You may have noticed a giant palace-shaped box on Museum Island. Hooray, they’re building a replica of the old Prussian Royal Palace! This whale of a construction project – officially titled the Humboldt Forum – is slated for completion in 2019… and it’s only a few hundred million euros over budget! At the moment, they’re glueing on the stone decorations to this wedding cake of a building. The imposing dome over the western gate is also about to receive the Baroque treatment. But wait, now there’s a new Schlossdebatte! There have been many such debates about this controversial building over the years and this one’s as divisive and bitter as any. And it’s all over the simple question: should we put a cross on top?
The foundation raising private money to finance the Baroque facade and the ornamentation on the dome has announced that a donor has been found for a replica of the “historical” cross on top. The golden cross will sit atop a second miniature dome or “lantern” on top of the big dome. The lantern will be carried by eight palm waving stone cherubs – a copy of a rather pompous decorative element that was added to the original Prussian Palace in 1855. With its cross and cherubs, the Schloss will shine in all its “old glory“, the foundation announced.
The sharpest criticism of the cross has come from Berlin Culture Senator Klaus Lederer (Linke): “The Humboldt Forum houses no sacred spaces. It is a state building built with public funds for public purposes,” he wrote in the Berliner Morgenpost. Mayor Michael Müller (SPD), never one to take a clear position, timidly suggested we “need a discussion” on the issue. On the other side, Schloss foundation head and initiator of the entire project Wilhelm von Boddien (dubiously called Schlossherr or “lord of the palace” in the tabloid press) hit back claiming that “the hedonist Linke and Greens” want to “take an axe to the roots of our culture”. Monika Grütters, the federal culture minister, also defended the cross, albeit from a different angle: “Our culture of openness, freedom and compassion has its roots in our Christian worldview.” One asks, here, who is meant with “our”. Meanwhile, Aiman Mazyek, the director of Germany’s Muslim Council provided back-up: “A cross wouldn’t bother Muslims.” I suspect he’s happy about anything giving religion more prominence.
I rubbed my eyes when I read all this. What city are we living in? What century are we living in? What building are we talking about? It’s important to understand the point of the Humboldt Forum. According to its website, this new institution “stands for an approach that brings together different cultures and perspectives and searches for new insights to current topics such as migration, religion and globalisation.” Concretely, the Forum will combine a exhibition of non-European art and objects from Berlin’s state museum collections, an exhibition on the history of Berlin and an amorphously titled Humboldt Laboratory organised by the Humboldt University. The latter promises to be “ an interdisciplinary stage for knowledge with the involvement of Berlin scientific institutions and the public.” Sounds intriguing. Does this sound like a building dying to be crowned by a Christian cross? Not really.
A state-owned museum shouldn’t have a cross on top, anyway, even a privately financed one. The original palace had a cross on it because it housed the king’s chapel. Nowadays, Christians can head across the street to the Berliner Dom. Even hedonist Greens and Linke are fine with a cross on a church. Or a crescent on a mosque.
Berlin is one of the least religious and most atheist places in the world, with about 80 percent of the population saying they have no religious affiliation. We don’t need or want another cross overlooking our skyline. The sublime glistening cross that appears on the TV Tower’s metallic orb on bright sunny days – also known as the Pope’s Revenge – is enough for us.
The argument that the reconstructed Schloss must be historically accurate is utter nonsense. We can do whatever we want. The old Schloss was remodelled and expanded many times over seven centuries. The current version of the Schloss taking shape is a bizarre hybrid of old and new. Just take a look at the eastern side of the building that faces towards the TV Tower and Alexanderplatz: for some strange reason the architect chose to build one side without all the Baroque bells and whistles. It looks like one of the beige boxy office buildings in the government quarter. The interior, as well, will be architecturally nothing like the original. So why must we have a cross on top?
All kinds of substitutes have been proposed for the top of the dome: the EU flag, a Berlin bear, the “be Berlin” logo, or even a combination of the symbols of the three Abrahamic religions: cross, crescent and Star of David. I’d be fine with a giant banana.
Then there’s the proposal by the three directors of the Humboldt Forum Neil MacGregor, Hermann Parzinger und Horst Bredekamp: we’ll put a cross on the top, but also install a 40m long word-sculpture spelling “Zweifel” (“doubt”) in 8m tall letters on the roof of the eastern side of the building – the weird modern side. The sculpture by Norwegian artist Lars Ramberg originally sat on top of the old communist Palast der Republik. A nice way to cast doubt on the entire project of wiping away decades of East German history. The demolition of the Palast der Republik to make way from this absurd new Schloss was nothing less than that.
“Doubt” in prevalent views and beliefs propelled Enlightenment thinkers such as the two namesakes of the Humboldt Forum: the Humboldt Brothers. Alexander, the explorer, scientist and philosopher, and Wilhem, the philosopher, educator and diplomat. Both stood for the progressive, forward-thinking side of German culture in stark contrast to the pious, authoritarian, anti-democratic Prussian monarchs who inhabited the Berliner Schloss for centuries. One can only hope that the “content” of the building, the exhibitions that fill its walls, will transcend the conservative mindset that imposed the reconstruction of the palace upon us in the first place, although the majority of Berliners were against it.
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