BERLIN—Standing in a green field in the cultural heart of the German capital, an Italian tourist desperately looks around, and then points at a concrete wall covered in graffiti. “Is that the Berlin Wall?” she asks.
Indeed, this was East Berlin, but the infamous wall was somewhere else. What used to stand at this site, however, was a more impressive attraction. It was once the city’s most iconic, and cherished, landmark—the Berlin City Palace.
The Berliner Stadtschloss, as its called in German, was home to Prussian kings and German emperors, and served as a residence from the 15th century until the end of World War I.
For five centuries the palace was not only a central part of Berlin’s identity, but it also served as the focal point of its architecture, with the city center’s ensemble of historical building and main avenues growing up around it for over 500 years.
With its approximately 12,000 rooms and 250,000 square feet floor space, it stood four times the size of the White House. The palace was also one of the finest examples of Baroque architecture in Northern Europe.
In 1950, it was destroyed by the East German communist regime.
Even though the building was heavily damaged during World War II, the palace’s structure remained intact and could have been restored, like many other buildings were in Europe after the war.
However, communist party chief in East Germany, Walter Ulbricht, ordered the palace leveled in 1950 to make space for a grand square for military parades in the heart of Berlin, following the example of Moscow’s Red Square. He ignored all protests, even from within the party. Due to the thickness of the walls, up to 10 feet, the demolition process took 10 months.
Over half a century later, the palace is being rebuilt entirely from scratch, in a massive, ambitious project to restore it to its former grandeur.
Challenge of Reconstruction
After the fall of communism in East Germany, central Berlin received an extensive overhaul. Connected to re-establishing Berlin as the capital, major buildings, like the new Chancellery, were constructed.
In 2002, following a decade of debate, the German parliament, the Bundestag, voted to rebuild the palace with the goal of restoring the historic unity and beauty of Berlin.
The original section of the palace, which was more like a fortress, dates back to the 1400s. For his coronation in 1701, Prussian King Frederick I ordered the expansion of the property, as a way to elevate him above other nobles. His famous court sculptor and architect Andreas Schlüter based the facades on Italian baroque style, especially following the example of Rome’s Piazza Navona.
The baroque elements make this an especially involved project since baroque is a complex and highly ornamental style designed to create drama.
The plan for the interior rooms and the north end will be modern, but a massive dome, three sides of the palace, and the courtyard, will be reconstructed as close to the original as possible.
About 10 miles northwest of the palace site, in a former British barracks, stonemasons are crafting some 2,800 pieces of facade by hand, as it was done 300 years ago.
Bertold Just, the head of the “Schloss Bauhütte” (palace masons lodge), described it as the “nucleus of the whole project.”
It was set up in 2011, in the old tradition of masons’ lodges that existed for the construction of cathedrals dating back to medieval times. The idea is to create a central site where stonemasons and other craftspeople can come together to find a shared language for the work.
“They worked for God and the King … creating the treasure box of the state,” says Just about the sculptors at that time.
Aside from being a workshop, the lodge is also the central storage site for all existing fragments and copies that were already created.
For him the work here is about “absolute meticulousness.”
Since no original blueprints exist and building files were lost in World War II, the sculptors mainly have to work from photographs to first make models made out of clay—a laborious process.
Many of the pieces are unique, which takes an extra effort. For example, there are 43 eagle sculptures that sit prominently on top of the balustrade, each with its own individual expressions, gesture, and plumage.
“If the reconstruction is to convince, the subtleties must be included,“ says Just.
Hence it can take up to three years for some of the major pieces to be completed.
In a final step, an expert commission has to approve every piece to ensure it meets the highest artistic and historical criteria.
Footing the Bill
A heated debate surrounded the idea of reconstruction, particularly in the first decade after the fall of the wall. Some critics saw rebuilding the palace with its baroque facade as backward, or as a fake that could never do justice to the original. Others criticized taxing the public purse, considering that reunification cost more than 1 trillion euros.
The effort, however, was from the beginning a citizen-driven enterprise. Unlike the kings who commissioned palaces for their glory, it was ordinary people who wanted the beauty of the Berlin City Palace restored.
The Berlin Palace Association, spearheaded the campaign. Its founder and CEO, Wilhelm von Boddien, is a businessman with a passion for German history.
In 1993, he organized a life-size simulation of the palace that sparked public debate and shifted opinion toward reconstruction. A hand-painted tarpaulin depicting the entire palace facade was hung on huge scaffolding at the original site, so that Berlin residents and visitors could get a glimpse what the palace would look like.
At the groundbreaking ceremony a visibly contented Boddien, said the “Palace will heal Berlin.”
As stipulated by German Parliament, public funds will be used only for the modern part to the building, but the “extra” cost for the facade, about 80 million euros (around US$100 million), must be raised via donations.
The association is now conducting a big fundraising drive. On its website, one can symbolically purchase a lion head, a Greek god sculpture, or simply a column capital.The reconstructed palace will host the Humboldt Forum, a modern site for libraries, research institutions, and extensive museum collections currently strewn across Berlin.
The Forum will complement Museum Island; the UNESCO World Heritage site consisting of five museums with a significant collection of European and Middle Eastern art that grew up across from the palace.
The first stone will be laid next spring, with the grand reopening of the palace and Humboldt Forum scheduled for 2019.
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