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Old Posted Feb 11, 2006, 6:48 PM
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Trying to Save Berlin Relic From the Dustbin

BERLIN - Some buildings are harder to love than others. No matter how many good citizens jump to their defense, they can't seem to shake a bad reputation.

But by any standard, the Palace of the Republic here is a particularly tough case. Opened in 1976 as the home of the East German Parliament, the huge steel-and-concrete building, clad in bronze-colored windows, has become an emblem of a failed ideology. The government padlocked it soon after reunification of the two Germanys in 1990, gutted its interiors toward the end of the decade and has since been trying to tear down what's left of it.

Now, after years of delays, demolition could begin as early as this month.

Yet in the last year or so, a growing chorus of voices has been rising in defense of the building. These are not grizzled old Communists hoping for a return to the glory days of socialism. They are architectural activists, mainly in their late 30's and early 40's, who refuse to see the Palace in purely ideological terms. Less dogmatic than their elders, they have cited elements of the building's beauty that many Germans - conditioned by decades of cold war oratory - find difficult to to see.

Their cause is broader than a single building: it is a revolt against historical censorship. Like preservationists struggling to save 2 Columbus Circle in New York or late-Soviet landmarks in Moscow, they are fighting those who insist on pitting history against modernity, people who would seek to smooth over historical contradictions in favor of a more simplistic narrative. Their battleground is the world their parents left them: the oft-maligned Modernist buildings of the 1960's and 70's.

Few buildings are as politically fraught as the Palace. It was built on the grave of the Stadtschloss, a Baroque palace that the East Germans demolished in 1950 after denouncing it as a grotesque symbol of nationalist pride. After German reunification, the building's interiors were stripped bare when it was discovered that its steel frame was coated by hazardous asbestos. Its famous starburst-shaped light fixtures, which numbered in the hundreds, were unceremoniously ripped out. Meanwhile, a movement was born to replace it with a new version of what is commonly called the Schloss - a self-conscious re-creation of historical facades, with a conventional interior.

Philipp Oswalt, a 41-year-old architect who helped organize the campaign to save the Palace, has no illusions about its history. He is not blind to the sins of the former East German government. Trying to replicate its original rooms, he admits, would be as false as trying to rebuild the Schloss - a parody of real history.

The Palace of the Republic in 1986.

But Mr. Oswalt does not dismiss the Palace as an architectural embarrassment, as many older conservative architects have done. Along with the parliament, it included a concert hall that was one of the most technologically advanced of its day; its seating could be mechanically reconfigured to suit different events. The building's dazzling public lobby, surrounded by several tiers of restaurants, was once considered the center of social life in East Berlin. With its countless hanging light fixtures, it was as opulent in its way as Lincoln Center - a cultural complex that is also considered by some aesthetes to be in bad taste. And many recall dancing the night away in its underground disco.

The more quickly you shed your prejudices, the better the building looks as a work of architecture. The Palace is ugliest when approached from the west along Unter der Linden. Set perpendicular to the street, its hulking form seems to turn a cold shoulder to the imposing predominantly 19th-century monuments that face it across the street, including Karl Friedrich Schinkel's Altes Museum, whose classically proportioned facade is one of the great accomplishments of German architecture. The palace's comparatively uniform facade is far less graceful. And sadly, most of its bronzed windows are cracked and covered in dirt. (The last time I visited, a decrepit Ferris wheel - part of a cheesy Christmas fair - rose in front of the Palace's main facade, adding to the sense of indignity.)

Yet many of the Palace's problems could be solved by simply rethinking the barren area just to the west, where a sensitively designed new building could begin to weld the palace and its 19th-century neighbors into a coherent urban composition. And the Palace has a harmonious relationship with the 1960's and 1970's structures to the east. Seen from the base of the soaring 1969 television tower, for example, its reflective glass facade is a serene backdrop to the emptiness of Marx-Engels Platz. The uniform strip of Communist-era buildings that frames the plaza's northern edge lends the area an unexpected unity.

If anything, in fact, the Palace's relationship to its context evokes that of Hans Scharoun's 1979 State Library, an acknowledged landmark that is in many ways the Palace's Western counterpart. Both were built at the height of the cold war as supposed emblems of a government's progressive values. Just as the Palace turns its back on the 19th-century city, Scharoun's library now turns its back on Potsdamer Platz, the former death zone that separated postwar East and West, now the site of a cluster of new corporate towers.

And then there's the interior of the Palace, which is far more likely to stir the interest of a young architect than the facades. Divided into three distinct areas, with the parliament and concert halls flanking the main lobby, the interior has been reduced to a grid of rusting steel beams. Even so, many of these areas retain some of their original character. To New Yorkers, the lobby's grand staircase, surrounded by rows of balconies, may conjure the grand hall of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. And here and there, you can still get a feel for the lustrous light that filtered through the bronzed windows into the rows of corridors that wrap around the building.

Embedded within their steel frame, the three adjoining spaces evoke an immense hive buzzing with urban activity.

That dynamism has led Mr. Oswalt and others to compare the Palace to an earlier favorite of the architectural avant-garde: Cedric Price's 1961 Fun Palace for East London. A theoretical design that was never built, Price's Palace was conceived as a constantly shifting array of cultural activities plugged into a gigantic steel frame. Lacking walls, floors or a roof, it relied on an elaborate system of mechanical systems intended to allow the public to move freely through the space. Open-air "rooms" were framed by giant video projection screens and curtains of warm air.

The hollow shell of the Palace of the Republic also brings to mind more recent projects, like Rem Koolhaas's 1994 Congrexpo, an exhibition and congress hall in Lille, France, that was conceived as a collection of urban fragments enveloped in a gigantic egg-shaped shell.

What these projects share is a resolve to pack the chaotic intensity of a city into a single building. And it is that ethos that many young architects now hope to tap into to revive the Palace. Even in its state of decay, it exudes a spirit that has so far escaped people who are blinded by anti-Modernist prejudices and fearful of anything that originated in the postwar Communist East.

The split between these forces has an Oedipal subtext, as well. Like most of us, many Germans are more comfortable dealing with the distant past, however fraught. In recent years, for example, Berlin has happily renovated many of its Nazi-era landmarks, like the 1936 Olympic Stadium by Werner March, a building whose rigid geometrical forms were a stark expression of Nazi conformity. (It will be home to the 2006 World Cup soccer championship.)

By comparison, the generation that built the Palace is still mostly alive. For many Germans, that means their parents. It may be too packed with psychological baggage for many people to judge rationally. You could see the resentment against the Palace as a form of parricide, the inevitable break of the sacred bond between parent and child.

In the late 1970's, the analyst Hans Loewald said this break is never complete; when it is repressed, it only tends to resurface in other forms. The most thoughtful young architects working today seem to have grasped this message. They are more tolerant of the contradictions of the past, and more interested in making peace with their own history. They recognize that buildings loaded with emotional meaning are often in the most need of protection - and that they raise the most interesting questions about how we shape a narrative of architectural history.

The most promising future for the Palace, in fact, may be to seize on its structure as a framework for new ideas. Price's design offers one road map in this regard. I can also envision a commission in which each of the three zones is reconceived by a different architect. Since the German government has never invited architects to study alternate futures for the building seriously, we don't yet know what's possible.

How many sites present as rich an opportunity to investigate how a society can move forward without cutting itself off from the most sensitive parts of its history?

In this regard, the government's support for a kitschy castle should be viewed as the worst kind of architectural crime: an act of cultural parricide that rules out the possibility of redemption.
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