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Classical Revival

Germany breaks from its past to embrace the past.

Sep 16, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 02 • By MARK FALCOFF
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After the founding of the GDR, the site was cleared. In its place was a huge empty square for parades and demonstrations, flanked by the Palace of the Republic, the Ministerial Council building, and the Foreign Ministry (that last is still in use). But to expand the ceremonial spaces, all of the surrounding buildings, including private dwellings, were removed. As a consequence, architectural historian Rainer Haubrich points out in Das neue Berliner Schloss (2012), “many places have lost their bearings. Streets lead to nowhere; squares lack balance [Fassung], buildings lack a corresponding counterface. .  .  . Even passersby who do not know the history of the place can readily sense that at some time a huge building must have stood on the site.”

Even if only preserved in old paintings and photographs, the Stadtschloss continued to exercise a fascination, one to which even leading members of the East German elite were not wholly immune. Returning from his first visit to Paris and Madrid in 1988 (where he was dazzled by the architectural grandeur), President Erich Honecker actually raised the question of Stadtschloss reconstruction. Two years later, the Palace of the Republic was closed as a result of environmental contamination. Since the GDR had already begun—rather fitfully, it is true—the reconstruction of Dresden, one can only speculate what might have eventually happened. In any case, the Palace of the Republic was unceremoniously dismantled by a unified German government during 2006-08.

Some years before the fall of the Berlin Wall, interest in the Stadtschloss was reviving in the Federal Republic. In 1982, a young German architect named Tischler Peschken published a book on the building, which caught the attention of Wilhelm von Boddien, a Frankfurt businessman and civic leader. Boddien proceeded to found an association to raise funds to build an architectural model, which can be seen today in one of the rooms of the restored Charlottenburg Palace in the city’s Western sector. More important, Boddien’s group began intensive lobbying and private fundraising—something fairly unusual for noncharitable causes in Germany—culminating in a vote of the Bundestag in 2002 to authorize reconstruction. Quite possibly one of the turning points was the full-size depiction on canvas of the Schloss’s  western façade by a French artist in 1993, which allowed politicians as well as the general public to see what they would be getting.

Once a decision was made to rebuild, architects from all over the world were invited to submit plans, and some 158 proposals were offered. To the surprise of many, the winner of the competition was Franco Stella, an architect in Vicenza, Italy, and former professor at the University of Genoa. Although he had previously been involved in some work in West Berlin, he was a virtual unknown in the German architectural scene. His victory was not graciously accepted by all the other competitors, one of whom even took him to court. The loudest critic of Stella’s design was, not surprisingly, Philipp Oswalt, who today is the director of the Bauhaus Foundation in Dessau. Like many modernists, Oswalt objected to Stella’s historicism, which (in his view) threatened an architectural counter-revolution in Germany. As one of his Bauhaus colleagues put it after the Bundestag vote, “How should we feel about replicas being forced upon us by the will of the people?” 

How indeed. 

Even after the affirmative vote, there were still differences of opinion as to just how historicist the building would be allowed to be. Perhaps not surprisingly, attitudes towards architecture corresponded roughly to points along the ideological spectrum, with the Christian Democrats/Christian Social Union and Free Democrats favoring a full restoration of the exterior, the Social Democrats wanting to reduce the Baroque façades by half, and the Greens by three-quarters. 

Stella’s plan is a compromise. It follows the spirit of Schlüter, but carries it through in more contemporary terms. A massive external stone wall about three feet thick will be constructed, to which decorative elements of natural stone will be attached. Three sides of the old Baroque façade will be reconstructed; the fourth side, facing east (as well as parts of the building facing the Spree), will be modern. The cupola will be rebuilt, but will not attempt to replicate the exact details of the original. No effort will be made to reproduce the prewar interior; it will be fully functional, with spaces for theater and musical performances, museum collections, and the Prussian State Library. But it is the exterior that counts, anyway: The main point is to restore what Rainer Haubrich calls “the turning point and anchor of Berlin’s historic center.”

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