Palast der Republik

Kreuzberged on East Berlin’s long-demolished people’s palace and the resurrection of the old Prussian Stadtschloss…

Bright, modern and open to all (10am-midnight daily), East Berlin’s Palast der Republik was an immediate sensation when it opened on April 25th, 1976 (the official opening ceremony, attended by Erich Honecker, took place two days earlier).

Tens of thousands of visitors flocked to see the building’s lavish, high-tech interior: the marble floors of the foyer, the massive glass flower that adorned the entrance hall (along with the politically correct works of art), the 13 restaurants – the biggest of which featured porcelain wall panels produced by former royal supplier Meißner Porzellan.

Designed in the best socialist tradition by an architect collective run by one of the chief GDR designers Heinz Graffunder, the linear, blocky structure with its 180-metre-long, 25-metre-high front façade comprised mostly of golden-brown copper-glass windows, mocked by some as “shoebox architecture”, resembled a concrete-and-glass bunker more than a conventional palace, contrasting provocatively—and deliberately—with the baroque and neo-classical architecture of the nearby Museum Island.

A host of entertainment delights awaited visitors inside: a theatre, a bowling alley, 16 escalators that could change direction to best match the current needs inside the building, a quartet of speedy lifts that transported crowds between all accessible levels, and no less than 68 toilets – 50 for ladies, 14 for gents including 44 ‘P.P.s’ or Porzelan Pissoirs, and even four W.C.s for the disabled visitors. The palace even came with its own post-office, featuring eight stands, 15 coin-operated phones, a Telex and its own PdR stamps.

The Jungendtreff or “youth club” with its two polished stone dance floors also offered pinball and billiards, though the building’s premier showpiece were undoubtedly its lights: 10,000 of them, set in round, hand-blown glass shades that seemed to grow organically out of the metal ceiling frames like glowing paper lanterns—a phenomenon that gave the Palast its endearing nickname, Erichs Lampenladen (Erich’s Lamp Shop).

The concept of a Volkspalast, or what the French called the maison du peuple, was not new. When GDR leader Erich Honecker suggested building the PdR in the middle of East Berlin, he was drawing on an idea that harked back to the beginnings of the workers´ movement in the 19th century, and which found its way into pre-war Berlin, Vienna, Amsterdam, Stockholm and, of course, Moscow.

Palast der Republik (wahrscheinlich um 1990) by Dietmar Rabich. Used via the CC BY-SA 4.0 licence,

Fuelled partly by a genuine desire to build a venue where East Germans could gather and enjoy the fruits of their labour, partly as a symbolic establishment for the GDR’s mock parliament, and partly to flip a finger across the Wall to the West, the PdR was purposefully and controversially built on the very spot where the Berliner Stadtschloss (Berlin City Palace) had stood since the 15th century. With big sections of it destroyed by the end of the war, the SED (The Socialist Unity Party of Germany) decided to tear the remains down – against protests from both the East and the West of the city – declaiming it as a repellent symbol of Germany’s imperial past.

But at the same time, the Palast der Republik was no harmless village club, a cosy place where everybody met for an evening pint and the children could meet their heroes. The Party met to discuss its past grand achievements and make new promises for the even grander socialist future here, and the building came to represent the East German regime’s delusions of grandeur, remorseless policy of authoritarian control, and total disrespect for the laws of macro and micro economy (the actual construction costs for the PdR exceeded the official DM 485 million by at least 120%).

Interestingly, the same charges are being already levelled at its descendant: a modern reincarnation of—yes, indeed—the former Berliner Stadtschloss.

A Disused Palace With An Uncertain Future

Fast forward to August 23, 1990 and one of the PdR’s last major events was, ironically, where Sabine Bergmann-Pohl – the first and last chair of the freely elected Volkskammer – announced the results of the vote to end the decades of division which, for some, would render the Palast redundant. The moment where the GDR (German Democratic Republic) accepted the West German constitution was even filmed and recorded by TV and radio teams using the fantastically well-equipped in-house studios.

After the Berlin Wall fell and the city was sutured together again, a debate slowly began to emerge about what to do with the PdR – a debate which grew increasingly heated. Despite broad opposition from both East and West Berliners – including German theatre and film directors Christof Schliengensief and Leander Haußmann, German Green Party MP Christian Ströbele, Icelandic artist Olafur Elliasson, and Amelie Deuflhard, who was running the Sophiensäle Theatre in Berlin-Mitte at the time: the “discovery” of between 5,500-7,700 tonnes (depending on the sources) of carcinogenic asbestos used to fire-proof the building didn’t help the case for its continued existence.

ADN-ZB / Kohls / 21.8.1976 / Berlin – Hauptstadt der DDR / Der Palast der Republik am Abend. Via wikipedia and used under the CC-BY-SA 3.0 licence.

The most memorable of these events, perhaps, was The Fassadenrepublik (The Façade Republic) project from September 2004, the brainchild of Raumlabor and Peanutz Architekten from Berlin. They were invited by a select group of “temporary palace users”—Sophiensäle Theater, HAU Theatre und the Urban Catalyst—to flood the ground floor of the building with 300,000 litres of water and let visitors float through it in white inflatable boats. They travelled from one cardboard-and-wood construction to another, from a “Parliament” to a “Red-light District” with its own Striptease Schule, and from a Post Office to an Ahnenamt (The Ministry of Ancestors).

When hungry, the guests were provided with a fishing-rod and could catch one of the trays of sushi that floated gently on the 25-centimetre-deep waters of the drowning Republik. Red, yellow and blue lights pierced that made-man lake and turned the otherwise dying and sunless interior of the former Palast into a Disney-like phantasmagoria. Whoever made it to the Fassadenrepublik on those days in September will never forget the event.

Despite the fact that over the 3 years of its existence between 2003 and March 2006 the project “Volkspalast”—a platform organised by the advocates of PdR’s conservation to re-focus the debate on the potential use of the building—attracted 300,000 visitors and in spite of the 180 official petitions for its preservation, in January 2006 the German federal authorities ordered the Palast der Republik be demolished.

The Battle Of Ideologies Continues

That the destruction of the palace was a political move is without doubt. Asbestos was used as one of the main reasons but the substance was in fact a construction standard in practically all of the big Berlin buildings from the 1970s – especially those constructed by the city itself. In the case of the “Battlestar Galactica”-esque  ICC (Internationales Congress Centrum), a building that no one could ever accuse of being beautiful, the city was happy to spend over EUR 300 million ridding it of swathes of Canadian chrysolite B asbestos, only for it to remain empty and unused today.

Erich and Margot Honecker at the banquet-ball for the Palace’s opening in 1976. Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-R0423-036 / CC-BY-SA 3.0

Other buildings with even worse ideological pasts meanwhile, from the Tempelhofer Airport built in 1937 by the Nazis and celebrated as a great success of National-Socialist planning and architecture, to the Air Ministry Building – Göring’s Reichsluftfahrtministerium later re-named Detlev-Rohwedder-Haus – that today houses the Federal Ministry of Finance (and the very place where the GDR was born on October 7th, 1949), have been successfully regenerated and re-branded as part of the city’s modern infrastructure.

In his fascinating analysis of the post-Wall Berlin, Berlin Now, Peter Schneider (author of the equally captivating The Wall Jumper) talks about the “urban-historical perspective that called for the Schloss to be rebuild”. He quotes WJ Siedler, a journalist and publisher, who wrote a seminal text focused on the idea of the Stadtschloss being a sort of a 15th-century glue that brought and forever more held two formerly separate cities, Berlin and Cölln, together. He went as far as to claim that “The Schloss was not located in Berlin. Berlin was the Schloss.” A convincing dealmaker for those whose inclination was already tipped in the Hohenzollern direction.

But the same logic used to demonise the PdR as “part of the red square for submissive gestures” and a symbol of the “totalitarian model of society” (Joachim Fest for the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung in November 1990) could – and has – been levelled at the new Stadtschloss, too.

For many, the Stadtschloss stood for militarism, the cult of war and a physical and conceptual separation of power from the people. A fortress in the middle of an increasingly lively city, it was designed to made its resident’s subjects feel small, insignificant, crushed. In his interview for the magazine “Die Zeit” in February 2013 Helmut Schmidt, the former German Chancellor (1974-1982), declared: “I definitely would not rebuild it. It’s a Prussian place, after all, and there is no reason to resurrect the Prussians.”

None of these arguments helped, just as the critics of the outrageous costs (€80.3 million to clean the PdR up, €32 million to tear it down and the estimated €590 million for rebuilding) have made any difference. The new Stadtschloss (called the Humboldt Forum) is currently scheduled to open to the public in 2020.

The People’s Palace is dead! Long live the People’s Palace!

Yet the PdR lives on, albeit in fragmented and heavily scattered form. Its traces can be found as far away as Dubai’s Burj Khalifa Tower, some of whose Swedish steel skeleton came from the East Berlin Palast, and at the Haus der Geschichte in Bonn, which houses the DDR emblem that used to hang above the entrance. And Berlin itself is, of course, full of hauntological remnants, too.

A Torstrasse restaurant “3 Minuten Sur Mer” sports the original PdR lamps; the assembly hall of the Ministry of Finance (an existing Third Reich building where the DDR was born), is decorated with some of the Meißner Porzellane wall panels from the Palastrestaurant – as will be the German History Museum’s café at Zeughaus, once they get around to installing them. The DHM holds another great treasure from the old Palast: the famous glass flower from the PdR’s ground floor foyer.

The Palace’s copper-mirrored windows – made in Belgium and at 290-kilogram per piece tremendously difficult to destroy as well as transport (crane only) – were given away by the city for art projects, museums and other venues, and continue twinkling from a variety of interesting and often surprising places. The building’s granite main entrance steps, used in Marx-Engels-Platz, were passed onto the skaters at Berlin’s Tempelhofer Feld thanks to a donation by the then Minister for Urban Development, Ingeborg Junge-Reyer.

The state-owned storage at the former British barracks in Spandau holds tens of thousands of other objects: the chairs from the Volkskammer assembly hall, the lamps from the main foyer, the equipment from the studios to name a few. And that’s without mentioning the tens of thousands of plates and cups and coffee pots bearing the PdR logo that can still be bought at flea-markets and in online shops today. A coffee cup will set you back up to €39 per piece, by the way, while one of the famous lamps – designed for the palace by Peter Rockel in 1976 – start at around €480.

But why look so far? The “Stadtschloss 2.0” that is being built in Mitte today has its foundations firmly set in the old and massive concrete tank in which the Palast der Republik itself was erected. As the PdR’s architect, Heinz Graffunder explained: “The Palast is floating in a giant tank like a ship on the surface of groundwater and using a wrecking ball could activate forces which must be kept under control there. Plus the tank is part of the river embankment.” So it was filled with endless tonnes of sand and re-cycled for the new construction.

In June 2012 during the excavation works for the new Stadtschloss held around that concrete basin, the workers discovered three thousand 300-year-old pine and oak pilings used to hold a wooden grid on which the original pre-WW2 City Palace was erected. No matter how much the city tries to bury its history, some traces will always remain.

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