The Plastic Palace
Last month, on the 20th of July, the Humboldt Forum opened its doors to the public. Berliners seem to thrive on the stirring up of local controversy so it would be a bold claim to suggest that it is the most divisive architectural project since the city’s reunification in 1990, but I would go further than that and argue that the destruction of East Germany’s (the DDR’s) ‘Palast der Republik’ and its replacement with a ghostly pastiche of an 18th Century Prussian Palace to house the Humboldt Forum is more than the latest grumbling point for the denizens of the German capital, and is actually the latest manifestation of an ongoing battle for the soul of Berlin. In 1997, Andreas Huyssen wrote that “Berlin may well be on the way to squandering a unique chance” when it came to filling the voids in the city’s landscape and collective memory. Two years later, Daniel Libeskind – who had just completed the Jewish Museum in Berlin and thus knew a thing or two about the difficulty of filling those voids – warned that the pressing of a “historical reset button” would produce kitsch. The Humboldt Forum’s opening within those plastic-Prussian facades confirms both of those concerns.
The art critic Karl Scheffler’s 1910 description of Berlin as a city “condemned forever to become and never be” seems to pop up everywhere – especially when researching bitterly contested city developments in the last 30 years. It’s also something that tour guides tell their clients when they complain about all the construction in the city, in the hope that Scheffler’s wistful words are charming enough to distract from the seemingly constant soundtrack of jack hammers. Unfortunately, it underpins an attitude that is often used as a response to city projects that are invariably fraught with budgetary, administrative and sometimes even structural issues. After the initial grumbling comes the collective, defeated shrug – if our new international airport can open nine years behind schedule, then anything is (im)possible. This can be partly explained by the economic doldrums the city was in in the years following reunification. Until very recently, Berlin was seen by much of the rest of Germany (or at least the parts of the former West Germany) as something of a dysfunctional city and an economic disaster zone. To put it simply, Berliners expect a certain level of teething problems with every major project and the Humboldt Forum certainly had its share of those.
An opening that was two years behind schedule and questions over who was actually going to foot the bill for such an ambitious undertaking are issues that are par for the course for any project of this size in Berlin. There was also an embarrassing resignation from a member of the advisory board who suggested that the Forum was being used as a way of avoiding tough questions regarding the provenance of items from Germany’s former colonies. Bénédicte Savoy suggested that there were desperate attempts to stop the “radiation” of these controversies leaking out, describing the project as “like Chernobyl”. None of this is ideal but we should not let those issues get in the way of a more fundamental problem – this building should not exist in the first place. It represents a continuation of a clumsy and damaging policy with regards to the DDR and the experiences of its former citizens. Furthermore it represents a turning back of the clock to a supposed ideal time in the city’s history, wiping away the footprints of subsequent eras both good and bad from the landscape and ignoring one of the city’s true strengths – the wild eclecticism of its buildings and the meanings that they impart.
A Palace Destroyed
A residence of some kind had occupied the site since the late 15th Century but what is supposed to greet visitors today – unless they approach from the east and are met with Franco Stella’s incongruously contemporary facade – is an approximation of what the palace looked like in 1918, around the time that the last German Kaiser, Wilhelm II was driven into exile by a population no longer willing to tolerate the carnage of the Great War. His dynastic ancestors the Hohenzollerns had ruled Brandenburg, Prussia and eventually all of Germany in various forms for centuries, but like many – though sadly not all – old European royal families who had outstayed their welcome at this particularly tumultuous time in history, it was time to go.
Although the palace was repeatedly tinkered with and added to in the century leading up to the last Kaiser’s demise, it was Andreas Schlüter’s construction at the beginning of the 18th Century that forms the basis of what was rebuilt in recent years. Schlüter’s baroque design came to dominate and define the centre of what was still at that point a small provincial seat of power but one that was about to go through a great period of growth and change. Particularly in the latter half of the century when Frederick II or ‘The Great’ was on the throne, Prussia would begin to emerge as a significant European power for the first time. Around the palace can still be found architectural clues from these subsequent giddy periods in Berlin’s history. Schlüter’s fingerprints are all over the former Zeughaus or ‘Royal Arsenal’ to the north-west of the palace, Karl Friedrich Schinkels neo-classical Altes Museum, built in the afterglow of Prussia’s ultimately victorious part in the Napoleonic wars lies to the North. Finally, to the north east we have the Berliner Dom, a somewhat garish but undeniably fun neo-renaissance cathedral ordered, unsurprisingly, in a fit of imperial chest beating by Kaiser Wilhelm II. Those last two buildings certainly have their flaws and detractors but what more than makes up for that is the stories they tell, the way it is possible to trace the history of the city through their forms. They fit into the Berlin tradition of statement architecture, of power and aspiration manifested through building.
To those with even a cursory understanding of Berlin’s history it seems almost redundant to explain why the 18th Century Schloss no longer exists. After a post-imperial period where neither the governments of the Weimar Republic nor the squalid dictatorship of the Nazis saw fit to use the building for any notable official capacity, it was horrifically damaged during World War Two and completely levelled in 1950 by Soviet / East German authorities with little appetite for rebuilding a structure steeped in a history that was widely seen at that time, including within other parts of Germany, as being partly responsible for two world wars.
The People’s Palace?
The DDR government, faced with a gaping void in the historical centre of Berlin, opted to fill it with a new type of palace, one explicitly for the people. Emily Pugh suggests however that it was also a resurrection of the pre-Nazi model of the Kultürhaus – a model of a community hub for meeting, education and entertainment that was briefly popular among German socialist communities. The Palast der Republik was home to the DDR Volkskammer (Peoples or Parliamentary Chamber) as well as a huge congress hall but what brought the crowds – 11.8million visitors in the first year alone, according to one west German media outlet – were the cultural and leisure facilities: the exhibition spaces, numerous cafes and bars, the youth club, the discotheque and the bowling alley. This choice of location and the radical departure from the styles evident on the surrounding buildings is surely what one would expect from a regime that portrayed itself at that moment as breaking from all of the old, rotten tropes and ideas that had brought not only Germany but Europe to its knees. It was an example of the kind of statement architecture that had characterised the immediate surroundings for centuries but unfortunately for some was a statement made by a type of regime and in a particular style that decades later was deemed to have no place in such a prestigious location.
There were predictable howls of derision from western media at the time. Despite the often clear overlap of influences and styles with contemporary projects in west Berlin such as the enormous ICC Congress Hall opened three years later, Pugh asserts that “many critics assumed that GDR architects, and thus architecture were utterly cut off from developments in the rest of the world”. Some critics also seemed to ignore that, despite the supposedly radical ideas of its architects, the building actually was most clearly influenced by a loose grouping of styles under the umbrella of modernism that briefly thrived in Berlin decades earlier in the pre-Nazi period. Surely a building that made a link, a historical continuity with such a lauded architectural period from the city’s history deserved pride of place? This was not a view shared of course by those who were perhaps content to see that brief flourish of utopian design for the people be washed away by jackbooted reactionaries in the first place.
These opinions are not restricted to a time when Cold War tensions could perhaps be viewed as mitigating the more extreme responses to the Palast der Republik by western critics. An article in the Economist from 2015 casually describes the building as an “architectural atrocity.” However, the positive description later in the same article, of the upcoming Humboldt Forum as an “agora of globalisation” would perhaps suggest a certain political bias on behalf of the writer.
There was another element of criticism of a kind that would come to characterise the uneven East / West German relationship both before and after the unification process. The DDR citizens visiting – and reportedly rather enjoying – their visits to the Palast der Republik were derided by some western critics as being too easily distracted by low-brow pursuits such as drinking and socialising in the bars to even notice how supposedly garish and cheap the building was.This approach helps form a dangerous and unhelpful template of DDR citizens – if they were not shown to be suffering under the supposed unrelenting misery of communism, if they appeared in any way to be making the most of whatever they had, they were often depicted as naive and uncultured. Years after its demolition, there is also an attempt to misrepresent how the Palast der Republik was actually used. Wolf Burchard points out the irony in the fact that “while its architectural style was a clear repudiation of its predecessor’s elitism, it became the stage for all the great celebrations and banquets of the communist elite.”. This part is certainly true, but it is of course only half of the truth and deliberately obscures and ignores the popular use of the Palast der Republik.
The Palast der Republik was closed in September 1990, near the end of that chaotic period between the opening of the checkpoints in the Berlin Wall and the unification of the now sixteen German states. The building was not only inseparable from an undeniably corrupt, oppressive and collapsed regime but was also riddled with asbestos. The latter issue was one it had in common with the ICC, although the hulking congress hall still stands in the far west of the city today, awaiting renovation or repurposing, and was given the deserved and all-important status of ‘historical monument’ or ‘Denkmalschutz’ back in 2019. After the asbestos was carefully removed from the Palast der Republik, a resolution was passed in 2002 to demolish what was left.
A Palace Condemned
When Andreas Huysmann wrote ‘The Voids of Berlin’ in 1997, the debate to rip down the Palast der Republik and build some approximation of the old Prussian palace was very much underway. Huysmann warned that the 1990s rush to remove or change many of the monuments, buildings and symbols of the DDR was often (but not always) unnecessary, arguing that it represented a ”a strategy of power and humiliation, a final burst of Cold War ideology” It would, at the very least, he suggested, create an increase in rose-tinted Ostalgie – the nostalgia for the East (Ost) that many former DDR citizens were beginning to feel in the economic slump of the late 1990s. At the time of Huysmann’s essay, disaffected Germans living in former DDR states were drifting into the arms of the PDS (Party of Democratic Socialism) – a party that emerged from the ruins of the SED, the Marxist-Leninist ruling party of the DDR. If only Huysmann could have seen twenty years into the future when many of those same regions would become the centres of power of a new party that tapped into feelings of resentment, humiliation and fear that have festered in some of those areas since unification. The AFD (Alternative for Germany) party, Germany’s most successful far-right party since the war, has exploited those very feelings to make enormous gains particularly – but not solely – in these areas in the last federal election. It should be said that the party’s often rabid anti-immigration stance forms the core of their platform but their reactionary populism also seems to have won them a great deal of support from those in the former DDR states disillusioned by the modern German state.
Carol Anne Costabile-Heming sees the decision to replace the Palast der Republik with the home of the Humboldt Forum as symptomatic of a worrying trend “to reject structures and practices from the former East in favour of the perceived ‘better options from the west” which, apart from a further stripping away of the identity of the DDR state and its former citizens, “distorts the memory of the historic space through the erasure of the DDR’s presence.”. Beyond that, she warns that turning the clock back to the final spasms of the German Empire purposely avoids conforntation and discussion not only of the DDR and its victims but also the Nazi period.
As the debate raged throughout the 1990s about whether to preserve the Palast der Republik or to rebuild the royal palace, the motivations of the various interest groups in favour of the latter option began to emerge. Naturally, a subject of this nature attracted a predictable array of fringe fantasists excited by a return of Royal Prussia or Imperial Germany . It’s fortunate that, for the time being at least, these extreme desires remain popular with the kind of clammy-palmed soap-dodgers who have little influence outside of internet message boards. The most impactful of the interest groups responsible, such as the Berlin City Palace Sponsoring Association, instead claim to be fundamentally concerned with restoring the architectural balance of the area, as if there was a specific moment in time that these buildings, with their disparate styles and meanings all made some kind of harmonious sense. But by turning the clock back to a particular point in time, they are explicitly favouring that era over others. How can this possibly be viewed as an unpolitical act? How is it possible to deride Ostalgie whilst gazing, misty eyed into a distant past when the people simply had to cross their fingers and hope that whichever interbred monarch occupied the throne at the time wasn’t one of the mad ones that seem to pop up with alarming frequency?
The fundamental problem with nostalgic gestures is that they are almost always grounded in a fantasy, which at its most harmless can result in a Disneyfication of place and meaning and at its most dangerous can help to feed the type of nostalgic populism oozing out across the globe at this precise moment. The very idea of a Berlin ‘golden age’ is preposterous in the first place. Even between the two wars during that brief flourish of possibility beloved by many on the left – the Weimar Republic – great swathes of the population were pretty miserable, for the most part. The vast majority of Berliners were too busy trying to feed their children to have the time or energy to appreciate the burgeoning artistic, political and sexual revolutions happening around them. At least though, the ideas that were emerging were seeking to improve conditions for the masses rather than to display symbols of wealth and power for their own sake. Walter Gropius in his 1919 ‘Manifesto of the Bauhaus’ promised “the new building of the future…..which will one day rise towards the heavens from the hands of a million workers as the crystalline symbol of a new and coming faith” (Kolocotroni et al 302) If we must look into Berlin’s past for inspiration, it should be into the city’s rich history of revolutionary and avant garde design. Gropius, by the way, was not some kind of fanatical futurist, intent on smashing the old in order to build the new – he notably intervened to stop the demolition of the former Museum of Applied Arts, built by his uncle in 1881, showing that it is indeed possible to wish for a broad and representative range of styles in Berlin´s architectural landscape.
The sheer range of possibilities that opened up post-unification was bound to create and foster division. As Lutz Koepnick put it: “In particular the remaking of Berlin into a capital city of both collective memory and trans-national appeal seems to be on everyone’s mind”. Scheffler’s description of Berlin always becoming but never being was of a very different city but it remains useful in understanding the ongoing battle fought over every single one of these contentious locations. It’s worth bearing in mind that two of the most admired buildings to have been completed within that period faced some tough opposition from exactly the same kind of forces that backed the rebuilding of the Schloss.
Daniel Libeskind’s Jewish Museum is a moving and powerful work that speaks to (almost) everyone who enters but it required the Berlin authorities to make a giant leap of faith for it to happen in the first place. The job of building the museum was given to a man who had never actually built anything up to that point and upon being awarded the contract promptly handed back a request for double the budget he had been allocated. More importantly, in the face of suspicion from those appalled by the deconstructivist approach, what Libeskind provided the city with, is a provocative building that refuses to provide either easy answers or redemption. James Young suggests that the aim of the building “is not to reassure or console but to haunt visitors with the unpleasant – uncanny – sensation of calling into consciousness that which has been previously – even happily – repressed” That such a design was accepted and embraced is testament to the fact the tradition of radical architecture and design still has a place in Berlin.
Slightly more recently, the reconstruction of the Neues Museum – a short walk from the Humboldt Forum and tucked behind Schinkel’s Altes Museum – was also a subject of much debate. Of the then five museums on the island, the Neues was the one that suffered the most devastation during the war. Restoration work only began very slowly in the 1980s but it wasn’t until 1999 that David Chipperfield was selected to rebuild the museum. Although his proposal was far less challenging than Libeskind’s was for the Jewish Museum, it also faced great opposition from similar quarters. Chipperfield’s idea was to maintain and restore as much of the old structure as possible but in an honest and poignant manner, making no attempt to hide the history of the building but never overwhelming or distracting from the collection itself. It’s a masterpiece and widely viewed as such these days but because Chipperfield did not embark on a faithful reconstruction, the Gesellschaft Historisches Berlin e. V. (Historical Berlin Society) contacted Unesco and suggested that Museum Island should be put on the list of sites in danger of losing their Unesco Heritage Status. This same group that had behaved like an apoplectic toddler in this case was predictably one of the key backers of the rebuilding of the palace that now houses the Humboldt Forum.
None of these arguments are going to go away any time soon, and neither should they. It is healthy for a city to have opposing voices making themselves heard – certainly more healthy than the dominance of a mindset that favours rolling back to a fantastical and fictional point in Berlin’s history when everything was just right. Where exactly does that road end? Should we also destroy all of the remaining Nazi era structures in the city because they too are symbols of a brutal regime – one that, let’s not forget, was far, far more brutal than the DDR? We still use the old Olympic Stadium from 1936, for example. Perhaps though, it is allowed to stand because in its clumsy neo-classicism it just about fits into the narrow field of styles acceptable to the kind of traditionalists and reactionaries behind the rebuilding of the palace.
I visited the Humboldt Forum a few days after it opened and despite my obvious prejudices found myself rather enjoying the experience at first. Although Stella’s interior is occasionally reminiscent of an airport terminal, it is not without its charms. It was also quite poignant to see such a large number of people (presumably) enjoying the place, especially after such lengthy, bleak periods of Covid lockdown. There are frequent nods to the old Palast der Republik, in the form of displays and even some of the old signage directing people toward the bowling alley and the youth club. It all feels rather tokenistic, I thought, but better than nothing. Tucked away on an upper floor however, was a small terminal where one could watch footage of the events that took place in the Palast der Republik during the strangest time in its history. In the brief interim period between the removal of the asbestos and its complete destruction, the Palast der Republik was used for the staging of wildly innovative performances and exhibitions including one where visitors could explore the temporarily flooded building in little rubber boats. One of the clips that I and a gaggle of frowning German pensioners huddled around was of a concert held there in 2006, by the Berlin industrial band Einstürzende Neubauten (‘collapsing new buildings’). The footage was incredibly raw and affecting not just because of the incredible racket made by Neubauten but precisely because of where it was shot. It represented a brief period when the shell of a people’s palace was being used exactly as it should, as a showcase for all of the variety, innovation and freedoms that Berlin excels at, rather than a narrow idea of how the city should be viewed.
- Young, James E ‘Daniel Libeskind’s Jewish Museum in Berlin: The Uncanny Arts of Memorial Architecture’ Jewish Social Studies New Series, Vol. 6, No. 2 (Winter, 2000), pp. 1-23 (23 pages)
- Burchard, Wolf ‘Royal Remains’ Apollo Magazine, March 2016
- Huyssen, Andreas ‘The Voids of Berlin’ Critical Inquiry, Vol. 24, No. 1 (Autumn, 1997), pp. 57-81
- Pugh, Emily ‘Architecture, Identity and Politics in Divided Berlin’ University of #Pittsburgh Press
- Koepnick, Lutz ‘Forget Berlin’ The German Quarterly , Autumn, 2001, Vol. 74, No. 4, Sites of Memory (Autumn, 2001), pp. 343-354
- Costabile-Heming, Carol Anne The reconstructed City Palace and Humboldt Forum in Berlin: restoring architectural identity or distorting the memory of historic spaces? Journal of Contemporary European Studies Volume 25, 2017 – Issue 4: City Margins, City Memories
- Koloctroni, Vassiliki et al (eds) ‘Modernism: An Anthology of Sources and Documents’ University of Chicago Press
- ‘Berliners Wary as €600 Super-Museum is Latest Project to Overrun’ The Guardian, June 6th, 2019
- ‘What would the Kaiser Say?’ The Economist vol 415 issue 8942, June 13th 2015