Rebuilding The Past: The Controversial Case of Berlin’s Stadtschloss, Part II

This post is the second in a two-part series by DMSAS Intern Architect Julian Murphy. Before joining the firm full time last summer, Julian served as a DMSAS Travel Fellow from the University of Notre Dame. Julian graduated from Notre Dame with an BArch in May 2012. You can read Part I of the series here.

The decision to reconstruct Berlin’s Stadtschloss inspired no small amount of controversy. Those against the reconstruction saw it as a falsification of historical events, an attempt to purge the existence of East Germany from the urban realm. This argument suggested, according to the current climate of preservation in which historical authenticity is paramount, that the Stadtschloss’s destruction should be seen as an irreversible act of German post-war history. Another argument against the reconstruction was one questioning the appropriateness of historical nostalgia in modern Germany. It said, in essence, that to build using the physical forms of history is to endorse the history itself. Couched in the prose of the penitent, this line of reasoning seems unobjectionable upon first inspection. It is the same guilt-by-association logic, one presumes, that keeps (most) people from flying Confederate flags or sporting Hitler moustaches. The reasoning here, however, seems confused, as traditional forms have been appropriated throughout history by various people for various purposes, and are subject to a single ideology neither practically nor inherently, to say nothing of the fact that preservation is much more about making humane and beautiful cities than about “preserving” history.


The Humboldt Box serves as a scaleless, modern place holder for the future Humboldt Forum

For those who supported the reconstruction, the important role of the palace in the city’s history was used as justification for its rebuilding. This argument cited as evidence the fact that much of the fabric surrounding the palace was laid out in response to it. It is said, for instance, that the palace established the height of the city. The Altes museum’s double height portico and the famous Zeughaus (arsenal) just west of the Lustgarten are two good examples of this. The palace was also the termination and focal point of Unter den Linden. Along with this idea of civic importance, many saw the reconstruction as an urbanistic concession—the lesser of two evils when the alternative was unorganized, scaleless modernism. Joseph Siedler, a publisher from West Berlin, praised individual modernist buildings, but claimed that “nowhere did this generation succeed in giving form to the center of a city.”

The Zeughaus (Arsenal) taking during my travels to Berlin.

The Zeughaus (Arsenal) taking during my travels to Berlin

Most interesting (at least to the dispassionate observer), is the entrenched dogmatism with which the issue was addressed. One side said that something wholly modern should occupy the site; the other, a historical replica. In this respect, entries in the competition merit discussion. While the brief called for the reconstruction of three of the historical facades and the historical courtyard, only the winning entry by Franco Stella proposed anything approximating the old palace. The other entries respect the footprint of the Stadtschloss, but abstract the German baroque of the old palace beyond recognition into a sterile and unwieldy modernism. They are exercises in paying lip service to history, and their resemblance to the historical palace is akin to the way that, say, Romeo Must Die resembles actual Shakespeare. By way of example, Special Prize winner Keuhn Malvezzi turns the baroque plasticity of the palace into planar brick with stark punched openings. The interiors are given the same brick treatment, and bear no discernible detail. Even Stella passes the buck on the interiors, and parallel walls of his court reconstruction appear to be done in unadorned precast concrete panels.

A rendering of Keuhn Malvezzi's Special prize winning proposal to replace the Palace of the Republic in Berlin.

A rendering of Keuhn Malvezzi’s Special Prize winning proposal to replace the Palace of the Republic in Berlin.

Along with a former classmate, I tried to envision how this site in the heart of Berlin could be approached with a different attitude—one that neither demanded a historical copy, nor rejected history outright. The proposed program of the reconstructed palace included restaurants, shops, museums, auditoria, and research facilities. Instead of packing all of these disparate types into one envelope (with some of the more prominent functions occurring in the building’s basement, as Stella proposes), we separated the program into 4 discrete buildings: an entrance agora, or market hall for retail, a library and research center, a building for performance arts, and a museum for Berlin’s non-European art collection. Not only did this make the different functions clear to passersby, it allowed for an outdoor urban space with both a sense of enclosure and many access points, improving pedestrian flow.

Abandoning the idea of a palace replica also allowed for adjusting to Berlin’s urban developments. Since the importance of the Lustgarten only developed after the palace had reached its final form, the palace faced one way with its main portal to the west, while the important public space was to the north. This was an easily remediable situation, addressed by simply making the main entrance of the site on the north side, facing Unter den Linden and the Lustgarten. Another notion we adopted was that what the new development was trying to symbolically accomplish—a unified yet benign Germany and the globalization of art and culture—was underserved by the palace’s German baroque style, which was highly regionalized. Our proposal instead borrows from ancient Greece, the birthplace of Western culture, and also from German Greek revivalists of the 19th century such as Schinkel, whose works were nationalistic without being hegemonic.

Julian Proposal

The N-S Section and South Elevation of our proposal for the new German palace.

Ultimately, there are no easy, one-size-fits-all solutions when it comes to dealing with our built history, especially when that history is both painful and powerful. Because buildings outlast their specific political associations, making judgments about issues like restoration and reconstruction can be challenging. A value-based methodology, I think, has merit—in other words, approaching the problem by asking what made people love a particular building in the first place. Was it something inherent in its character? Or was it something that the building facilitated? Was it the scale and character of a space? In any case, trying to determine what values a place evoked, and respecting them while being mindful of both history and the present seems to be the best way to make buildings and spaces that are both of their time and beyond it. It is, at least, a place to start.

We would love to hear your thoughts on rebuilding in Berlin. Leave your comments below and we’ll ask Julian to respond. 

One Response to “Rebuilding The Past: The Controversial Case of Berlin’s Stadtschloss, Part II”
  1. James says:

    It was never a beautiful palace — but it was imperially impressive, and part of Prussian fabric of Berlin, which can’t be denied. All the arguments against it, the constant parroting in the German press about ‘Disneyfication’ (if I hear that term one more time I’ll throw a saucepan at a wall), are (as Martin Walser rightly says) simply ideology i.e. a construct of belief, not some kind of universal truth that one must kneel to. The level of entrenched dogmatism was eye-opening — as watching people torture themselves over mere belief always is.

    In Russia, immaculate reconstructions have been the name of the game until recently, although the authorities are now imbibing the nonsense Koolaid that this isn’t politically correct. But imagine Russia without a Peterhof?

    It’s barely a year old yet the Potsdam Stadtschloss reconstruction is already creating its own fresh history, and looks like it has always been there. Yet the arguments against it were equally hysteric.

    In under 50 years I believe a the Spree facade of the Berlin Stadtschloss will be replaced with something more picturesque and historic, and several of the interiors will have been reconstructed.
    As will the demolished royal chapel of the Berlin Cathedral.

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