Visitors wending their way down the Unter den Linden towards the river Spree are nowadays suddenly brought up short by an oddly shaped, bizarre-looking structure that seems completely out of place among the neoclassical palaces and the imposing Renaissance-style Protestant cathedral. It is the Humboldt Forum, which currently houses museums, foundations, and libraries. In some ways, it resembles nothing so much as a package hastily cobbled together with duct tape, clashing even with some of the modern structures nearby. But sometime late in the next decade, it will be completely disassembled and replaced by a version of the building that stood in its place for nearly 250 years, Berlin’s old imperial palace, or Stadtschloss.
The German capital will thus join Potsdam, Dresden, Braunschweig, and Hanover in celebrating the country’s reunification by re-creating historic city centers destroyed during World War II. In the case of the Berlin palace, however, the political and historical implications are even more poignant, because, for half a century, the same site was occupied by the East German Palace of the Republic. This was a relatively low-rise steel and glass monstrosity, a kind of socialist version of the International style that, apart from its unloveliness, was environmentally toxic. Nonetheless, to the extent that a true East German identity existed (and to some extent continues to exist), this building was its architectural signature.
It is no secret that many people (though probably not many architects) hate “modern” buildings and long for the kinds of urban settings that make Rome, Florence, Paris, and St. Petersburg such rich destinations for visitors. In the case of Germany, however, the country’s problematic relationship with its past, and particularly its recent past, has made the subject of reconstruction one of acute controversy. The unfortunate German addiction to ugly modern architecture (the rebuilt synagogue in Dresden, for example) makes it all the more remarkable that the Bundestag has appropriated more than half-a-billion dollars to bring the Stadtschloss back to life, thus restoring old sightlines and cityscapes. Even more reassuring is the fact that, in public opinion polls, the most enthusiastic supporters of reconstruction are young Germans in the 18-24 cohort.
Like most of Europe’s great monuments, Berlin’s town palace was built over a long period of time, involving several successive generations of architects and artisans. The building was begun by Andreas Schlüter (1664?-1714), the first important master of the late Baroque style in Germany; but the cupola, its most commanding feature, was completed only in 1853. With the founding of the Second Reich in 1871, it became the kaiser’s capital residence, though, in fact, Wilhelm II was the only emperor to actually live there. During the revolutionary events of 1918 and after the fall of the monarchy, it was briefly put under the control of revolutionary sailors to prevent the plundering of its contents; during the Weimar Republic, some of its 1,000 rooms were rented out or used for public events. Part of the structure is housed in the Kunstgewerbemuseum collection.
The building remained relatively undamaged through much of the Second World War, but it was hit for the first time in May 1944, when daylight bombing of the German capital began. It was largely destroyed in early February 1945, in the biggest air attack of the war. Even so, the structure was so solidly built that the outer walls, and some of the interior ones, survived. Indeed, it was even possible, in 1946, to hold Berlin’s first big postwar art exhibit in the building’s White Room.
The founding of the German Democratic Republic in 1949 rang the death knell for the Stadtschloss. Walter Ulbricht had a somewhat morbid interest in architecture and ordered the surviving parts of the building completely demolished (along with Potsdam’s town palace and the University Church in Leipzig). There were sotto voce protests at the time, notably from Hans Sharoun, one of the regime’s favorite architects. As it was, Ulbricht compromised and allowed some of the more important sculptures to be saved and taken to an engineering site in Berlin-Heinersdorf (then an industrial suburb), where hundreds of fragments were meticulously arranged in huts. Unfortunately, the site was eventually bulldozed; only the best pieces were saved for museums. However, at the time of their removal, some 5,000 photographs were taken and have been preserved.
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?”
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.”
For some time, it was thought—and German advocates of modern architecture hoped—that rebuilding a Baroque Renaissance palace in Berlin would prove a practical impossibility. In fact, this has not proven to be the case: A collection of 20,000 photographs of Prussian buildings (1855-1920) survived the war, and the collection includes 40 DVDs containing digital images of the exterior and courtyard façades of the Stadtschloss in very high resolution. In addition, there are precise measurements, dating to 1879, that were discovered at the Berlin Land Registry Office as recently as a decade ago. All these findings have been creatively assembled and coordinated via computer, allowing 3,000 decorative motifs to be reproduced, stone by stone, to within a millimeter—a task never before attempted.
Although it was thought that carving Baroque figures in sandstone was a lost art, in Spandau, a workshop has been established under the leadership of two stone sculptors, Mathias Körner and Eckhart Boehm, who both trained in the classical tradition and are fully familiar with the stylistic peculiarities of Schlüter. Each element will first be done in plaster, and will then be approved by a committee of art historians before orders are given to produce it in sandstone. All the surviving fragments of the original Stadtschloss have been moved here as well.
The task ahead is certainly not an easy one, and the palace may not open on schedule (in 2019). There are nearly 500 windows, some as large as garage doors, and more than 2,000 feet of façade has to be reconstructed, complete with figures such as a cudgel-swinging Hercules. Forty-seven eagles with widespread wings will hang on the roof, the largest of which will have a wingspan of eight-and-a-half feet.
While some critics persist in calling the project “kitsch” and “counterfeit,” the restoration project represents a turning point in Germany’s postwar and post-Cold War normalization, as well as a reaffirmation of the more prideful aspects of its history and identity. At a time when civic beauty is under attack everywhere by trendy nihilists and intimidated arts commissions, the restoration of the Stadtschloss strikes a blow on behalf of beleaguered lovers of classical architecture—wherever they might be.
Mark Falcoff is a writer and translator in Washington and Munich.