Berlin has some lovely old buildings, which always impresses tourists, especially those from the U.S. coming here in the hopes of experiencing something distinctly different than the suburban enclave they usually steer their Prius into. But like many European cities, the second world war led to substantial destruction. The English and Americans, fed up with Germany’s unwillingness to quit, decided to carpet-bomb the city centers because just hitting the industry was not sufficient. Frankly, in those days manufacturing and industry was still in the cities anyway, rather than somewhere on the outskirts.
Berlin used to have a city center with tiny streets and densely-clustered buildings, but a major firestorm toward the end of the war pretty much gutted the area around Alexander Platz. After the war, the Russian-influenced DDR decided to model Communist-Germany’s capital along the new Socialist architecture that ensured the State was perceived as larger and more important than the individual. This meant wide-open spaces, a lot of cement, and the complete removal of anything cute and Euro-urban. It would have been our 6e Arrondissement, but instead turned into our La Defense – but without tenants.
Near Alexander Platz was a big Baroque monstrosity called the Stadtschloss. It grew organically from a small river castle to a formal Palace over the centuries, and at one point was given a large extension with a pretty facade. It served as the seat of Prussian power, and was host to a number of historical events.
But after the First World War there was no royalty, and the palace was turned into a quasi-museum. It got badly damaged during the bombing runs of world war two. Finally the Communists tore down the ruin, using the site to build their own Palace of the Republic, thus participating in a long line of linguistic misuse. What they built was neither a palace, nor was it for the republic. It was an asbestos-filled rubber-stamp structure (with cool lights, by the way) that was torn down over the course of the last few years.
NOW some Berliners (mainly tennis-club members who never enter the city much deeper than Charlottenburg) have bamboozled the State and some private donors into rebuilding the original Stadtschloss. Or at least some modern-day samizdat version, the way VW’s New Beetle or the New Mini are supposed to resemble their 1960s versions. No one needs a €600M+ building, and so it required a committee to come up with a usage. It was decided to name it the Humboldt Forum, to tie it to the university across the street, and to vaguely dedicate it as a cultural exchange program. There have been endless lawsuits around this Reconstruction, and the current plan is on hold as it turns out that the winning architectural office is too small to build a garden shed, never mind the defining structure of Berlin’s city center.
Over the weekend there was a protest on the spot where the palace is slated to be built. The current plot is covered in a lawn and a temporary modern art museum. The protesters had some fun and put up an inflatable play-pen, declaring that the only good castle is a bouncy castle. It also subtly made the point that the children would be the ones having to pay off the debt incurred by this useless building project.
What Berlin actually needs is a museum for Contemporary Art. Insane as it sounds, Berlin doesn’t really have one. There are a number of private collections being shown, and we host traveling exhibits at the Neue Nationalgallerie, but the City doesn’t have the one museum that actually showcases what we’re known for around the world: art created in the 20th Century. What we really need is Zaha Hadid or Santiago Calatrava to come to Berlin and put something truly awesome and psychedelic right in the heart of the city. That is worth spending money for.