The emperor’s new clothes

News from the Berlin Castle Simulation | An article for the relaunch of my good old capital city newsletter “News from the Capital“:


For a few years now, the centre of Berlin has been dominated by a huge building site: the Berlin City Palace. Built in its original form in 1442 by the Hohenzollern family, then permanently rebuilt over the centuries, baroqueised and greatly extended by Schlüter around 1700, until Schinkel finally gave it the dome and an imposing north portal in the late 19th century. After the Emperor’s flight in 1918, the Republic was proclaimed here, but then remained largely unused, was severely damaged by Allied bomb strikes in World War II and finally burned out completely in February 1945. Urban Planning Councillor Hans Scharoun began the restoration after the war, but in the newly founded GDR the political will against this powerful symbol of the Prussian state was so strong that it was finally blown up in December 1950. As a political sign, the Palace of the Republic was built exactly in its place. The triumph of socialism over the extinction of Prussia.

Now, as we know, socialism did not trimpet too long. After the fall of the GDR, the palace served as a cultural venue for a while, but it was now once again such a thorn in the side of the Federal Republic that it was finally demolished in 2006 despite extensive asbestos removal. It was a bit like two little children destroying each other’s sand castles. Instead of calling for an international architectural competition and setting a great visionary sign for the modern and open Federal Republic of the 21st century, the German Bundestag decided, in the complete absence of any vision, simply to rebuild the good old city castle in exactly the same place, in the hope that this would revive the Schlüter/Schinkel spirit and bring the centre of Berlin back to its former glory. Spicily, however, the federal government only pays for the shell of the building. The stucco elements of the façade are sold by the “Freundeskreis Berliner Schloss” via its web shop (“The castle in individual parts: from parts for 50 euros to the capital for 179,900 euros”). Currently one has reached approx. 45% of the facade.

Unfortunately, the entire castle project lacks not only an urbanistic vision, but also the decisive idea of what the box could actually be used for. Even if one or the other Berliner would certainly be thrilled when the dashing cuirassiers rode around Unter den Linden again and occasionally a few crown princesses waved out the window, a real emperor is unfortunately not in sight at the moment. Instead, the “Humboldt Forum“, a kind of interdisciplinary meta-exhibition in which anthropology meets modernity, garnished with lectures, research papers and all sorts of scientific hoo-ha, is being used. The ethnological collections currently stored in the rather cool Museum of Ethnology in Dahlem are to form the core of the whole ulcer. Now, however, the decision for this idea was made too late and the architects have already decided on the interior fittings, which means that some of the large Dahlem exhibits, such as the longboats, will not fit into the castle. It doesn’t matter. The small and medium-sized exhibits in the castle and the large ones in Dahlem. It is fortunate that the Humboldt statues in front of the nearby Humboldt University look stoically straight ahead and do not have to see the misery nearby.

But there is also good news to report about the castle: unlike the major international airport BER, it has not only remained within the time and cost limits, it has also set itself the task of bringing the “castle” project closer to the population and has already scheduled its second structural inspection this year. As always when there is something for free, the Berliners have taken this opportunity with great enthusiasm and when I interpret the mood among the population correctly, one feels a little more sublime now that the castle is gradually taking shape. “Berlin is the castle and the castle is Berlin,” as I was allowed to listen to in the face of gently expressed criticism. Now Berlin would not have been Berlin if a sponti-like counter-movement had not immediately formed, which is already organizing a collection for the renewed demolition of the newly built palace. In view of the barbarism of the IS, which is currently flattening one antique site after another in Iraq and Syria, this seems to be the wrong step. If the Berliners really want the old box back, they should be happy with him. But it is astonishing how quickly the old spirit, who once blew it through, gets up again with the building. And it is not the sublime spirit of Schlüter and Schinkel, it is the spirit of Prussian militarism, the dashing officers and their beautiful ladies, with sabres and polished brass and fine manners and all that goes with it. It takes a lot of canoes and tepees and good will to break this spirit. See for yourself: