“He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past.”
George Orwell, 1984
Once upon a time, the Prussian Stadtschloss (Berlin Palace), graced Unter den Linden in Berlin with its presence. The palace dates back to the early 15th century, over the centuries it was adapted from midevial, to renaissance and finally baroque style (by Schlueter) to become the symbol of the Prussian kingdom in the beginning of the 18th century and continued to be adapted to the style of the time up to 1945. The palace was severly damaged by the allied bombing raids towards the end of the war, and when the war finally was over, it was more or less a ruin.
After the war, the palace ended up in the Soviet sector, in what eventually became East Berlin, capital of the GDR. Some unsuccessful attempts to secure a restoration were made by, among others, Hans Scharoun. In the end, the GDR government thought it too costly to refurbish the palace, and subsequently demolished it in 1950.
The site was then used as a square for various ceremonies until the mid 1970’s when the Palast der Republik was constructed on the site. PdR was the main event building in the GDR for cultural and political events, and remained so until the reunification.
After reunification, public opinion grew, especially in the western parts of the country, for reconstructing the old Berlin Palace. When asbestos was found in high amounts in the PdR, its fate was sealed. The parliament quickly clubbed a decision to rebuild the old castle.
As far as I understand, the intention is to rebuild the facades of the 19th century version of the palace on three sides using traditional techniques to its baroque glory. The fourth side will be decided in an architectural competition. The floor plans will not be of the original, some of the more famous halls and staircases will be carelessly reconstructed in simpler detailing, while the rest will be, adapted for modern purposes. These are a couple of museums and a business center of some sort. The courtyard will be rebuilt and glazed over (similarly to British Museum in London, but without any of the finesse as far as I can tell from the renders. All to be privately funded by companies, organisations and individuals.
This entire story raises a number of interesting questions.
Firstly, can you create a historical identity at will by picking out what you like? Whichever way you put it, Palast der Republik is a major part of 20th century, like it or not. You can argue that it was a symbol of oppression and totalitarianism, and it is probably so perceived by most people. On the other hand, the Prussians were no angels neither, and the PdR was undeniably historical.
Isn’t this simply a very expensive attempt to rewrite history? To control the past in order to control the future, like O’Brien explains to Winston. To create a glorious past that is seen from a long enough distance in time to appear attractive. The total cost of this is estimated to somewhere around €650,000,000.
I’m not categorically negative to reconstruction of destroyed buildings, but this thing is silly, and it’s not even a reconstruction of the “original” but rather a reconstruction of three facades and a courtyard focusing on the palace when it had been altered during four hundred years. Scenography is a word that comes to mind. Nothing wrong with scenography, but I would be careful with talking to such an extent about the soul and identity of Berlin, like the castle supporters do, when constructing scenography.
I’m also reminded of the old problem from first day in philosophy class: a ship sets out to sea, during its voyages, parts are replaced as they fail. After a number of years, every last part has been replaced, is it then the same ship that set out? In this case, the ship has sunk. A new ship is constructed, 80 years later but with an engine room. The masts are still there but will merely be there for show. Is it then the same ship? To me, this is a silly proposition, replacing one symbol of oppression with another that is more clouded in history and thus more acceptable. But, we can always tear down the mock-palace and build a model of Palast der Republik, shaped like a can of coke, in a century or so. Can anyone think of a better way of spending money?