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Can we do away with history?

Palast des Zweifels © Gorm K. Gaare

It's almost inevitable that the Palast der Republik, the architectural symbol of the GDR in Berlin, will be demolished. The reconstruction of the Hohenzollern castle, the former building on the site, is becoming far more regularly discussed.

In the fifties the Ulbrich administration allowed the complete demolition of the castle, which had already been damaged during the war, although not as badly as a number of buildings which were subsequently rebuilt. Of course, as a symbol of monarchy, it wasn't highly regarded by the socialists, who were trying to build up a revolutionary image. The architecture reflected the political ethos of the time: a different cultural aesthetic, focusing on functionality. (A well-known example is the mythical Alexanderplatz).
The construction of the enormous Palast der Republik, situated on the southeast side of the Schloßplatz, started in 1973 and took three years to complete. The building was designed to be both the seat of the East German Parliament (the Volkskammer) and a cultural centre holding exhibitions and events. The huge palace, designed by the architect Heinz Graffunder, is a 180 metre long and 87 metre wide rectangular block, partially covered with dark-brown glass and metallic gold shutters, and partially with white marble. Originally, there was a large hall with 5000 seats, the Parliament, many restaurants and bars, a theatre and even a bowling alley.
For 14 years it represented one of the most important public buildings of the German Democratic Republic. It also housed a remarkable permanent art collection, now stored at the Deutsches Historisches Museum, which consisted of works admired by the regime. The interior furnishings were strongly criticized for many years. Hundreds of lamps hanging from the ceiling of the main foyer were given the nickname Erichs Lampenladen (Erich's lamp shop), refering to the president Erichs Honecker.

Palast der Republik © Gary L. Catchen

Problems began in 1990, when the building was closed due to asbestos contained in the structure. Since then, demolition of the building has seemed all but inevitable. This has led to public outcry and numerous demonstrations by supporters of the preservation ot the Palast der Republik.
In 1998 the asbestos was removed and the building began holding events again, awaiting the last judgment. In the latest discussion it was argued that the building was a model of functional architecture, although most believed it stood an example of socialist bad taste.
In any case, it's true that today the palace seems like an exhausted giant waiting for the end. It's old and dirty, in a city undergoing massive restoration and rennovation; a capital that, despite significant financial problems, is striving to push itself forward.
Even if the reconstruction of the Hohenzollern castle can't be realized now, some photographic simulation indicates that it is possible: signs of the GDR are not to remain on this site. Instead, visitors will be able to catch a glimpse of Friedrich the Great´s Berlin. A nostalgic exhibition of illustrations and drawings commemorate the former glory of the palace in the time of the Hohenzollern.

The current installation of Lars Ø Ramberg, Zweifel (doubt) looks like a scream. A word, a logo, an idea, a provocation. Giant letters, illuminated by neon-lamps, are part of a project which, while avoiding direct political connotations, tries to discover the meaning of identity in a global world and in Germany, which has faced identity issues since the reunification. The message is not as explicit as that presented by two politicians from the PDS in 1997, who wrote: "Stop the demolition". It is rather more subtle and also more appropriate for these times. The signboard, dominating the roof, gives the palace a new name: Palast des Zweifels (palace of doubt); and you actually doubt you follow all these story.

Maybe we can no longer see it as a symbol of utopia, but is it right do away with a building which was the centrepiece of such an important period in the history of Berlin?

Text: Giovanna Conte
Translation: Mattia Riccardi/Sarah Stephenson

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