibility of its repair and re-use.
In their final report, the experts concluded that the building could and should be retained – if not as a whole then at least parts of it in order to save this important landmark of the city’s and country’s history. However, the communist regime of East Germany saw the palace as a symbol of Prussian absolutism, a feudal system and social classes and therefore, for ideological reasons, disregarded the experts’ appraisal and recommendations and decided for the palace to be demolished in its entirety.
And so on 9th September 1950, the over 500-year old palace was erased in a number of detonations. Merely a handful of sculptures were removed and re-used elsewhere, and the Eosander Portal was later included in the new privy council building opposite the palace’s site.
Palace of the Republic
Following Soviet ideas of urban planning at the time, the East German government was determined to replace the royal palace with a ‘people’s palace’ that would be the seat of the East German government and where conventions and festivities could be held as well as an adjacent large square for military parades, speeches and state propaganda. The Palace Square was renamed into ‘Marx-Engels-Square’, and in 1976 the ‘Palace of the Republic’ (or ‘Erich’s Lamp Store’ as sarcastically named by the Berliners referring to Erich Honecker, the GDR’s political leader between 1971-1989, and to the amount of light fittings installed in the building) was opened to the public. It was located immediately adjacent to where the City Palace had previously stood.
After the fall of the Berlin Wall and the GDR and its government in 1989, the ‘Palace of the Republic’ had become redundant and a heated debate began about the future of the building.
Numerous surveys were commissioned, all confirming that an estimate of at least 5000 tons of asbestos had been used in the building, mainly for fire protection of the steel stucture, and that the cost of a de-contamination would exceed the cost for a complete demolition. The asbestos was considered too severe a health hazard to keep the building open for public use and it was hence closed in late 1990. The building was slowly taken apart, element by element, until by 2008 all parts of the ‘Palace of the Republic’ had been demolished completely.
The question that now needed to be answered was what was going to be developed on the re-vacated site that was gaping in the heart of the city like a wound in amongst the ensemble of historic buildings such as the Museum Island, the Berlin Cathedral, Schinkel’s Neue Wache, opera building and Old Museum, Stüler’s Old National Gallery, the Armoury, the Crown Prince Palais, the German Historic Museum, St Hedwig’s Cathedral, the Humboldt University campus and more, several of which holding UNESCO World Heritage status.
In October 2000, a panel of experts was therefore put together to explore the options for a regeneration of Berlin’s historic heart. On the basis of their recommendations, the German Parliament concluded in 2002 to proceed with the demolition of the ‘Palace of the Republic’ and a ‘critical reconstruction’ of the former palace area.
The (native) Berliners have always been advertently observing their city’s development and strongly care about it, and they are not shy to voice their opinion or to get involved in heated discussions. As a result of the city’s troubled history however, many clashing views are gathered in Berlin, ultimately deriving from very opposed political philosophies, which hence result in very controversial and fuelled debates. It is therefore not surprising that the decision finding process for the palace site has taken almost two decades.
Opinions were split between supporters of a reconstruction of the historic City Palace on the one hand, and those who were objecting to this idea arguing with a kind of ‘eye for an eye’ attitude that did not want to see a former monarch’s palace if they could not keep the Palace of the Republic.
An international architectural design competition was finally invited. The brief was for the construction of a new building within the footprint of the historic palace which would be a centre of museum facilities as well as events spaces. The winning competition entry was the scheme by Italian architect Franco Stella which was awarded in 2011. Internally, his proposals include the principle of a series of courtyards which is being adopted from the historic building plan as outlined in the competition brief. Three out of the four main historic external facades of the original City Palace as well as some of the internal courtyard facades are going to be re-constructed; the fourth, Eastern external façade facing the River Spree will have a contemporary design thus adopting and simplifying historic features of the Baroque facades.
The 40,000 sqm building will be occupied by the Foundation Prussian Cultural Heritage’s Ethnological Museum as well as the National Museums in Berlin’s collection of Asian Art both of which will closely collaborate with the nearby Museum Island. Further to the exhibition areas, workshops and libraries will also be accommodated as a forum for academic and scientific work whilst offering performance and events facilities in the reconstructed Schlüter Courtyard.
The overall construction cost will be approximately €550 million whereby €80 million (covering the cost for the facades as well as the reconstruction of the dome) will be funded by private sponsorship, €32 million by the City of Berlin and the remainder of €438 million by the German government.
Completion is scheduled for 2019.
Right or wrong?
Observing the endless arguments about Berlin’s City Palace over the years has left me with a few questions. –
The cost of the palace’s reconstruction is certainly enormous and leads to wonder whether an investment of this scale is justifiable. But in a city like Berlin where the cultural landscape is the Number 1 asset and attracts almost 10 million visitors each year from all over the world, the question is whether this investment at the end of the day will not be worthwhile after all and more than amortise in the long run?
Would this same kind of debate have been had in other countries? In Britain for instance, where palaces, castles and other historic landmarks are cherished and carefully looked after as some of the country’s most precious and representative pieces of national heritage, it appears unthinkable that the reconstruction of one of them would have been objected to this strongly.
The recurring question in conservation architecture is of course whether the reconstruction of a historic building from scratch is justifiable or whether this is just an act of unauthentic pretence à la Las Vegas. However, I wonder whether in the case of the Berlin Palace the situation is different given that the original building was erased on illegitimate grounds for merely political and ideological reasons?
The story of the City Palace shows how much responsibility politicians and planners have, both in the sense of power and opportunity to make decisions as well as pressure to make the right decisions. Do a handful of individuals elected for four or five years have the right to instruct the demolition of a building with 500 years of history?