Coming from London, I’m used to experiencing a kind of archi-envy when in Europe’s less self-consciously ‘global’ cities
It’s always sad to see bad buildings happen to good cities. Coming from London, I’m used to experiencing a kind of archi-envy when in Europe’s less self-consciously ‘global’ cities. This has been dampened somewhat just now by a visit to the building site that used to be East Berlin’s Palast der Republik. Its demolition is an old story, and its replacement is a long one. The Palast was finally torn down in 2008; the new building is slated for completion in 2019. The hole in the ground has had an unbuilt life as long as some contemporary buildings might hope for.
It is possible for a city to have too much history. Berlin lives in different historical tenses more than many other cities do. Its reunification in the early 1990s managed to avoid some of the worst moments of the postmodern late show. The city’s Mayor Klaus Wowereit, who has recently resigned under the weight of his unfinished airport, famously once talked up his city as ‘poor but sexy’, but it has its share of unsexy urbanism and of post-socialist non-spaces − or non-platzes. Between Potsdamer Platz and Alexanderplatz, the reunified city works takes an equal opportunity approach to the overbearing spatial gestures of both state socialism and corporate capitalism.
The Palast der Republik was a kind of fun palace for the DDR, where Erich Honecker once twirled his wife on the dance-floor while Salvador Allende orated in the assembly hall and Tangerine Dream made one memorable electro-contribution to Cold War thaw. Meanwhile less serious-minded comrades could kick back in the bowling alley. The ‘new’ building that takes its place will sit on the footprint and fake-up three of the facades of the Stadtschloss that previously had occupied the site, once providing winter residence and easy access to the museums for a succession of regional royals. It was last used as a royal residence during the brief run of German emperors − the national memorial to Wilhelm I that once stood outside the Schloss is not part of the rebuilding scheme.
‘Between Potsdamer Platz and Alexanderplatz, the reunified city works takes an equal opportunity approach to the overbearing spatial gestures of both state socialism and corporate capitalism’
As the website for the development nicely puts it, the process of demolition and design was ‘accompanied by a lively debate’. The schematic compromise involves rebuilding three of the four Baroque facades, with a contemporary facade running along the River Spree. The interior includes all the usual high-minded suspects of contemporary archi-cultural life: library, forum, museum, and so on (as in the manner of many royal residences, it is a very large space). The museum part will be dedicated to ‘non-European’ art, a programme which sits uneasily with the nagging suspicion on some critics’ part that rebuilding the winter palace of the German emperors is perhaps not the most forward-looking of post-imperial moves.
But the Stadtschloss simulacrum has its supporters − political, cultural and architectural. Still, it feels like a tired reflex in the ongoing efforts to deal with urban history, and to fill large spaces. The nearby Neues Museum in an odd way offers too good a precedent for rebuilding ruination − it may be that you can do this (or do this well) only once, at least in the same part of town. The scheme for the partly remade City Palace promises a strange version of ‘iconic’ architecture: built not in the international look-at-me style to which this concept usually refers, but rather in a sort of Prussian minor royal vernacular.
The Palast der Republik was an unhappy icon, in its time and especially in its decline − the recycling of some of its steel structure in the building of the Burj Khalifa in Dubai is one of the neater stories in the after-life of iconic buildings, just as it tells a material story of global economic shifts and circuits. The ‘new old’ building that is set to replace it has an uncertain relationship to how histories are imagined and invented in the city of different tenses. The Berlin Palace will not be a ‘genuine fake’, in the manner of the Frauenkirche in Dresden, Warsaw’s reconstructed centre, or the Rolexes you can buy on certain kinds of market stall. And it may well turn out to be more than the built version of a tribute band. Berlin doesn’t do bad buildings as well − or as frequently − as London does them, and faux Baroque is not the worst thing that can happen to a 21st-century city. But sometimes architectural history should be what happens in the past.