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What to Do with the Volkspalast in Berlin

Here at Ionarts, we covered this story back in the summer of 2004 (Pompidou Center in Berlin, August 25, 2004). A group of German artists want to transform the Volkspalast, the seat of the Communist government in (formerly East) Berlin, into a "second Centre Pompidou." It's a fairly recent building (constructed in 1976) on the Spree River, which was the symbol of old East Germany. The federal government of the reunited Germany, in 2002, had decided to tear down the building, to reconstruct the Hohenzollern Palace (destroyed by the East German government in 1950). The group of artists, led by film directors Volker Schlöndorff and Frank Castorf, took over the building, in an attempt to stop the government's plans to demolish it. They have been hosting a series of exhibitions in this retro-hip space. I had not given the story much thought since then, but then I read an article (Berlin's Indoor Mountain of Art and Protest, August 25) by Geeta Dayal for the New York Times, about the latest of those exhibits, a piece called Der Berg (The Mountain):

Days before the end of a mammoth protest exhibition, government officials on Wednesday unveiled the results of a feasibility study to raze the crumbling old East German parliament building and make way for a replica of a Prussian castle that would house a five-star hotel and big museum collection. The exterior of the old East German parliament building on Unter den Linden that is to be demolished to make way for a re-creation of a palace. The German culture minister, Christina Weiss, said the government hoped to start construction by 2007 on the new building, which the study says could cost $650 million to $950 million.

In recent months, proponents have sought to cast the proposed castle, an imitation of one that once stood on the site on the famed Unter den Linden, as an architectural and cultural counterpart to the Louvre in Paris. "Here is one of the world's most famous historic ensembles in the center of Berlin, with the university and the opera house and the cathedral," Wilhelm von Boddien, head of the group lobbying to rebuild the old castle, said in an interview on Monday. "The Palace of the Republic is disturbing the ensemble," he said of the old building, a boxy orange-hued 1972 structure that stands out amid the gray and grandiose neo-Classical architecture lining the boulevard. But a very vocal group begs to differ. Arguing that the building should be preserved as a reminder of postwar history, about 160 artists and architects from around the world banded together this month to create a mountain inside the Palace of the Republic.
We like to give some background to stories in the Times when we can.


Garth Trinkl said...

Thanks for this, Charles. I have thought a lot about this matter (having first viewed in East German Communist Palace of the Republic, in-progress, in 1972; at the same time that I visited the bomb-damaged late Prussian Cathedral (from 1900?) and the Pergamonmuseum (on Museuminsel). I now agree that the Royal Hohenzollern Palace should be "reconstructed" in exterior form in order to restore the earlier city planning of the eastern end of Unter den Linden; the old historic center of Berlin. (Remnants and photos of the old Royal palace are available for viewing in the Berlin City Museum, in the former East Berlin; and a model and multi-media display on the project are available on Unter den Linden, near the American Embassy fortress.)

Like the Ronald Reagan building, this "Palace" is going to cost "almost" a $1 billion dollars. And while I am not excited by the proposed luxury hotel and conference space (a few years back I floated, informally, the idea of a large, "democratic", people's opera house incorporated into the rebuilt site), there really isn't any current need for more federal buildings given the post 1992 federal (re)building program -- now complete, I believe.

In my opinion, there are enough stronger modern-style buildings in both the eastern and western sectors, especially around the Kulturforum, and the Potsdamer Platz Project.

Also, in my opinion, Berlin currently has sufficient exhibition spaces scattered throughout the east and north for contemporary art and artists --and does not need a "Centre Pompidou". In fact, I thought that the current plan was to move the Kulturforum's Gemäldegalerie (one of the world's finest collections of European art from the 13th to 18th century -- like a small National Gallery here in D.C.)to the Museum Island -- and to, sadly in my opinion, turn the fine new Gemäldegalerie building in a museum of "contemporary art", while turning both the New National Gallery, at Kulturforum, and the Hamburger Banhof -- Museum for Contemporary Art (near the new Lehrter Train station -- a huge contemporary glass structure)into exhibition and experimental art spaces -- like the non-permanent collection parts of the Pompidou Center.

Finally, there is the issue of the ruins of the Hohenzollern Royal Summer Palace, near the entrance to Sans Souci (and later Palaces)Park in Potsdam -- just west of Berlin. Given the potential for future tourist and economic development, I fully expect that this Royal Summer Palace will also be reconstructed within the next 25 years.

Charles T. Downey said...

Thanks for the very detailed response. If Viollet-le-Duc proved anything, it was that "restoration" is usually anything but. I doubt that there will be much general support for preserving the Communist building, but I like your idea for an opera house much better than a Hohenzollern luxury hotel. If there is one thing I would hope we would not want to preserve from the past, it would be the enshrined privilege of a wealthy entitled class over those beneath them.