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Berlin split over palace design

By Tristana Moore
BBC News, Berlin

The building site where the Palace of the Republic stood
The building site now where the Palace of the Republic once stood

Around a dozen people are crammed onto the bridge by the River Spree, pointing their cameras through the fence, determined to catch a glimpse of the huge building site where the Palace of the Republic once stood.

"It's a disgrace that they're tearing down the Palace of the Republic, it's an expression of political superiority after the reunification of Germany," one old man said.

"They're destroying a powerful symbol of Berlin's history," he added.

After years of heated debate about the building's future, even today, feelings are running high.

The demolition work started in February 2006 and it has cost at least 30m euros (£26m; $40m).

Controversial

After the discovery of toxic asbestos, the demolition work dragged on for almost three years.

It has been a huge operation - around 20,000 tonnes of steel and 54,000 tonnes of concrete have been removed.

The Palace of the Republic before it was demolished
The demolition of the Palace of the Republic is a symbolic killing of the representation of the communist regime of former East Germany
Philipp Oswalt, architect

The diggers are still at the site and the whole area has been fenced off.

A viewing platform has been installed to enable curious passers-by to gaze at the vast crater and piles of rubble.

This is probably one of Germany's most controversial building sites.

The German government is paying 64% of the demolition costs while the regional Berlin government is paying for 36% of the costs.

But still many Berliners think it is all a waste of money.

Why, critics argue, didn't the authorities leave the old communist-era building?

"The demolition of the Palace of the Republic is a symbolic killing of the representation of the communist regime of former East Germany," said Philipp Oswalt, an architect.

"It's an expression of a desire by today's political elite to redesign Germany's past, by skipping the history of the 20th Century and starting again in the 19th Century.

But this is a mistake because Berlin has been shaped by the 20th Century, by both the positive and negative aspects of history," he said.

The giant concrete and copper-coloured glass structure was built in 1976 and it was home to the East German parliament.

With its bowling alley, concert hall and restaurants, it was also a venue for weddings and communist youth initiation ceremonies until the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.

The Palace of the Republic was nicknamed "Erich's Lamp Shop," a reference to the hundreds of lamps and chandeliers hanging in the foyer.

Symbol of oppression

Some regarded the Palace of the Republic as a symbol of oppression, others condemned it as an eyesore in the heart of the German capital.

An artist's impression of the Berlin City Palace and Humboldt Forum
We want to reconstruct the beautiful Prussian Palace which was damaged during the Second World War
York Stuhlemmer, architect

After the fall of the Berlin Wall, it lay empty and campaigners fought to save the building from demolition.

For more than a decade, the Palace of the Republic stirred passions and it divided opinion.

Finally in 2003, the Bundestag - lower house of the federal parliament - decided to demolish the building.

Instead of the communist-era Palace of the Republic, Berliners are now getting a version of a Prussian Palace, which once stood on the same site as the Palace of the Republic.

The Berlin City Palace ("Berliner Stadtschloss") was originally opened in 1443, and the palace, home to the Hohenzollern family, was rebuilt in baroque style in 1716.

The Berliner Stadtschloss was badly damaged by Allied bombing during World War Two, and its remains were then destroyed by the communist authorities in 1950.

"The 'People's Palace' was an ugly building, it was like an alien in the historic centre of Berlin," said York Stuhlemmer, an architect who has designed the baroque facades of the new palace.

"We want to reconstruct the beautiful Prussian Palace which was damaged during the Second World War and then blown up by the communists in 1950.

We would like to reconstruct the gorgeous architecture of the former royal palace and build a fantastic cultural centre on the site," he said.

Construction of the new Berlin City Palace ("Berliner Stadtschloss") and Humboldt Forum is expected to start in 2010, with completion in 2013, at the earliest.

But, as ever, there is controversy over the design of the new building.

Baroque facade

The German parliament decided that three (out of four) replica facades would be built, in baroque style, but the interior of the building, which would house a museum and library, would be "modern".

More than 30 architects submitted entries to a competition to design the Humboldt Forum project on the Schlossplatz, which will cost the German government up to 550m euros (£460m; $710m).

An artist's impression of the Berlin City Palace and Humboldt Forum
The project is a reconstruction of an old royal palace damaged in the war

On 28 November, the winner of the architects' competition was announced.

The Italian architect, Franco Stella, will design the new Humboldt Forum based on the old royal palace.

"I didn't want to create a counterpoint to the city architecture, but provide continuity, not replacement," he said.

Behind the baroque façade of the new building, the interior will be modern and it will be used as a cultural centre.

There will be a cupola, but the chamber of the former East German parliament from the Palace of the Republic will not be rebuilt, which was originally envisaged.

Franco Stella, who is based in Vicenza near Venice, used to teach architecture at the University of Venice and he has described himself as a "classic modern rationalist in design."

But opponents have criticised the project, claiming that a reconstruction would be a pastiche of architectural styles.

"I think at least parts of the Palace of the Republic should have been kept so that architects could have integrated it," said Philipp Oswalt, an architect.

"It's a bizarre idea - they want to reconstruct the facades of the old royal palace and have a modern interior. It won't work," he said.

For now, the debate continues, and the Palace of the Republic has been consigned to the history books.

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