Dreaming of Prussia

The reconstruction of Berlin’s Stadtschloss suffered from scandals, a shortage of funds and above all, a total lack of historical perspective. Now it has been postponed until 2013. We take a look at the flaws in the masterplan.

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Photo by Rocky Smith

The reconstruction of Berlin’s Prussian Stadtschloss, aka “Humboldt Forum”, was scheduled to begin this year but continues to suffer from scandals, mismanagement, a shortage of funds and above all, a total lack of historical perspective. With the recent announcement that it has been postponed until 2013 , we take a look at the shortfalls in the masterplan.

Schlossplatz, one rainy Saturday afternoon in mid-October 2009: workers unfurl giant posters revealing computer-generated representations of the planned Berliner Schloss – or Humboldt Forum, as it is officially called – on a large scaffolding opposite the Lustgarten. At exactly the same time, a few hundred metres away, a small group of protesters set up a bouncy castle for their “Schloss mit lustig! Cancel the Castle” demonstration. The organiser Joel Alas hoped that the government would scrap the project and leave the vast open space as it is.

While the posters depicting the imposing new palace suggested construction would begin any day, this €550 million-plus project is far from a done deal and continues to be mired in financial and political controversy – the result of a long and tedious process that began 20 years ago, with the collapse of the Berlin Wall. It all started in 1990, when the Palast der Republik – the huge, boxy, copper-coloured building built in the 1970s to house both the GDR parliament (Volkskammer) and various cultural venues – became an object of wrath for a generation of German politicians with an axe to grind with former communist East Germany.

The Palast was erected on exactly the spot where the Berliner Schloss – the Kaiser’s city residence – stood before it was bombed by the Allies in the war and finished off by East Germany, which was reluctant to rebuild a symbol of old Prussia in the centre of its capital. This patch of land at the heart of the reunified German capital was to become ground zero for an intense ideological debate over how German history should be approached, remembered and materialized.


The Palast der Republik was officially closed due to asbestos contamination by the GDR Volkskammer in 1990, during the brief period when East Germany was governed by a freely elected parliament before reunification in October 1990. East German architecture critic and Schloss opponent Bruno Flierl says this was an excuse to do away with an encumbering symbol of East Germany: “This was a first-rate political act. The ICC ‘Palast’ in West Berlin was equally contaminated with asbestos, and it’s still standing. As early as 1993, as the ‘Berlin-Bonn committee’ was discussing moving the capital back from the Rhineland to Berlin, a decision was made that cleared the way for the demolition of the Palast and which said, ‘the Schloss has to go there’,”explains Flierl.

At the same time, a private foundation, Förderverein Berliner Schloss, led by Hamburg businessman Wilhelm von Boddien, erected a life-sized painted screen bearing an image of the original Schloss in front of the Palast der Republik in 1993 and 1994, an enormous marketing coup that put the image of the Schloss into the media and awakened popular support. Boddien and co. made demolition of the Palast – the last trace of which was wiped away early this year – their primary objective, tapping into anti-communist sentiment and a nostalgia for grand old Prussia – German history before the disastrous dictatorships of the 20th century.

“There’s a narrative at the moment that German history has a continuity, with two periods in parenthesis – Nazi Germany and the GDR – that are somehow external to German history, which is ridiculous,” explains Berlin-based urbanist Ares Kalandides. “These are integral parts of history and they should be seen as such. So the decision to destroy the Palast is to delete the unnecessary past. Does that mean that Prussian history is desirable history? Is that the kind of image that Germany wants for itself?”

The site became an ideological battleground. The dividing line was not East-West but by and large generational, as younger cultural activists – for whom the Cold War is ancient history – saw the gutted Palast as an innovative new arts space with endless possibilities.

In 2004 and 2005 the Palast, under the name Volkspalast, was a space for temporary cultural projects: exhibitions, theatre, concerts. A mountain was built inside the dismantled building, and it was even flooded at one point. The final event in the Palast, the incredibly popular White Cube art show, gave an inkling of the Palast’s unrealised potential as a cultural centre.


Unfurling the grand banner of ‘culture’ finally garnered enough political support for the new 40,000-square-metre palace-like building. In 2002 the Bundestag and Berlin Senat hired an “international expert commission” to come up with a viable solution for the Schloss. They recommended constructing a modern building with three Baroque façades to house a new cultural institution called the ‘Humboldt Forum’. The name cleverly invokes the hugely popular Humboldt brothers – Wilhelm von Humbolt, who founded Berlin University in 1810, and the great explorer-naturalist Alexander von Humboldt.

The idea was proposed by Klaus-Dieter Lehmann, then-president of the powerful Stiftung Preussicher Kulturbesitz (Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation), which runs 17 of Berlin’s most important museums (he’s now at the helm of the Goethe Institute). Under the strange plan, the new Schloss would house the non-European ethnological collections currently located in Dahlem. The Landesbibliothek (Berlin state library) and Humboldt University would also be given floor space for their archives and collections. What the Humboldt Forum actually entails is unclear. For Philipp Oswalt, architect and director of the Bauhaus in Dessau, the idea was purely the result of power politics. “The main actor is the Stiftung Preussicher Kulturbesitz; the others are only symbolically included. It’s a messy political container covered by a Baroque façade – a pragmatic attempt to gain control over the site, but it doesn’t make any cultural sense.”

Bruno Flierl, who sat on the expert commission but voted against most of its recommendations, agrees: “I went to the Dahlem museum to imagine those Mexican sculptures in the second story of the Schloss. Or the East Asian sailboat. It would need a space the size of the Schloss’ Schlüterhof courtyard. It’s a real joke.”

And what about the German people? It’s hard to really know what the masses think about the Schloss. One thing is certain: Berliners were never asked their opinions. “The Palast was not a Berlin decision, it was a decision made by the federal state. It didn’t take Berliners’ desires into consideration,” says Kalandides. The Förderverein – not exactly a neutral party – carried out its own survey of Berliners in December 2008 and found that 60 percent approved of the construction plans. In the rest of Germany, just 50 percent were in favour of the Schloss. But a survey late last year by SUPERillu magazine found that only 36 percent of former East Berliners were in favour of the Schloss, as the majority saw it as a waste of tax money.

It’s hard to understand why the Bundestag so readily approved the Humboldt Forum construction plans in 2003. Gerhard Schröder (SPD) was in power at the time. He and two other powerful members of his party were the project’s biggest pushers: Vice President of the Bundestag Wolfgang Thierse and then-Leipzig mayor Wolfgang Tiefensee (Building Minster under the outgoing CDU-SPD coalition). Both are Catholic and grew up in the GDR. Both were discriminated against due to their religion; both came to power during the 1989 democracy movement. Both were adamant Palast-haters and vehement

Schloss-fans. Their political clout has kept the project alive. Bruno Flierl has another take on the ‘democratic’ Bundestag decision: “The MPs were overwhelmed. The image of the Schloss was propagated all over the media. They were taken by surprise, and were incapable of making such a complex decision.”


The Bundestag decision led to a competition, overseen by a jury of international architects – now widely recognised to have been a farce, as the Schloss design was basically already prescribed. A little-known Italian architect, Franco Stella, won first place because his concept provided exactly what the government asked for. Juror David Chipperfield, the British architect who is revamping Museum Island, gives a devastating assessment of the process: “Normally it’s exciting to sit on a German jury, because the people scream, get red-headed and worked up. They believe in it, there are real confrontations. But we just sat there and said, well, ‘Does he do that? Yes, check. Does he do that? Check. OK, fine, then he wins.’” Flierl believes the competition was rigged. “The specifications of the contest were so strict and the winning design delivered exactly what was wanted. There were internal agreements. I’ll tell you that. You can’t prove it, but it will come out one day. It’s a huge scandal.”

German alpha-architect Hans Kollhoff, who took part in the contest, also suspected foul play and made a formal complaint to the Federal Cartel Office on the grounds that Stella’s office didn’t have enough staff to take part, as stipulated by the contest guidelines. The Cartel Office agreed and declared Stella’s contract to build the Schloss invalid. The Federal Building Ministry is currently appealing the decision – which threatens to derail the entire project because it would require a new architectural competition. A court decision is expected in December.


But what could really kill off the Schloss project, or at least put it in a coma, is lack of money. Of the €550 million projected (many experts today assess the price tag to be more in the region of one billion euros), €440 million would be supplied by the federal government. Broke Berlin is expected to cough up a mere €32 million. The remaining €80 million required for the replica of the Baroque façades were promised by von Boddien’s Förderverein. That money will never appear. The non-profit collected euros from gullible Grossmüttern and passionate Prussian fans for 15 years, but has to-date gathered a mere €11 million, nearly all of which has been spent on self-promotion and architects’ salaries. Half a million euros have been spent on von Boddien’s salary alone.

In 2008 the foundation earned barely €100,000 more than it spent – in short, the missing €69 million needed just hasn’t appeared. Schloss advocates are probably relying on the government to come up with the difference. But the CDU-FDP government – which wants to lower taxes and reduce public debt – has been less than enthusiastic about coughing up more public funds for a pompous palace during an economic crisis. Critical Berliners are hoping that the recent announcement will put the Schloss back where it belongs: in the drawers of history.

It would seem to be the perfect time for the government to use some serious critical introspection, in order to define what would be best for this special spot in central Berlin. “Now that it’s obvious that it’s impossible to realise the winning design, there should be an open a discussion about what has to happen, and the program is also in need of total redefinition,” says Oswalt, before warning: “As long as the thing is totally defined by politicians it will go nowhere. It will be something corrupted by political interests. If there’s any hope, it will be in a new generation of political and professional leaders who come to different conclusions. We need new actors.”

Till then, Berliners should be able to live perfectly well with the wide-open grassy space that is Schlossplatz today.