chapter  1
29 Pages

Introduction

The demolition of the Palast der Republik (Palace of the Republic), the monstrous former East German parliamentary building in the historical heart of Berlin, finally began in February 2006, following a bitter tug of war that spanned nearly two decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall. The razing of the Palast took two years and became an urban spectacle just like its original construction and bizarre postsocialist afterlife. The Palast was closed down in 1990 for asbestos removal, shortly after East German representatives approved the treaty of German reunification in it The building and its site were at the center of heated political debates and, despite the structure's disheveled and partially dismantled state, home to unconventional projects. The unexpected renaissance of the Palast began in 2004 when the remaining structure was opened for "interim use" and became an instant hit, especially with younger generations that had little or no first-hand experience of socialism (Oswalt 2005; Schrader 2005) It hosted innovative art installations, modern ballet and theater performances, film screenings, and allnight parties (Misselwitz et al. 2005) The offbeat boat tour in the partially flooded basement of the Palast, turned into a fantasyland of canals and small islands, was especially popular among tourists (Kimmelman 2008)

Despite the unforeseen success of the odd half-ruin, the German parliament never considered overturning the decision it made in 2003 to demolish the Palast and reconstruct the replica of the fac;ade of the Berliner Stadtschloss, the Baroque Imperial Palace which occupied the site before the East German state blew it up in 1950 (see Figure 11)

It remains to be seen whether the post-1989 German state committed the same political mistake as the communist leadership when it decided to raze the Imperial Palace in 1950. There are quite a few uncanny similarities between the trajectories of the two palaces. The Baroque Palace of the Hohenzollerns was severely damaged in World War II. The East German government decided to dynamite the ruins because doing away with the building seemed like an easy and efficient way to deal with Germany's imperial past But the bold move eventually backfired. First, many Germans classified this act among the worst crimes of the

East German regime which they were determined to set right after 1989. Second, filling the void actually turned out to be much more difficult than expected. It took nearly 25 years and a long series of aborted projects to erect the Palast, during which period the prominent site functioned mostly as a parking lot The monumental modernist block of the Palast finally opened in 1976, every bit of it flaunting the socialist government's conspicuous investment, including the display of imported Swedish marble and West German escalators, and lavish - well, by socialist standards - interior design (see Figure 12)

The architects who were commissioned to design the building sought to revive the Volkshaus concept of the nineteenth century workers' movement in an

attempt to combine political representative functions with public use, leisure, openness, and accessibility.' In addition to housing the East German parliament, the Palast also contained a Congress Hall with 5,000 seats, 13 restaurants and cafes, two discotheques, several art galleries, a theater and a bowling alley, quickly emerging as the most visited entertainment complex in East Berlin. That the Palast was so enmeshed in everyday life, and not simply a clear-cut symbol of the state and totalitarian rule, is what makes many East Berliners deeply resentful about the post-1989 political treatment of the building (see Figure 13)

The checkered history of the Palast der Republik underscores the central role of the state in matters of architecture and culture, and the thorny challenges facing architects who are expected to give lasting form to such politically charged projects. It is this intricate and dynamic relationship between the political agendas of the state and the intellectual programs of architects that constitutes the subject of this book.