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The first time I walked by Times Square a few years ago, I didn’t think very much of it. The place had already gone through its transformation from seedy to touristic and the place felt mainly like a scaled up version of Piccadilly Circus, taller buildings, more lights and more traffic. It possessed no qualities to make you want to stop and experience the space, but rather functioned as a backdrop to the idea of the city, a typical scenography space with no life of its own.

On my return last week, the space had gone through a gargantuan transformation. Streets had become pedestrianised, people were standing still on these and staring upwards with vacant looks on their faces. At first I figured some kind of super-villain had taken over the city and hypnotised everybody, you know, like in the comic magazines. Then I looked up and saw the giant Television screens on the facades, even an auditorium with no stage but facing the screens.

Looking back down again, I noticed families sitting around tables, watching and listening and discussing the shows with friends, cops or basically anybody standing nearby. In a sense the place has been turned into a giant living room, or a temple to the gods of television depending on the level of cynicism applied.

I have a hard time making my mind up about this space. If we start with the positive view of it, as the living room of the city. Times square has become a place where people feel at home and enjoy the spectacle without fear or suspicion, an otherwise far too common ingredient in our relationship with the city. People behave like they would in their home in front of their own television set, but in urban setting. The space turns the home inside out and puts it in an urban setting. It is a setting everybody knows and the rules and behavioral patterns are clear to everybody, making it an easy space for people to appreciate and experience the spectacle in some form of unity that crosses the borders of your standard urban tribe.

It doesn’t really matter that they’re all tourists, they are all just humans together enjoying a spectacle together that they would otherwise have enjoyed separately at home. Perhaps something good will come out of this, it is always a good thing to me when people choose to do things together and in public rather than in private. In that sense this is a new type of public space, where the private space of the home has become public. This is a very comfortable way of creating public space, and an interesting one.

With a more cynical approach on the other hand, the new Times Square reminds me a lot of George Orwell’s 1984, just take a look at this, and compare it with the image above. It is very easy to read the space as a space of open mass-indoctrination, of hypnotising people, telling them what to think and how to consume themselves happy. In a sense it displays very openly all that is wrong with television and what a powerful weapon it is. The agenda for the space, and for how it is used is set not by the participants in the space, but by somebody else somewhere else with their own agenda. This prospect becomes really frightening when you walk by the nearby Newscorp building and read their news-ticker for instance.

In that sense, Times Square is no public space at all, but rather something potentially like a permanent mass-meeting. A very strange space where the TV-personalities and spectators are replaced but the meeting goes on. In that sense, it’s a great relief that this space is in cosmopolitan New York City rather than somewhere with a more homogeneous population; the heterogeneity of NYC should keep the space from being abused to any greater extent, at least for the time being. It is however a very powerful space, and I suspect that sooner or later somebody will discover this and use it for something that I’d rather they didn’t.

I am, as I mentioned above, extremely ambivalent to this space. Public life is good by definition, to create contact between people is always a good thing. On the other hand is this a space that appears so easy to abuse, but that’s probably just my skepticism to television talking, go and have a look and make up your own minds.

The average American household apparently has a television set turned on four eight hours and eighteen minutes daily, so it’s no wonder the place is packed with people and will be a success.

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?