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Berlin is a city that has been described as "constantly being reinvented." Throughout its history it has been rebuilt time and time again as different iterations of the city become relevant. 

 

Such a place provides an incredible case study for how one reads social evolution through architecture and urbanism. The last 100 years are particularly telling as the scars of a recent trauma are still visible in the cities' fabric. 

 

In this on going series I explore the architecture that tells the history of one of Europe's most  influential capitals. 

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“Shameful Demolition”

100cmx120cm
Modeling Paste, Acrylic, Gold-leaf, on Canvas
2020

On the 3rd of February, 1945, during the bombings of Berlin that marked the culmination of World War II, the Berlin Palace, ancestral seat of Prussia’s kings, was damaged by the explosives, and subsequently caught fire. The building burned for almost four days.

Yet, the Prussian kings had built this palace to last, and despite the heavy damage its foundations were still surprisingly firm and solid; a fact that did not please the leadership of the German Democratic Republic. They sought to wipe out Prussian pride for fear of history’s power to nourish social identity. For a government bent on maintaining control over people’s very thoughts, the presence of such a powerful symbol of an alternate German identity could not be tolerated. 

Despite being sound enough to be saved, the palace was slated for demolition in July of 1950. The reasons presented by the Council of Ministers of the GDR referred to the building being “too far gone,” but Berliners knew better. Throughout the city protests erupted at the wanton destruction of a piece of Berlin’s heart. It was truly a shameful demolition; an attack on cultural heritage born of cowardice.

Prof. Dr. Richard Hamann, Dean of the Art History Faculty of the East Berlin Humboldt University said: “As long as someone does not forcibly shut my mouth, I will not stop protesting against this decision, and indeed, not as a supporter of the West, but rather as a son of the East who is bound in my inmost being to Berlin and its culture, and who is at pains in questions of culture, to give preference to the East as to those things which it has a right to through its great legacy of art, like the Berlin Palace.”
 

“The Palace of the ‘People’ ”

100cmx120cm
Modeling Paste, Acrylic, Gold-leaf, on Canvas
2020
 

After clearing the smoldering ruins of Prussia's imperial palace, the GDR erected their own view of what Berlin's heart was to be under their domain. The Palace of the Republic (Palast der Republik) was the result, and it hosted the Volkskammer, the parliament of the German Democratic Republic from 1976 to 1990.

The Palace of the Republic was also known as "People's Palace," and was meant to stand in defiance of what was once there; a palace dedicated to monarchy and the iron rule of the emperors. Unlike its predecessor that was meant to keep people out while also presenting itself as a symbol of the crown's power, the Palast was meant to draw people in. Its façade was modern and open, and within its halls there was  more than just the government; two large auditoria, art galleries, a theatre, 13 restaurants, a bowling alley, a post office, and a discothèque.

In 1990, the Palast became vacant following German reunification and closed for health reasons due to over 5,000 tones of asbestos in the building.  The Palast was demolished between 2006 and 2008.

Much like the dream of the East's democratic experiment - that resulted as fundamentally flawed - so too was the Palast flawed at its core; while it held such promise, within its very walls there was rot and poison that could not be saved or undone. 

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“Democracy's Castle”

120cmx160cm
Modeling Paste, Acrylic, Gold-leaf, on Canvas
2020
 

Berlin is a city that is constantly being reinvented. It is a city that represents the fusion of past and future like no other in Europe. It is therefore fitting that its beating heart be a testament to this legacy as well. In 2003 the German government decided to demolish the old GDR Palast, and concluded this demolition by 2008, leaving behind a large empty crevice at the very center of the city. 

As any democracy should, the fate of this emblematic location was to be decided by a vote. Some argued to leave it empty as a park, others to build a new building to represent Berlin's new identity, and others still argued for the reconstruction of the old palace, thus restoring the city center to what it once was. The latter was deemed as preferable, but there were those who opposed this. 

Sparking a controversy throughout the nation, many argued that spending tax-payer money on the construction of a castle - a symbol of the opposite of democracy - was a tremendous hypocrisy.  Why should the people spend money to rebuild something meant to oppress them? Why does a democracy need a castle?

Yet Germany is a democracy, and the fundamentals of democracy lie in compromise. The decision was made to build something quite unique. Rather than a faithful reconstruction of the old castle, a new building would come up that simply "dressed" like the old one. Three of its facades would be exact reconstructions of the old palace, including interior courtyards. Yet the inside of the building, as well as the façade facing the iconic Alexanderplatz, would be modern. 

Within its halls there would not be luxurious apartments, or government auditoriums, but rather a museum dedicated to world culture and heritage. As Berlin becomes a world capital with one of the most diverse and international populations, the new Humboldt Forum will celebrate this new stage of Berlin's identity. Opening its doors in 2020 we must now see what this fusion of old and new - this iteration of Berlin's heart - will bring to the city that has been at the forefront of human history for the past 100 years.

-Berlin Reinvented is an ongoing series-