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Save Berlin: Storming the palace

The Palast der Republik is long gone and the reimagined Prussian Palace, aka Humboldt Forum, is almost full reality with it's Richtfest opening June 12-14. Dan Borden on five reasons not to fête this month’s Humboldt Forum opening.

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Photo by Jason Harrell

Dan Borden on five reasons not to fête this month’s Humboldt Forum opening.

Get out your party frocks and pointy-topped helmets – we’re all invited to the palace! The Humboldt Forum, the replica of Prussia’s imperial Stadtschloss, will open its doors from June 12-14. No, it’s not finished – it’s a German Richtfest celebrating completion of the building’s outer shell. Tours and concerts will drum up public support for the unloved concrete box. They’ll also trumpet the news that the €670 million project is on schedule. For a high-profile Berlin construction project, that’s a big deal: the Staatsoper renovation is four years behind schedule, while our new airport is slated for a 2017 arrival, six years late.

More good news is the appointment of Neil MacGregor, currently head of the British Museum, to chair the Humboldt Forum’s advisory board. He’ll lord over the messy process of organising the building’s functions as it races toward a planned 2019 completion.

No one will party harder at the Richtfest than the project’s supporters, who’ve waged a 25-year crusade to rebuild the baroque palace. The war-damaged Stadtschloss was blown up in 1950 by the East Germans, who mistook it for a symbol of Prussian militarism. In its place, they built the bronze- and glass-clad Palast der Republik, part parliament building, part entertainment complex. The scheme to raise the Stadtschloss from its grave took off in 1993 when Hamburg-based aristocrat/businessman Wilhelm von Boddien paid for a full-sized canvas mock-up of the palace. His foundation, Friends of the Berliner Schloss, lobbied the German government to sign a €500 million cheque and make Boddien’s quixotic dream a concrete reality.

The Schloss may have its friends, but an army of critics wish the zombie building would sink back into the ground. Here are some reasons:

An army of critics wish the zombie building would sink back into the ground.

Existential angst. From day one, the rebuilt Schloss has searched for a reason to exist. An early scheme to pack the empty shell with shops and restaurants, dubbed the “palace-shaped shopping mall”, was scrapped for the more enlightened Humboldt Forum concept spotlighting non-European cultures. The Ethnological Museum will relocate from Dahlem, giving Berlin’s visitors a multikulti alternative to the glut of Euro-centric museums across the street. Critics question the symbolism of displaying voodoo dolls and bamboo huts in the reconstructed epicentre of Prussia’s colonial ambitions. And, as CDU politician Rüdiger Kruse asked, “When do tourists go to an ethnological museum?” Last year Mayor Michael Müller, a Schloss sceptic, threatened to pull the city’s €32 million out of the project altogether, saying the 4000sqm allocated for a library was too small. Now he’s relented but wants a radical rethink of how the building’s interior is used.

Creepy nostalgia. East German ideologues weren’t alone in seeing the palace as a symbol of Germany’s ugliest traits. Critics charge that the rebuilt palace glorifies Prussian rulers, merciless autocrats who fought off cries for political reforms with loaded guns. The Stadtschloss was the birthplace of Prussia’s trademark strategy of relentless expansion through military dominance, a policy that transformed the once-tiny dukedom into a European superpower but also inspired two disastrous world wars. The palace could also serve as a rallying symbol for German nationalists.

It’s fake. The original Prussian Stadtschloss was a collection of buildings dating back to the 16th century. The new Humboldt Forum will be a crudely simplified 21st-century concrete box with a historically inaccurate faux-baroque façade based on photos and guesswork.

Architectural cannibalism. Building the ersatz palace required the demolition of an authentic piece of history, the Palast der Republik. Relocating the Ethnological Museum from Dahlem condemns its current home, a 1970s masterpiece by architects Fritz Bornemann and Wils Ebert, to a date with the wrecking ball.

Money pit. On-time performance means little at this stage of construction – the BER airport was ‘on schedule’ until weeks before its 2011 opening. With a custom-built stone façade and warring divas for tenants, delays at the Schloss are inevitable – and time is money. A study showed German public construction projects run an average of 44 percent over budget. The Staatsoper is already 62 percent over, the airport 175 percent. Insiders claim that by presenting the Schloss as a rare ‘on time’ success story, organisers are employing a technique just this side of blackmail. When those bills for overruns come in – €200-300 million – they’ll demand that the federal government pay up fast or Berlin will have a third black eye.