By Silke Bartlick
By the end of the year, a 1:60-scale model of the planned Berlin City Palace – made of around 250,000 toy Lego blocks – will be on display on Potsdamer Platz. However, it will take a few more years before the real thing is finished, Germany’s current center-right coalition government has decided.
The start of the reconstruction work on Berlin’s historical City Palace has been postponed until 2014, which, according to German Chancellor Angela Merkel, is a consequence of the current difficult economic conditions. She claimed that Germany’s budget was tight and the country needed to concentrate on saving, meaning that “we can’t afford everything that we wish for if we want to control our future.”
Despite the delay, Bernd Neumann, Germany’s representative of the federal government for culture, has emphasized that the project will go ahead – eventually.
“It’s not acceptable to have a green meadow, a gap, in the German capital,” said Neumann. “Berlin is the cultural window to Germany.”
A turbulent architectural history
Berlin Mayor Klaus Wowereit called the postponement a “panic reaction” on the part of the government and said the future of “this important project” is totally uncertain. The German parliament decided to commission the reconstruction of the palace back in July 2002.
The pompous Baroque building, with its spacious suites and grand halls, was largely destroyed in World War II and its remains were demolished in 1950 under the rule of the communist government in what was then East Germany. In the 1970s, a large modernist building, the Palace of the Republic, was built in its place. Following Germany’s reunification, the Palace of the Republic was torn down because of its association with the communist regime; its demolition was completed in 2008.
Over 550 million euros (over $660 million) were allocated for the Berlin City Palace reconstruction project: 440 million euros were to be provided by the German government, 32 million by the Berlin Senate and 80 million by the Association for the Promotion of the Berlin City Palace.
The architectural design of the reconstruction was a topic of heated debate for quite some time. Finally, in 2008, a jury panel made up of architects and politicians chose the model proposed by Italian architect Francesco Stella. His design is based on the palace’s historic layout and anticipates an exact reconstruction of the Baroque facades on three outer sides and within one of the courtyards. It also foresees the renovation of the historic inner layout.
Stella’s building was meant to fill what is now a large empty space in Berlin’s historic center and house the so-called Humboldt Forum, a center for art and science. This would include cultural, research and educational institutions, as well as collections of works from non-European cultures that are currently on display in Berlin’s southern Dahlem district. Relocating the works to the City Palace would give them a more strategic location opposite the neighboring Museum Island and its European collections.
The vice-president of the German parliament, Wolfgang Thierse, has voiced concern that the endeavor – which some consider the largest and most exciting cultural project in German history – is in danger of not being completed.
Most Berliners opposed to reconstruction
The postponement of the project is meant to ease the national budget in the short term. However, Berlin’s cultural state secretary Andre Schmitz said this approach won’t bring any real benefits, because now the museums in the city’s Dahlem district, which are a in a bad state, would need to be renovated and this could cost up to 300 million euros.
According to the president of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, Hermann Parzinger, the preparation work for the palace’s reconstruction has already been expensive.
“The delay is now wasting even more money,” said Parzinger. “I don’t now if you can call this savings.”
The head of the Association for the Promotion of the Berlin City Palace, Wilhelm von Boddien, also has concerns about the decision, having spent years collecting donations for the project. He said one of the main issues in the matter is now donors’ trust and the question of living up to promises.
On the other side of the debate, Philipp Oswalt, director of the famous Bauhaus Dessau Foundation, has been a long-time critic of the Berlin City Palace reconstruction project. He agreed with German government’s most recent decision to postpone, claiming that it was a way of admitting that the project was something that had the support of politicians but not of the general population.
In a recent survey, 80 percent of Berlin residents were in favor of abandoning the reconstruction project altogether. Canning the project altogether, however, is not yet on the table.
According to Bernd Neumann, if the construction of impressive buildings had in the past always been adapted “to the existing financial situation, then we wouldn’t have any great cultural heritage in Germany to admire today.”