Photo Gallery: Berlin's Newest Big Money Pit

Foto: DPA/ Timo Hermann/ bbz landschaftsarchitekten

The Next Disaster? Berlin Lays Cornerstone of Troubled Palace

The cornerstone was laid on Wednesday on the reconstruction of the Berlin palace that was once home to Prussian rulers. The need for such a structure is debatable, and funding looks shaky. It could become yet another addition to Germany's collection of cursed construction projects.

It is difficult to determine which of Germany's trio of construction-project nightmares is the most embarrassing.

Is it the Elbe Philharmonic Concert Hall  in Hamburg, a stunning new structure that was supposed to be finished in 2010 at a cost of €114 million ($151 million) to taxpayers -- but which will actually be opened in 2017, with a public price tag of €780 million?

Or is it the new, subterranean train station in Stuttgart  that is €2 billion over-budget, under-loved and of questionable utility?

Or does Berlin's new international airport get the nod, a project which has been delayed so many times that there currently is no opening date scheduled -- and which costs millions each month because nobody can figure out how to turn off the lights ?

It is a difficult choice, to be sure. And this week, it potentially became even harder with the addition of another large project seemingly destined to join Germany's blacklist of construction catastrophes. On Wednesday, the cornerstone for the reconstructed Berliner Schloss was laid in the heart of the German capital despite myriad questions  regarding the need for such an expensive replica of the seat of Prussian power. But the real questions surround the project's funding: It is still, two years after federal and state funds were made available, not yet clear who will pick up a significant chunk of the tab.

Funding the Façade

The new structure is supposed to look a lot like the old, the seat of Prussian power that was heavily damaged in World War II and completely demolished in 1950 to make way for the Palast der Republik , which housed communist East Germany's parliament. Indeed, the winning design, submitted by the less-than-famous Italian architect Franco Stella in 2008, calls for a façade on three sides that will be remarkably similar to the original (the fourth side facing the Spree River is to be a modern concrete-and-glass exterior).

It took a further three years, and a significant amount of highly public bickering, for Germany's parliament to finally agree to fund the project, to the tune of €478 million, with the city-state of Berlin committing to an additional €32 million. The final price tag, however, is supposed to be €590 million.

The €80 million gap, of course, is by design. That is how much the historically accurate façade is supposed to cost -- and it is a sum that project backers have pledged will be covered by private donations. Indeed, according to Wilhelm von Boddien, who heads up the foundation promoting the palace, the donations are flowing in. An additional €28.5 million is to be raised for the dome.

As it turns out, however, von Boddien's confidence is slightly misplaced. Thus far, only some €10 million in private donations have been made available. Even more problematic, contracts for façade construction have to be in place by the end of the year so as to guarantee that the palace will be finished by 2018, as planned.

Bringing Back 'Iron Tooth'

SPIEGEL has learned that, in order to make up for the shortfall, the German government has pledged provisional funding, even as there is no guarantee that private donations will ever be sufficient to repay taxpayers for their largesse.

The money involved, of course, is not nearly on the level of the Elbe Philharmonic, the Stuttgart train station or the Berlin airport. But the decision even to attempt a reconstruction of the palace in the first place was an extremely controversial one. And pledges that private funding would cover a significant portion of construction costs were key in finally securing approval in 2002 and funding in 2011.

Any extra costs laid at the feet of German taxpayers are almost sure to trigger yet another flare-up in the long-standing debate over the purpose of the reconstruction project. Currently, the structure is to house the Humboldt Forum, art holdings belonging to the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, the city-state library and elements of nearby Humboldt University. But the question as to why, exactly, the building had to look like the old Prussian palace, construction of which was inaugurated by Friedrich II ("Iron Tooth") in the 15th century, has never been adequately answered.

Fuelling yet more debate is the fact that the East German Palast der Republik was razed from 2006 to 2008 to make way for the Schloss, providing yet more proof in the eyes of former East Berliners that reunification was more of a Western takeover than a marriage between equals.

On Wednesday, however, all those questions were to be set aside for the sunny, cornerstone-laying ceremony complete with a smiling President Joachim Gauck swinging a hammer at a large stone marked curiously "1443-2013."

Chancellor Angela Merkel was not present, reportedly because she wanted to avoid it at all costs. After all, she faces re-election this fall, and the project is highly unpopular among Germans. A recent poll by the news magazine Stern found that almost two-thirds (65 percent) of Germans oppose the project.

cgh -- with reporting by Sven Becker and Michael Sontheimer