I told my dear friend Rachel that I wouldn’t be blogging much from Berlin, that I had been here twice before, that I would be too busy stuffing my face with strudel, walking endlessly though Berlin’s charming neighborhoods, and (of course) sharing the spirit and spirits of the season with my lieben deutschen freunde. But it turns out there is a story that demands to be told, and so I’ve fired up the blog machine on this misty Sunday evening.
The obligatory background: Das Berliner Schloss, known in English as the Berlin City Palace, stood for 500 years in the heart of the oldest part of the city along the River Spree. Home and/or winter residence to generations of kings and kaisers, after a fairly modest start it became a true Baroque showpiece in the early 18th century under the renovating hands of sculptor and architect Andreas Schlüter. Here’s a model of the area circa 1900 showing the palace on the left and the Berliner Dom (cathedral) on the right, giving you a sense of the place and proportions. If you know the area, the Altes Museum is just to the right of the photograph.
Shot from a different angle, here’s the palace set among the glory of turn-of-the-century imperial Germany:
When Germany was defeated in the First World War, the emperor abdicated his position and his residence and the building was turned into a museum. It was then heavily damaged by the Allies in World War II, but was still officially in restorable condition.
Enter the Germany Democratic Republic commies. As with many buildings in countries I’ve visited, this memorial to old empire and ways of thinking was not to be tolerated, (plus they probably didn’t have much of a budget for major monuments to begin with). It was blasted to oblivion in 1950 over heavy protests by the West German government and many others. Here’s a painful shot of that process, reminding me in part of the heart-rending demolitions currently being carried out by the Taliban and ISIS:
The site sat empty for nearly 25 years, used mostly as a parade ground, when finally the East German government planned and built the Palast der Republic (Palace of the Republic), a huge multi-purpose building which included, among other things, the seat of the Parliament, the People’s Chamber, “two large auditoria, art galleries, a theatre, 13 restaurants, a bowling alley, a post office, and a discotheque.” German privacy and copyright law will not allow me to cut and paste an image of this, ahem, modernist monstrocity, but just search for yourself. Wiki tells us “having bronze-mirrored windows (was its) defining architectural feature.” It didn’t do much for the neighborhood, artistically speaking, IMHO.
That being said, it was not without its supporters and proponents. Only 14 years after it opened in 1976 and shortly before German reunification in 1990, the structure was found to be heavily contaminated with aesbestos and closed to the public. It sat empty for over 25 years until, over the screams of yet a different set of protesters, the building was also demolished between 2006-08. In a fascinating bit of international recycling, Wiki tells us that “about 35,000 tonnes of steel which once held this building together were shipped to the United Arab Emirates to be used for the construction of the Burj Khalifa,” currently the tallest building in the world.
The German government, inspired by a small group of visionary investors in the early 1990s, had actually begun discussing the rebuilding the original palace; replacing the actual physical shell, but also to filling it with something called “The Humbolt Forum,” a national and international center for art and learning. This is where it gets really interesting.
An international competition was conducted to find the architect who would guide the process. That award went to Italian Franco Stella whose design so impressed the committee that it won not only the first place award, but also the second and third, making it clear that no other submission could ever even hint that they had been close. Stella’s concept is brilliant: much the restoration will completely resemble the original building (down to the plaster moldings on the facades) but it will also add a couple very simple Bauhaus-inspired wings that will tie the building to elements of architecturally more modern buildings nearby. Here’s a model of Stella’s building:
…and here’s a pull-out representation that shows what will be where:
If you’re interested, that address at the bottom of the page leads to an English website that will tell you much more.
I was fortunate to learn about this building and its colorful history due to my friend F.P. who is among those who has made this project part of his life’s legacy and who also serves as a part-time docent at the site. At the moment, his particular interest is the restoration of the facade, meaning the over 3000 (yes, three thousand) sandstone ornamentations that will grace the building in its completed form. This one managed to survive the bombing and the demolition; most of the rest did not:
In order to build each one of these, artisans are using an extensive collection of photographs that were taken in the early 1940s by worried Berliners, concerned that city buildings would be destroyed and there were no paper plans to replace them. From these photographs, several increasing larger plaster models are made until the final perfect 1:1 representation has been created. Only then is it committed to final form.
Wooden models are also used to ensure that the building’s proportions are exactly correct and to aid in the placement of the ornamentations. Here’s a six-foot model of one small section of the facade. (Boxmaker Jay, this one’s for you)
The building will finally and permanently reopen on September 14, 2019, the 250th birthday of famous German geographer, naturalist, and explorer Alexander von Humbolt, whose name, along with that of of his older brother Wilhelm, a linguist and educator, grace the overall enterprise. I’ll be there, inshallah, to honor and support this visionary effort to not only restore a civic landmark but to create a resource that will showcase global art and artifacts and will inspire innovation and learning.
A deep and heartfelt “danke sehr” to my friend F.P for sharing this amazing project with me. I look forward to seeing the results of your labor in three years, ten months, and six days. (This is a bit of an inside joke, but it’s not a joke. Many of the supporters of this project are survivors of a long and difficult century in Berlin, and they would like to see this project to completion.) But I have confidence.