The Humboldt Forum lifts its veil

On 12 June 2015, Berlin's new City Palace celebrated its topping out ceremony.
On 12 June 2015, Berlin’s new City Palace celebrated its topping out ceremony. Main entrance hall and cupola.

Celebrating ‘Richtfest’, reaching a building’s highest point, is a German tradition. In the case of Berlin’s new Humboldt Forum, which we’re not supposed to call City Palace, the party arrived sooner than everyone thought, as the project is, shall we say, controversial. Many ostalgians prefer its predecessor, the GDR’s Palace of the Republic, ‘an architectural atrocity with orange windows and asbestos inside’, to quote The Economist. It was razed to the ground in 2008 to make way for the new City Palace Humboldt Forum.

The Palace of the Republic in 1997, just before work started to remove its 5000 tonnes of asbestos.
The Palace of the Republic in 1997, just before work started to remove its 5000 tonnes of asbestos. Pic: dpa.

The historical to-and-fro on this site is ironic: first there was the old City Palace, built by Andreas Schlüter and Eosander von Göthe around 1700. Last monarch to occupy it was Wilhelm II, who fled into Dutch exile in 1918. Heavily bombed in World War II (but not unsalvageable), the government of the GDR considered the palace such a poignant symbol of Prussian tyranny that they blew it up in 1950 – keeping only one part: the ‘Liebknecht portal’ which contains the balcony from which Communist leader Karl Liebknecht proclaimed the German Soviet Republic on 9 November 1918. The portal was integrated in the Staatsrat building, Erich Honecker’s office, just across the road from where the palace had been. Then, in the 1970s, the GDR’s bronze glass and asbestos Palace of the Republic was built on the site previously occupied by the City Palace. As the GDR itself got confined to history, so did the Palace of the Republic, and things went full circle as construction of the new Humboldt Forum, a replica of the old City Palace, is now halfway completed.

Looking out at the old City Palace's Liebknecht portal, integrated in the GDR's Staatsrat building
Looking out at the old City Palace’s Liebknecht portal, integrated in the GDR’s Staatsrat building

Funding of the Humboldt Forum project has always been precarious. In the end, the German federal government agreed to foot the bill for the new ethnology museum that the palace will house and which had to be built anyway. But the cost of the baroque stonemasonry that will make the building look like its 1702 predecessor has to come from private funds, and the money isn’t fully there yet – hence the hearts and minds (and money) exercise organised over the weekend of 12 to 14 June 2015. If all goes well, ironically, Berlin will have two Liebknecht portals (one on the Staatsrat, one on the Humboldt Forum), but no more communism.

This is how far construction had proceeded on 7 April 2014 - just 14 months before topping out.
This is how far construction had proceeded on 7 April 2014 – just 14 months before topping out. Good views of the Palace’s neighbours: Marstall (Palace Stables), Staatsrat (GDR Upper Chamber) and Auswärtiges Amt (Foreign Office)

Most of the thousands of visitors to this weekend’s open house looked like Berliners – they certainly were different from the hordes of tourists in shorts and sunglasses hanging out in Lustgarten outside. Most people were over 50, conservatively dressed – West or East Berlin, or from outside the city? Hard to tell.

The building's rough shell itself was ok - but the views of its neighbours were spectacular
The building’s rough shell was interesting enough – but the views of its neighbours, like the Altes Museum, were spectacular.

The fundraisers for the palace’s completion got ample exhibition space, but the open house wasn’t a begging exercise – access was free, and the collection boxes weren’t that conspicuous. If anything, the Humboldt Forum’s partners got pride of place. On each corner of the building, the neighbours got the opportunity to present themselves – the German Historical Museum across the road on Unter den Linden, the project to reconstruct Schinkel’s red-brick Academy of Architecture, the Foreign Office, the management institute that occupies the GDR’s former Council of State, and so on.

Who knows, Schinkel's Bauakademie may be Berlin's next historical reproduction...
Schinkel’s Bauakademie, currently faux cloth on scaffolding, may be Berlin’s next historical reproduction…

Students from the Hanns Eisler music academy, which is housed in the Marstall, the stables and service building of the old City Palace, played jazzy big band tunes which fitted right in with the visitors’ demographics.

Although touring the second floor would find you some non-standard catering, including an Israeli falafel stand, the main entrance hall of course contained the staple of any German festival: a bratwurst stand and a beer wagon. So far, so traditional.

Can't have a serious party without a bratwurst stand.
Can’t have a serious party without a bratwurst stand.

Hard to say when the next time will be Joe Public can go see the City Palace. Maybe it will only be by the time the Humboldt Forum actually opens – and Neil McGregor, current director of the British Museum, connoisseur of all things German and curator of the excellent ‘Memories of a Nation’ exhibition, will have woven his magic wand over the Forum’s concept and content.

Many displays showed how the building's external stone masonry will be recreated.
Many displays showed how the building’s external stone masonry will be recreated – failing actual masonry, screen- printed cloth had to do!
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