November 9th, 1989 and October 3rd, 1990 are two very important dates in the history of Berlin. On the first date, the German Democratic Republic (or GDR, the East Berlin government) formally announced the right for East Berliners to freely travel between East and West Berlin, in effect dissolving the purpose of the Berlin Wall. On the latter date, German reunification became official, formally creating the city of Berlin, and marking it as the country’s capital city. The subsequent destruction of the Berlin Wall between these two dates was a cathartic moment for the people of Germany. They were finally able to destroy an oppressive structure and look towards the future with dreams of rebuilding a better nation.
Another date, in addition, stands out in the recent history of Berlin. The 6th of February, 2006 marks the start of a new demolition: the deconstruction of the Palast der Republik, or Palace of the Republic, in what was formerly East Berlin. This demolition not only marks the final nail in the coffin of an era, it also defines the attitudes of Berliners towards historic governmental structures that are not the Reichstag.
Berlin is a city with a layered history, one filled with several forms of government, distinct styles of architecture, and divisions both physical and ideological. Through the dismantling of the monarchy after World War I, the post-war economic downturn, the rise of the Nazi regime, the second World War, the Cold War, the division between East and West Berlin, the construction of the Berlin Wall, and the struggles around reunification, one can infer that the rapid changing social, political, cultural, and built landscape of Berlin is unlike any other city in 20th century history. The attitude towards governmental structures in the capital post-reunification has existed in a duality. The Reichstag, a symbol for democracy and unity, has been endlessly restored, sanctified, and revered while the Palast der Republik, an East Berlin symbol for the people, has been ignored, reviled, and despised. Despite the militant socialist undertones of the Palast der Republik, it was meant to serve as a social and cultural gathering space for the people of East Berlin. These dualities that exist bring up an interesting idea of stewardship, and call back to the era of a divided Berlin. Brian Ladd said, “Divided Berlin was unique in suffering through both capitalist and socialist modernism, which compounded the effects of Nazi urban renewal, wartime bombing, and division.” These cathartic and catastrophic events helped shape a strong inclination towards honoring public opinion when it came to architectural stewardship of Berlin’s landmarks. Though the glorification, enhancement, and benevolent stewardship of the Reichstag helped establish a national identity and foster unity among the German people, it is a mistake to discount the Palast der Republik from the historical narrative. The destruction of the Palast der Republik and disregard for the voices fighting to preserve it show a fundamental problem with the stewardship of culturally and historically significant sites in Berlin.
The success of the Reichstag project isn’t something to be disregarded. The Reichstag contains its own layered history that is worth mentioning. Designed in 1882 by Paul Wallot, a German architect, in a competition set up by the new German monarchy, the original design of the Reichstag was highly stylized, yet ambiguous enough as to not deter the proponents of other styles. The dome of the Reichstag, perhaps its most recognizable and grandiose feature throughout its history, was intended to be cast in stone by Wallot. However, Kaiser Wilhelm I opposed this idea, instead insisting the dome be constructed from steel and glass. This was not for practical reasons such as daylight penetration, but for aesthetic reasons, establishing a progressive stage on which the idea of parliamentary democracy could be held. This already calls into question the current perception of the Reichstag always having been a symbol for democracy. Though the idea of the German Empire was for it to represent a parliamentary democracy, this idea was not necessarily translated well into practice. The true reflection of a parliamentary democracy was not realized until the establishment of the Weimar Republic, the government that sprung up as a result of the fleeing monarchy post-World War I. Though the statement of the establishment of the German Republic was shouted from a window of the west facade of the Reichstag, the parliamentary and governmental activities in the Reichstag did not engage the public in a large way, thus creating a benign symbol for democracy.
It was not until the rise of the Nazi regime in 1933 following the fire at the Reichstag that the building became a politically charged symbol. The Nazi Regime, in their everlasting hatred for democracy, cast the Reichstag aside, opting to use the Kroll Opera House as an official meeting space. The only use the building had was to house Nazi propaganda, and the building was to be retained for use as a library to Albert Speer’s grand redesign of Berlin (known as ”Germania”). In order to house the propaganda, however, the dome of the Reichstag needed to be re-glazed. Though this was the result of practicality, the fact that it was retained shows the importance of this design feature as symbol. The entire building, in fact, was to be retained by the Nazi Empire, and it was to become a part of a structure that would house an even larger, 290-meter dome. Though the use of the building for occupancy wasn’t retained during the Second World War, it was still used as an image by Stalin for his victory over Berlin in 1945.
The post-war period saw little use of the burnt-out shell of the Reichstag, until a competition in 1961 (the same year the Berlin Wall occupied the space in front of the eastern entry of the government building) was held, allowing the space to be revitalized aesthetically, though throughout the 70s, its use was almost non-existent. It was not until October 4th, 1990 (the day after Berlin was named capital) that the Reichstag was used for the meeting of the Bundestag (the legislative body of the German government). This act is what sparked the 1992 competition for the redesign of the Reichstag.
Sir Norman Foster’s design for the Reichstag emphasized the debate surrounding the dome. During the 1960s competition, architect Hans Scharoun questioned the need for a dome, and many asked the same question of Foster. The dome was seen as either a highly historicized feature to some, and as a symbol to the sovereignty of the people to others. In order to avoid an exhaustive description and debate of the design features of Sir Norman Foster’s dome, a few key aspects of the project will be highlighted. Firstly, the main principle behind the addition of a dome was to add a symbol of democracy and sovereignty back to the capital building. Though a nod to history was made, the materiality of the dome and levels of access reject a purely historicized analogy to the past. Access itself is another aspect of Foster’s design that characterizes the prevailing new way of thinking of the German democracy. The public engagement with the building as a tourist destination and the dome as a viewing tower towards the city skyline embraces reunification in way only a bird’s eye can.
A philosophical meaning that Sir Norman Foster was adamant to push through was the evocation of transparency, both physically and metaphorically, in his project for the dome. That is why the project for the Wrapped Reichstag done by artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude in July of 1995 is so confusing. The art installation included polypropylene fabric wrapping the entire building, creating an odd, closed off affect that is visually striking and monumental in scale. For a government that is arguing for transparency, and a design for a new dome that will engage this idea, it seems rather odd to offer up an installation that wraps the Reichstag, essentially closing it off from the realm of public engagement. Though the ideas of wrapping and unwrapping the building to symbolize its new life have been proposed, it still does not address the issue of complete transparency that was pushed forward by the government and Foster alike.
This project for the renovated Reichstag, upon opening in 1999, created an overwhelmingly positive outlook on the capital. The project was well-received by the people of Berlin and critics alike, being praised for its symbolism and ability to instill unity in the people. It was a project that represented a reunified capital, and still nodded towards the history of the site. Though the reception was positive, there has been a camp of indifference that has attached itself to the site. There are a few citizens of the Cold War era (East Berliners and West Berliners both) who did not really feel a personal connection to the site, though they did acknowledge its power and necessity towards unity and stewarding history. The success in the project, however, cannot be denied outright.
The Palast der Republik, the governmental building of East Berlin that housed the seat of the German Democratic Republic’s parliament, the People’s Chamber, has quite a different historical narrative than that of the Reichstag. Consequently, the fate of the structure is largely
based on this conception of history and the stewardship of the site has largely been non-existent. The story of the Palast der Republik, or Palace of the Republic, starts in 1950, a quarter of a century before the buildings was even constructed. It was in this year that the East Berlin government, the GDR, decided to dynamite the ruins of an 18th-century baroque palace of the former Prussian Royal Family. This was done in an attempt to destroy any association with the aristocracy of the monarchy and its form of government. From 1973-1976, the Palast der Republik was constructed on this site. The architects, Heinz Graffunder and Karl-Ernst Swora opted for a modern design among the Neo-Baroque structures in its context. The reflective glass front and lively interior spaces spoke a little to Gropius, but maintained a far more functional approach. The building, in addition to housing the parliamentary seat, housed a few art galleries, a bowling alley, a nightclub, a post office, two auditoriums, a theater, and numerous restaurants. During its highest usage in the 1980s, the Palast der Republik was generally regarded as a positive place to engage with the public, and it received a high amount of traffic during this time. This, however, did not make up for the fact that the socialist government was generally negatively viewed, and thousands fled to West Germany and other areas throughout the 1980s. Following the demolition of the Berlin Wall and the reunification of Berlin, the Palast der Republik was closed in September of 1990 due to heavy asbestos usage. What’s important to note here, is that this same problem plagued the Reichstag during its renovation in the 1990s. However, this incident was treated as an opportunity, and the walls were removed to expose the striking bones of the original Reichstag building. In the Palast der Republik, however, the building was immediately condemned because it was not undergoing a large renovation project, and it was deemed culturally unimportant. With the order for destruction handed down in 1993, many former East Berliners cried out against its destruction. For them, the Palast der Republik was not a governmental building, but a building for recreation, and a building full of fond memories. West Berliners, however, viewed the building as representative of a horrible, communist past of Berlin that had to be stamped out. Similar issues are voiced by Allan Cochrane and Adrian Passmore when dealing with the West defining how reunified Germany must be represented:
“Similar issues were raised in the debates over the Palast der Republik (right in the centre of the city), itself first built as a symbol of the new state socialist regime – a palace for the ‘people’ to replace a bomb-damaged palace of the Prussian aristocracy. For East Berliners, it was never merely a symbol of the old regime (where the East German Parliament met) because it had also been used for a wide range of leisure activities. At the start of the twenty-first century, it still stands unused, despite a controversial campaign, involving leading local members of the CDU, to demolish it and replace it with a reconstruction of the Prussian palace, which stood on the site until the 1950s…But the developers are waiting patiently to find a means of ‘normalizing’ the space.”
The ideas of West Berliners dominated the thought process in whether the sites of the East should be preserved. The desires and needs of former East Berliners in stewarding their own history were largely ignored (as can be seen by the final demolition of the Palast der Republik which started in 2006 and was completed in 2008). A project that comes to mind is the 1993 attempt to hand-paint an exact replica of the facade of the old royal palace onto scaffolding that would cover the “hideous” Palace. Like the Wrapping of the Reichstag, this project engaged the public, and was a strong statement with cathartic effects. What differs, however, is the Wrapped Reichstag was meant to be a preview of the upcoming changes, whereas the facade painting project for the Palast der Republik was meant as a provocation to green light the destruction of the old building and the reconstruction efforts of the old royal palace. This commoditization of history in the two-dimensional facade calls back to Jan-Mark van der Leest’s thesis on the “spatial and conceptual development of ‘New Berlin’” but it also brings up a point made by Uta Staiger: the aesthetics of the royal palace fit more in line with a contemporary Berlin, history notwithstanding.
What this discussion opens up is a logical hole in Berlin’s attempts to steward its historical past. Where in the Reichstag we have the Bundestag allocating funds to preserve the Soviet history of the site through preservation of the graffiti written on the building but in the Palast der Republik, the Soviet history must be systematically demolished to make room for a historical allusion that holds little weight with the German people. Speaking of the historical allusion, the proposed plan for the site of the demolished Palast der Republik is a reconstruction of the old Prussian royal palace that used to occupy the site. An Italian architect, Francesco Stella, was commissioned to carry out the work. As of yet, no scheduled completion date has been announced. This attempt to redo history on the site speaks volumes to the German government’s idea of heritage stewardship.
The destruction of the Palast der Republik is a repetition of history; it emulates the 1950 GDR demolition of the Prussian palace. This repetition of history does not properly address the nuanced story that took place during the Cold War in East Berlin. The deletion of the Palast der Republik from the landscape cheapens the experiences of those who lived in the oppressive regime of socialist East Germany. Hertling, the President of the Chamber of Berlin Architects, on the proposed demolition of the Palast der Republik in 1999 stated, “we cannot recycle history in tearing down architecture.” Cochrane and Passmore, however, go on to admit that this implies that history will get recycled in other ways, referring to changing uses of historical structures. This historical recycling is what occurs at the Reichstag as well as the Palast der Republik. At the Reichstag, however, a portion of the original memory is still preserved in the structure, and that narrative, though distorted, will still speak to a certain group of people. The Palast der Republik, on the other hand, cannot speak for itself, nor is anything left of the original built fabric that can call out to former East Berliners. A lack of governmental acknowledgement of the opposition’s view regarding the Palast der Republik is partly at fault for the destruction of the site, as well as the proposed reintroduction of the Prussian royal palace. In a survey of 1,005 people taken by German magazine Super Illu, it was found that 60 percent of eastern Germans were opposed to the destruction of the Palast der Republik. They saw it as a destruction of a part of the German Democratic Republic’s vital history. Also mentioned was the majority of eastern Germans’ preference for a permanent green space, rather than the proposed, overly-historicized castle. This proposed castle reconstruction leads to a “Disneyfication” of the site, creating a false tourist attraction that is meant stir nostalgic nationalistic tendencies. Francesca Rogier, an architect and expert on Berlin, brings up the notion of a “happy history”:
“The palace controversy epitomizes the way in which many Berliners have resorted to seeking images for the future in an idealized past. The project benefited from a wave of nostalgia envisaging a benevolent monarchy, spurred by the reburial of Frederick the Great at Potsdam; but even more from a wide-spread lack of faith in contemporary design. Holding up the image of an intact Berlin before the bombings, its proponents argued not only that the palace was a symbol that no living architect could replace, but also that it was the sole legitimate terminus for Unter den Linden. They thereby glossed over such historical issues as the opposition between the city and the Hohenzollern emperors, the palace’s divisive impact on urban growth, and the impossibility of full reconstruction, authentic or otherwise.”
This intention isn’t that far off from the one that sparked the competition for the redesign of the Reichstag, but it is not the intention that is the issue here. Nostalgia should not always be regarded as a negative motive for preservation. Thomas Lahusen argues that the commoditization of East German socialism may have loaned itself to the fight to save the Palast der Republik. But, what was the nature of this nostalgia? The answer lies in the fact that East Germans endured and overcame an oppressive regime, yet still had a space of public engagement. The monotonous aesthetic and the “ruined” nature of socialist housing developments helped contribute to this idea. The Reichstag is a successful project because the original built fabric was retained for the most part, and the addition that Sir Norman Foster added alluded to history while continuing the narrative of the building. The use and levels of access changed as well, but this “recycling of history” ensures that the public is able to engage in the continuing narrative of the place. Those fond of their memories of the Palast der Republik and their concurrent feeling of place to the site cannot be honored due to the destruction of the building. The proposed reconstruction of the old royal palace, once finished, will not be able to engage the public with the continuing narrative, simply because there is a 60+ year gap in the history.
It is important to regard both redesigns of those portions of the city in tandem. Proposed interventions for both the East and West side of Berlin indicated that the German government intended to craft their historical narratives in a specific way, even if it meant disregarding certain aspects of that history. Rogier states it the best when she says, “The basic goal of each competition was to restructure a large block of space and reassign it a new set of cultural and political values, using demolition and historic reconstruction when deemed necessary.” In fact, the two competitions, the Spreebogen and the Spreeinsel, were concerned with the two ideologies surrounding place. The Spreebogen is the more popularly known Reichstag competition for western Berlin while the Spreeinsel was the unrealized competition to redesign the voids in East Berlin. The funding was eventually cut from the Spreeinsel and handed over solely to the Spreebogen competition, thus cutting any chance of a dramatic eastern Berlin redesign. In fact, any mentions of a competition surrounding sites close to the Palace of the Republik are surprisingly missing from the literature surrounding this topic. This fact already solidified the doomed nature of the project, even though asbestos experts concluded that restoration of the structure would be cheaper than demolition and reconstruction.
It comes down to memory, and control of said memory. The flaws that have been pointed out in the stewardship of Berlin’s historical and governmental sites are not unique in that these kinds of selective historical remixes occur everywhere. What is unique, and what no other nation has experienced, is the amount of political strife that has occurred. As Jan-Mark van der Leest pointed out: “In the years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the development of both the Reichstag and the Palace of the Republic have principally been framed within the opposing contexts of Cold War rhetoric and the recent transformation of Berlin into the capital of reunited Germany.” This dichotomy is perhaps one of the strongest in history, and it translates down to the architecture, and to how it is representative of the history of the city.
Before its final destruction, the Palast der Republik hosted a slew of cultural events in the years 2004-2005. So even after the dismantling of the interior of the structure, the shell still was put to use for cultural engagement. If this itself did not prompt the government to put forth effort into preserving the building, then nothing else could have kept it in existence. Something that is refreshing, however, is that the project for the site, ill-guided and overdue as it may be, still has potential to re-engage the narrative it so thoughtlessly destroyed. It is up to the German people to speak up against any more destruction of their historical past, lest they forget what came before them.
DW Staff. “Berlin’s Palace of the Republic Faces Wrecking Ball.” Deutsche Welle, January 20, 2006. Accessed December 11, 2012 http://www.dw.de/berlins-palace-of-the-republicfaces- wrecking-ball/a-1862424-1
Cochrane, Allan and Passmore, Adrian. “Building a National Capital in an Age of Globalization: the Case of Berlin.” Area 33 (2001): 341-352.
Ladd, Brian. “Center and Periphery in the New Berlin: Architecture, Public Art, and the Search for Identity.” PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art 22 (2000): 7-21
Lahusen, Thomas. “Decay or Endurance? The Ruins of Socialism.” Slavic Review 65 (2006): 736-746.
Rogier, Francesca. “Growing Pains: From the Opening of the Wall to the Wrapping of the Reichstag.” Assemblage 29 (April 1996): 40-71.
Schulz, Bernhard. The Reichstag: The Parliament Building By Norman Foster. Munich, London, New York: Prestel Verlag, 2000.
Staiger, Uta. “Cities, Citizenship, Contested Cultures: Berlin’s Palace of the Republic and The Politics of the Public Sphere.” Cultural Geographies 16 (2009): 309-327.
van der Leest, Jan-Mark. “Specters of the Past, Prospects for the Future: The Spatial and Conceptual Development of the ‘New Berlin.’” Master’s Thesis, Carleton University, 2008.