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.