Baroque Hits Back Germany Rebuilds its Imperial Palaces

German cities are experiencing a retro boom. Braunschweig has rebuilt its old city palace and Berlin, Potsdam and Hanover plan to follow suit. The new monumental structures require a combination of high-tech skills and a traditional craftsmanship. But is this the last word in kitsch or a return to former grandeur?

The cobblestone path in Berlin's Pankow neighborhood leads into the courtyard behind Matthias Körner's house, where a loud hammering noise can be heard. The man holds a wooden hammer made of white beech in one hand, while passing an indented chisel across the head of a bull with the other. He is sweating. "Stone sculpture is a dying art," he says.

But there is no sense that what Körner is doing here in this dust-filled courtyard is in any way outmoded. A composite capital made of clay, crowned by an eagle, sits on the ground, next to it a worn, 300-year-old trumpeting angel. The artist is working on a small model of the Borussia -- the symbol of Prussia.

Körner, a master sculptor from the former East Germany, is a key figure in the reconstruction of Berlin's Stadtschloss (City Palace). In July of 2002, the German parliament voted by 380 to 133 in favor of having the royal residence rebuilt. Three external walls have been approved. The design of the side of the building that will face the River Spree is still to be decided. Körner is in the process of executing the designs. With painstaking precision he creates replicas of the acanthus leaves, lions' heads and dying warriors depicted on the original façade.

All of this is merely a prelude of what is to come. A gargantuan effort will be necessary to achieve the goals of the project, and it will require anywhere from 200 to 400 sculptors: men wearing mittens who are capable of chiseling balustrades, herms and rosettes out of stone. Wire saws will come in handy to build the standardized cornices and ashlars.

All the effort will be necessary. The Stadtschloss built by Frederick I was a colossus and a reflection of the glory of Versailles. In 1698, the wigged nobleman, who was still living in Königsberg (now Kaliningrad) at the time, ordered a new country house built on the banks of the River Spree. The resulting building along the river bank occupied a footprint of 192 by 117 meters (630 by 384 feet, or about six acres). The cupola on the palace's western façade rose 74 meters (243 feet) into the sky.

The first king of Prussia (who fell from a carriage as a young child and spent the rest of his life handicapped and hunched over) had been criticized by his own forefathers for his "Asiatic pomp." By the time Frederick's new home was complete, the country was on the verge of bankruptcy.

But it had gained an attraction. Leibnitz, the inventor of integral calculus, was a regular visitor to the Berlin Stadtschloss. Alexander von Humboldt and the philosopher Schelling were later invited to tea in the parlour. Kaiser Wilhelm II experienced the end of World War I in the southern wing, before packing his bags and heading into exile. A short time later, Karl Liebknecht opened the balcony window above one of the portals to proclaim the founding of the republic.

All that eventually went up in a cloud of smoke and dynamite. Walter Ulbricht, the long-time ruler of East Germany, had the residence blown up in 1950. Berlin lost its center and got the Palace of the Republic in return, a building derisively known as "Erich's lamp shop," a dubious honor for Ulbricht's successor Erich Honecker.

Today, after barely the blink of an eye in history, East German socialism's center of power is now in the process of being torn down. Cranes swivel through the air above the hollowed-out ruin. Blue sparks dance as workers with cutting torches cut the steel frame into pieces. The scrap and rubble are quickly loaded onto cargo barges on the River Spree and removed from the site.

Wolfgang Tiefensee, a Social Democrat and Germany's transportation and construction minister, has pushed to see the project speeded up. According to his new schedule for the rebirth of Frederick I's Prussian palace, the architectural competition will be announced this year, and he plans to have the foundation poured in 2010. How the state will pay the project's estimated cost of €480 million remains open. A private foundation plans to put up the money for the historic façade, slated to cost about €80 million, and has already committed €14 million.

The turnaround is quite incredible. Initially maligned by Die Welt as a "band of palace counterfeiters," the groups that advocate the building of replicas of demolished buildings suddenly find themselves the winners of the debate.

Wilhelm von Boddien, the head of the Förderverein (Promotional Association) that is lobbying for the reconstruction of Berlin's Stadtschloss, has embarked on an energetic fundraising tour of Lions Clubs and cultural events. For €34,000, a donor can sponsor the rebuilding of a Corinthian capital, a complete portal goes for €4.3 million, while the cheapest ashlar can be had for a mere €50.

"Donate stones for the palace," the Förderverein writes in its newsletter to members. "We are getting closer to a dream," the director tells his audiences in a celebratory tone.

But, public celebrations aside, von Boddien is beset by worries. Only now, as the undertaking becomes more imminent, is its true scale becoming clear. The royal residence had 488 windows, some as big as garage doors. About 700 meters (2,297 feet) of façade has to be reconstructed, complete with figures like that of a cudgel-swinging Hercules. Forty-seven eagles with widespread wings hung resplendent under the roof -- the largest had a wingspan of 2.6 meters (8.5 feet).

All of this decorative material was created under the supervision of the brilliant Andreas Schlüter. He had just returned from a trip to Italy when, in 1699, he took the position of court architect. Nicknamed the "Michelangelo of the North," Schlüter had up to 100 tons of heavy blocks of sandstone, a costly building material, shipped up the Elbe River from the mountains of Saxony.

Ornament-makers and mortar-mixers spent years standing in the dust on the island in the River Spree where the palace was being constructed. The stone entablature on the roof of the building was so overloaded with acanthus leaves, egg and dart ornaments, metopes and cornice moldings that modern imitators can only shudder at the thought of the task ahead. According to Körner, the sculptor, "it takes a professional a year to replicate a capital on a column."

But who will produce all these replicas? Good stonemasons are rare. Through want ads in newspapers, the Förderverein has attracted artists from Oberammergau in Bavaria and nearby Dresden. "Who can sculpt Prussian Baroque?" Körner constantly asks himself, "we need only the very best." On a positive note, he has already managed to recruit 50 workers.

Marrying the historic decorative façade to the modern steel and concrete interior is another challenging task. The rebuilding of the Alte Kommandatur (Old Army Headquarters) in Berlin, commissioned in 2003 by the Bertelsmann Group, is a case in point for everything that can go wrong with this sort of project. The planners chose two layers of masonry with insulation in between. But because of the tremendous temperature differences, cracks are already appearing in the wall.

Architect Rupert Stuhlemmer and his son York intend to take a different approach to building the Berlin Stadtschloss. Their plan calls for the construction of a massive, external stone wall, at least one meter (about three feet) thick. The heavy decorative elements, made of natural stone, would then be attached to the wall.

Large elevation drawings of the southern façade hang on the wall in the Stuhlemmers' office. The father-and-son team reviewed thousands of photos, yellowed plans and construction records to complete their work. "We redrew each individual stone, down to the last millimeter, and give it a number," says York. The first stones are already being chiseled into shape in Pirna, Potsdam and Dresden.

The German capital isn't alone in its enthusiasm for the architecture of the past.

An Archeological Revolution

Encouraged by the success story of Dresden's Frauenkirche, other communities are longing for their own cherubs and columns. In a number of German cities, there is growing pressure to resurrect old palaces that were flattened by the bombs of World War II or fell victim to the wrecking balls of postwar ideology:

  • In Hanover, a citizens' initiative wants to see a replica built of the palace that was destroyed in 1943.

  • After wrestling with the issue for some time, the city of Potsdam, near Berlin, has decided to build the new parliament building for the state of Brandenburg on the footprint of the city's former palace. There is still disagreement about the eventual exterior design.

  • Frankfurt plans to demolish its "Technisches Rathaus" (Technical City Hall). In an effort to rebuild old Frankfurt, the city want to fill the giant hole the demolition will leave behind with rows of replica medieval houses.

But the ornate projects are at the center of a bitter controversy. The proponents include such respected public figures as TV journalist Lea Rosh, talk show host Günther Jauch and politician Egon Bahr. But opponents of the movement see the whole thing as nothing but kitsch and fraud, and suspect that people who are stuck in the past are planning an architectural counterrevolution.

An animated group of curators of historical monuments came together recently for a conference at the Dessau Bauhaus. "How should we feel about the replicas and copies that are being forced upon us by the will of the people?" someone asked. The question quickly triggered an uproar. Some were in favor of the new "reconstructivism," while others called it a denial of history. The term "Auschwitz lie" (referring to Holocaust denial) was even mentioned.

There is no question that hysteria is never far away when people begin talking about the good old days in Germany. But Hitler's architect, Albert Speer, doesn't necessarily have to be lurking behind every column.

Meanwhile, Germany's cities are creating facts on the ground. The work is farthest along in downtown Braunschweig where the war-damaged palace of the Welfen dynasty stood until 1960. Then the city council had it torn down and buried the decorative façade in a nearby clay pit. Furious discussions on the destruction went on for years.

When an investor agreed to pay for the rebuilding of the palace a few years ago, he triggered a wave of public enthusiasm. Elderly residents remembered the buried rubble from the building, which was carefully incorporated into the late classical façade -- some of the columns weigh as much as three tons. The replica palace is due to open on May 6 of this year.

But there is just one hitch. The palace is little more than an ornate entrance to a huge, 30,000-square-meter shopping center behind it -- built by ECE, a multinational shopping mall developer. The replica palace is nothing but an "historical tapestry" thrown over this modern temple to commerce, say critics: brilliant in front but banal at the back.

But most critics have been silenced by the exquisite gravity and power of Braunschweig's 116-meter-wide, portal-crowned sandstone fortress. And expressions of displeasure are cancelled out by the fact that they are usually voiced from offices in ornate Art Deco mansions.

Nevertheless, the battle over the retro look continues to rage. "Ornament is a crime," Austrian architect Adolf Loos once declared, thereby launching modernity. Theodor W. Adorno added the concept of "authenticity," with which every hip homebuilder had to comply if he wished to avoid falling prey to kitsch.

Such dogmas continue to hold true today. Décor and wall decoration are ridiculed, not least because their detractors have a tendency to equate taste in architecture with fundamental beliefs. The current rebirth of a taste for historical buildings, claims Süddeutsche Zeitung, fits seamlessly into the "yearning for school uniforms and etiquette courses."

But levelheaded observers tend to interpret the trend as a sign of weakness in modern architecture. Its founding fathers, Le Corbusier and Walter Gropius, embarked on a crusade against bombast in the 1920s with their geometrical, utilitarian buildings. But beauty was all too often lost in the process.

What is more, what began as a radical departure from the canon of the past soon deteriorated into a "profitopolis" of its own. Nowadays every Aldi supermarket looks as though it had been put there by Mies van der Rohe himself.

What is happening now is a response to this homogenization -- a rollback to the past -- at least in some important locations. There is a rekindling of interest in the old design principles in architecture, which are derived from the temples of ancient Greece.

Do such mementoes of the past necessarily have to be kitsch? What exactly does "authenticity" mean in this context? When the campanile on St. Mark's Square in Venice collapsed in 1902, it was quickly rebuilt. Warsaw Castle and the monastery at Monte Cassino, where St. Benedict once founded western monasticism, are both copies.

Berlin's Förderverein rejects the charge that it is planning a "Disneyland." "We are not recasting cherubs in concrete here," insists Bottien. Instead, he says, the work on the Berlin Baroque palace is a tremendously laborious combination of high-tech and traditional craftsmanship.

Digging for treasure is another matter. The Förderverein is also involved in archeology. "We know that the Bunkerberg ( bunker hill) in Friedrichshain was filled with demolition rubble in the late fall of 1959," Bottien explains. "The ruins must be buried under a 15-centimeter layer of topsoil."

The trail that leads to an abandoned industrial site in northern Berlin is even more exciting. Old East German files reveal that Walter Ulbricht promised (because of the tremendous opposition to the demolition) to rebuild the palace on a different site when the general state of the economy improved. Experts took 5,000 detailed photographs of the ruins, and all sculptures were dismantled.

Investigators discovered that the decorative elements from the Stadtschloss's façade ended up at a state-owned underground engineering site in Berlin's Heinersdorf district, where hundreds of windowsills, architraves and carved ram's heads were meticulously arranged in huts. But the warehouses soon deteriorated and the East German government had the best pieces removed and stored in museum basements. The site was eventually bulldozed.

Jürgen Klimes, the former chief sculptor at the VEB Stuck und Naturstein (State Stucco and Natural Stone Enterprise) remembers seeing bulldozers pushing the remains of the magnificent Baroque stone palace into a hollow and covering them with dirt.

But where was the site? Last year the Förderverein had the tar surface layer torn open in several spots on the abandoned grounds. But the effort produced only one sculpture from Portal II. Next month the foundation plans to spend another €50,000 on the excavation. But will the archeologists hit pay dirt this time?

Wilhelm von Boddien is optimistic. "We have a new tip," he says, his eyes sparkling. "A woman from the allotments next door claims she saw exactly what happened back then."

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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