The New Palace: Neo-Baroque in Berlin

With the old Palast der Republik torn down, the ground is cleared for the resurrection of an even older Prussian palace in downtown Berlin. An Italian architect has won the design contest, but all the finalists have surprisingly modern elements.

The announcement last week of an architect for Berlin's new city palace, or "Stadtschloss," came a full six years after officials in Berlin first gave the project a go-ahead. As of this week the unsightly -- but not unloved -- "Palast der Republik" is gone, a Communist relic of the Cold War, and there's room for a rebuilt Hohenzollern palace in the city center. But the palace itself is still a long way off.

Italian architect Francesco Stella was chosen to design the €552 million palace, which is also being called the "Humboldt Forum" and might be better described as an expensive and nostalgic complex of museums and public space. From the outside it will mimic the baroque-style Hohenzollern palace which stood here from the 15th century, when the Prussian royal family began construction, to 1950, when the East German government decided the war-ruined palace was a reminder of a decadent old world and destroyed its remains.

On the inside, though, instead of 1,500 rooms for the Hohenzollern family, the new complex will have room for art exhibitions and perhaps a modern public library. Whole sections of the city's Ethnographic Museum will move in. The complex will cover the space of two football fields. The building's expense and sheer Prussian scale have earned it withering criticism, especially by Berliners who still argue there was nothing wrong with the old Palast der Republik.

The communist building went up in 1976 and also included public space. It housed not just the East German parliament (largely a ceremonial body) but also a bowling alley and a disco. The city had it gutted because it was riddled with asbestos, but critics of the new city palace argue that asbestos problems in West Berlin were solved without demolishing buildings. They believe a remnant of Cold-War politics is behind the neo-Hohenzollern palace.

Joining the design of the old palace to practical public space was the architectural challenge for Francesco Stella and his competitors in the architectural derby. Stella's design, like those of his fellow Italians Eccheli e Campagnola and the Berlin architects at Kleihues + Kleihues -- and most of the seven runners-up -- is startlingly modern on the inside. This surprised some observers, since even until last week it was assumed that any whiff of modern architecture would doom the new plans.

The question is when it might be finished. The due date is 2013, but its budget still has to make up an €80 million shortfall in private donations -- and it will rely on €32 million in financing from the city of Berlin, which was deeply in debt even before the current financial crisis hit. For now the "Schlossplatz," or palace square, is empty, and not all of Berlin will mind if it stays that way.

msm

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