In the very center of Berlin, at the bank of the river Spree and right across the huge Berlin Cathedral or “Berliner Dom” is a very busy construction site. It’s the reconstruction of the City Palace as the so called “Humboldt-Forum”. The new name indicates that the exterior of the old baroque City Palace will be (almost) reconstructed, but not the interior. The 21st century Berlin doesn’t need another palace, but a cultural space with museums and cultural institutions. “Humboldt” is the family name of two brothers who helped shape Berlin’s, Prussia’s and Germany’s educational and academic system: Alexander von Humboldt who travelled extensively and was a scholar in many fields and Wilhelm von Humboldt who was a diplomat and a reformer of schools and universities. Berlin’s (not Prussia’s!) first university was founded in 1810 according to his ideas and is today named after the Humboldt brothers.
+++The Berliner Schloss (City palace) is in walking distance from the beautiful square Gendarmenmarkt, the site of the Nazi book burning on Bebelplatz, and the TV tower. You might also be interested in our self-guided Berlin Mitte tour.++
A Castle in the Late Middle Ages
The first castle on the site was built in the middle of the 15th century, when the monarchs moved their capital from Brandenburg (now the name of a small town but also the state of Brandenburg that surrounds Berlin which is also a state) to Berlin. There are no records of the medieval castle, other that it served not only as the residence of the ruling family but as a fortress to protect the city as well. Berlin had become important for the trade. In the 16th century, the castle was demolished and replaced by a Renaissance palace that every following monarch would upgrade.
A Palace for a King
The baroque building that is currently under reconstruction is from the early 1700s. Frederick III, elector of Prussia, wanted the crown of a king (in Germany’s many states were several kings, e.g. the king of Bavaria). He managed to be called Frederick I King of Prussia in 1701 and he needed a representative palace. Andreas Schlüter, one of the best master builders of his time, built the large palace. The king commissioned a tall tower, built on the medieval basis of the castle, to house an expensive carillon, bought in the Netherlands. Andreas Schlüter did his best, he even used iron to fortify the 308-feet-tower (94 meters), but he failed and was fired. His rival, Eosander von Göthe who was the builder of Charlottenburg Palace (now in Berlin, then in the countryside) delivered plans for another enlargement.
When Frederick I died in 1713, his son Frederick William I checked the state of the treasury and he didn’t like what he saw. So he fired a lot of his father’s architects and artists and had the palace finished by one of Andreas Schlüters student’s. The characteristic dome that catches the viewer’s eye on old pictures was added only in the years 1845 – 1853. The City palace was the main residence of many kings of Prussia and the Emperors of Germany.
Damage and Demolition
In the last year of World War II, 1945, the City palace was heavily damaged. The socialist administration in the Soviet Sector failed to secure the building and in 1950, the German Democratic Republic (GDR, founded in 1949) had the whole building demolished. Only one piece of the wall was spared and later added to the State Council Building (seat of the collective head of state in the GDR). It includes the balcony, where the German communist leader Karl Liebknecht declared the Communist Republic of Germany on November 9th 1918, after World War I. This communist republic never happened, but for the GDR this balcony was an important historic site. The empty space where the palace had been was named “Marx-Engels-Square” and was left empty until in 1973, the “Palace of the Republic” was finished. The Palace of the Republic was the seat of the “People’s Chamber” (Volkskammer) the parliament of the GDR and housed a concert hall and some restaurants.
After the reunification of Germany, some people called for the reconstruction of the City Palace and founded an association to raise funds and lobby. Others didn’t see the point, sometimes those who had liked the Palace of the Republic and had positive memories of time spent in a concert or a restaurant there. The pro-faction argued with the gap that the missing palace had left in the ensemble of the historic buildings in the center of Berlin and the historic importance of the palace itself. The naysayers didn’t want to spend the money and didn’t like the idea to eliminate the most recent history: the GDR. The fact, that the Palace of the Republic was full of asbestos, helped foster the idea or a reconstruction of the City Palace. In 2002, the German parliament voted it with a two third majority. Construction started in 2012, the architect is the Italian Francesco Stella. The building is to be finished in 2019. The builder-owner is a foundation; about 10% of the money shall be from donations.
The “Humboldt-Forum” will be a unique cooperation of several institutions: the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation with parts of its collection, the Humboldt University and the Central and Regional Library of Berlin. They will exhibit their treasures together, organized along different topics, not along the boundaries of the different institutions. The overall theme will be the “dialogue with the cultures of the world”, namely the ones beyond Europe. To show that the Humboldt-Forum is not the old imperial palace, one side, the one at the bank of the river Spree, will not be reconstructed in baroque, but in a simple modernist style.
++On our Berlin-in-a-in a day-Walking Tour we’ll stop by the City Palace.++
Written by Gundula Schmidt-Graute