Berlin’s Art Community Fights to Save East German Architectural Icon

Berlin’s art community fights to save an East German architectural icon.

In a city where architectural brawls rival the World Cup for zeal, the effort to save Berlin’s Palast der Republik offers one of the rowdiest architectural debates yet. After years-long delay, Germany’s Bundestag will decide on January 20 whether to go ahead with demolition plans, despite a counter-surge of support from the city’s arts community.

A hulking bronze shell across from the Berliner Dom, the Palast jangles a lot of historical nerves. Completed in 1976 by architect Heinz Graffunder, the Palast replaced the Baroque Berliner Stadtschloss (City Castle), viewed by Communist East Germany as a distasteful symbol of Prussian imperial militarism. The Palast housed both the East German Parliament and a pleasure dome for das Volk, including a reconfigurable concert hall, discos, restaurants, and a bowling alley. Its imposing lobby, choked with brilliant chandeliers, earned the Palast its nickname “Erich’s lamp shop,” after Communist party leader Erich Honecker. Shuttered after reunification in 1990, the city later stripped the Palast’s interior of asbestos, leaving the building to deteriorate into its current state: gap-toothed and brutally, majestically large. The Palast radiates almost palpable spores of its Communist past into Berlin’s prime real estate. Talk of destroying the Palast began in 2002, when the Bundestag voted to build a historical-cultural center on the site, evoking the Berliner Stadtschloss in style; however, at an estimated cost of 670 million to 1.2 billion euros, the strapped German government has still not secured funding for the plan.

Meanwhile, rising support for the Palast comes not from sentimental old Communists, but Berlin’s younger generation of West and East German artists. Since the Palast’s condemnation in 2003, artists and theater troupes filled the raw, unheated space for some of the city’s most daring exhibits and theater. In September 2004, Berlin’s Raumlabor flooded the building and invited visitors to float through its vast spaces in lifeboats. In January 2005, Norwegian artist Lars Ramberg set the word “ZWEIFEL” (Doubt) in looming white letters on the roof; against the postcard-backdrop of the Berliner Dom and the Berlin TV tower, it called out the city’s primary malaise, a self-loathing of its dark past mixed with exuberance to move forward. Artist collective Fraktale IV evoked the building’s demise with an exhibit on death in December 2005, supposedly the Palast’s last show—until White Cube opened just days later, a critically acclaimed exhibit pulled together in just ten days by some of Germany’s most prominent artists.

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Simultaneously, activist group Palast Rescuers has marshaled demonstrations, op-eds, and now a calling campaign to the Bundestag’s swing votes before Friday. Christina Tilmann, the arts editor of Berlin’s daily newspaper Tagesspiegel, sums up their views aptly: “[these things are]clear…how rich the Berlin art scene is, how rare it is to witness such a display of unity, and how desperately necessary this sort of arena is for young art. This is far more than just an articulation of fun culture…and there is also more to it than morbid romanticism of the great gutted ruin of a building.” Palast supporters point out the danger in selectively wiping out unpleasant bits of history and emphasize the opportunites to be found in this building that spontaneously and communally takes on new life. Redeeming wrongs and allowing the layered nature of history to show through is part of the beauty of urban living.

A roiling public debate, a chance to heal historical wounds, and a vividly awake site where art seems to happen organically: what more could a city ask for? A replica castle, sadly, could be the answer.

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