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Berlin Rebuilt

However, when I was there, the Platz had been torn up for reconstruction, excavated to a depth of about 12 feet. Exposed in the middle of this construction site, wrapped in murky plastic held in place by two-by-fours, was a cubic structure the size of a small room—the formerly subterranean memorial—a perfect image of the way Berlin conscientiously carries its terrible past forward, carefully wrapped for preservation, as it reconstructs itself for a new era.

When Berlin was divided, in 1949, the city's most important symbol of imperial power, the Royal Palace—a massive domed Baroque edifice that was the true seat of Hohenzollern power—fell into the eastern, or Communist, sector. It was located on the Museumsinsel (Museum Island), which sits in the Spree, the small river that winds through Berlin. The palace faced the Schlossplatz, adjacent to the Lustgarten, or Royal Garden, now covered in nothing but grass, the two together creating a large empty space around which elements of 18th-century Hohenzollern rule, 19th-century imperialism, and 20th-century Communism create one of the headiest mixtures of historical resonance in Berlin.The Communists, of course, had no use whatever for Hohenzollern memory, and so when, in the fifties, Walter Ulbricht, then secretary of the East German Communist Party, needed an important site for a government building, he summarily ordered the Royal Palace destroyed. In its place he put a rectangular box of a building, sheathed in gold-tinted glass, and called it the Palast der Republik, or Palace of the Republic.

The Royal Palace has been on the minds of Berliners, however. In fact, in 1993, the Palace of the Republic was wrapped in fabric imprinted with an image of the former Royal Palace. That bit of trompe l'oeil, which was sponsored by a West German corporation, is long gone, but a lengthy debate over what to do with the Palace of the Republic has been resolved in favor of tearing it down and rebuilding a replica of the Royal Palace, once enough money has been raised. It is interesting that the Germans are reaching back to the Hohenzollerns to anchor their identity, though it is hardly a unanimous decision. In the ferocious debate about the future of the Palace of the Republic, some argued that as the site of a totalitarian government, the building should be torn down; others, that because it was so ugly, to leave it standing would be the best possible way of memorializing the crimes of that regime. East Berliners said they were fond of the building (there used to be a recreation center with bowling there) and would like to see it remain. In the meantime, the palace was found to be loaded with asbestos and had to be closed for a costly cleanup that now, with the decision to tear it down, has proven to be unnecessary. Mixing issues of historical memory with democracy can be a messy business.

The Museumsinsel itself has been the focus of a massive restoration project that will not be completed until 2012. Of the other buildings around the Schlossplatz, the most important, architecturally speaking, is the Altes Museum, designed by Karl Friedrich Schinkel in the early 19th century, in a forcefully dominant Neoclassical style, which had become the language of empire at that time. Schinkel served the monarchy faithfully, celebrating its supremacy during a period when monarchies were fast going out of fashion. Still, in moving from the 18th-century Frederick Forum to the 19th-century Altes Museum, one feels the sudden blast of modern reality—of the shift toward the far more dangerous mood of rivalry between industrially advanced nations.

The Altes Museum is a horizontally expansive building with 18 Ionic columns lining the front and 16 Prussian eagles, now blackened with soot, along the long, flat roofline. It was designed to house the great Greek and Egyptian collections that German archaeologists had brought home. All first-rate colonial powers had booty of this sort, and the Hohenzollerns wanted nothing more than to be on a footing with, for example, the British with their Elgin marbles. Flanking the entrance, at odds, in their kinetic energy, with the unyielding severity of the museum, are two large, somewhat hysterical bronze statues ofnudes on horseback, attacking and being attacked by lions. On the very top of the building stands a stiff sculpture of a horse rearing. Whereas other works of Schinkel's are smooth and elegant, there is an awkwardness about the Altes Museum—the perhaps overreaching extent of the façade, the possibly questionable proportion of the rearing horse. And in this very awkwardness there is a gritty sense of a culture straining and stumbling that seems specifically Prussian; here a style that is inherently serene and cerebral has a disturbing undertone of irrationality.

The Communist government had only contempt for antiquities, but it was underfunded, and tearing down a pile like the Altes Museum would have been expensive, which is why it still stands. We can also thank the East German government's lack of funding for the continued existence of the Berliner Dom, a massive cathedral in the neo-Renaissance style completed under Kaiser Wilhelm II, in 1905. Though any lover of architecture must wish that the Dom and not the Royal Palace had gone down under Communism, the Dom remains an interesting testament to the mood of the times, conceived as a Protestant retort to St. Peter's in Rome and as an affirmation that the kaiser was God's instrument on earth. Grand but hideous, soot-stained and neglected-looking, it is an astonishingly suitable memorial to an outmoded regime that reeled on into the 20th century, with tragic results. Next to it the Palace of the Republic stands ruined and abandoned, the image of the Dom darkened and distorted in its gold glass panels.

If one building could be said to have had a bombastic ideology of aggression and dominance at its core, it was the Reichstag. Erected to house the legislative body established by Otto von Bismarck, prime minister to the Hohenzollerns, it is now the parliamentary seat of the newly unified Germany. But this did not happen easily. Indeed, because of its turgid late-19th-century militaristic air, it posed what seemed an almost insurmountable problem of design. Lord Norman Foster's brilliant glass dome, however, has brought it into the 21st century through a kind of miraculous transformation.

A massive, heavily ornamented edifice that once had an ornate dome, the Reichstag presented a problem for contemporary Germans not so much because of its actual origins as because it seemed to epitomize the strain in the German temperament that led to Nazism. Ironically, some Nazi leaders disliked the Reichstag because of its association with democracy (the legislative body was elected by the people, though the kaiser had full veto power over its decisions). However, though Hitler liked the building, his party actually occupied it for only a very short time before a fire destroyed the interior and brought down the dome. By the time the Nazis took power, the Reichstag was a dismal wreck and the new government had to meet in the Kroll Opera house. And so the Reichstag sat, until the end of the century, like other buildings of its era, saved from destruction principally by the sheer cost of razing it.

After the Wall came down in 1989, the possible use of the Reichstag as the seat of Parliament was hotly debated. During this period the artist Christo wrapped the building in canvas. It was by many accounts a moving sight. Berliners would gather in front just to gaze at it.

Lord Norman Foster's solution for the Reichstag—once the decision had been made to use it—was to erect a new dome, but in glass, representing the transparency of government in contrast to the opacity and unresponsiveness conveyed by the old façade. The transformed building has been oft photographed but is one of those architectural marvels that must not so much be seen as experienced. Foster stripped lots of the ornamentation from the old façade, revealing proportions that are in fact quite handsome. But the dome is what does it. To reach the top, you climb gently spiraling ramps as you look out at spectacular, ever-changing views of the city. Connoisseurs of architecture tend to regard Foster's dome as too cautious and conservative. But the fact is that although it replicates a classical form, the dome in glass utterly transforms a building that was as difficult aesthetically and symbolically as a building could be. When, in the course of my climb to the top, I looked back to watch people entering from the elevator, I noticed a signature look coming over their faces—a bemused smile under a clear brow, quiet delight, a lifting. As a response to the Reichstag, that is really something.


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