Reconstructing lost buildings: the Berlin Palace as a model for Ireland?
was the title of a ‘panel discussion’
hosted by the Irish Architectural Archive in Trinity on Friday evening.
With all due respect to the Prussians, one would probably struggle to find a less appealing example of a lost building around which to pitch a discussion on the appropriateness, or otherwise, of the concept of historical building reconstruction, particularly ‘. . . as a model for Ireland - question mark’The Kaiser and pals in jovial mood striding towards the Schlossbrucke with the palace in the background. The second guy is completely unaware of the bags he’s made of that pirate hat
Add into the mix that the architect for the project and the presenter of the case for reconstruction on this occasion, Professor Franco Stella, speaks only Italian and some German and that the room was populated [sparsely enough it has to be said] almost exclusively from the ranks of the architectural community, ranging from several high office holders in the Institute down to students just beginning their indoctrination. In this company, you sensed that Professor Stella would be bringing a stapler to a gun fight.
The Berliner Stadtschloss was, by any objective standards, a big ugly, city-block-sized, Kaiser haus that successive Hohenzollerns couldn’t stop themselves from adding more bits onto, yet when its war-torn ruins were demolished by the DDR in 1950, a big void was created in the centre of Berlin’s civic heart as if thieves had crept into the good room and lifted the old family sofa. Belatedly, the DDR authorities recognised this and in 1973 they began the construction of an equally vast and equally uninspired Palast der Republik[i], as a showpiece for the modern communist state.
[i]the DDR Palast der Republik
Unfortunately for DOCOMOMO activists who love this kind of thing, it turned out subsequently that the enormous steel frame of the peoples’ Palast
had been sheeted in enormous quantities of asbestos, which rendered the entire building a peoples’ hazard and when, with reunification on the horizon, this was discovered, a way was paved for notions of demolition and replacement to take hold in the psyche of the Berlin public and their public representatives. Inevitably perhaps, given Germany’s extensive record of reconstruction, it wasn’t long before the architecturally unlearned turned to thoughts of rebuilding the original baroque palace with its 19th century additions, and with that the lines were drawn for a showdown with one of the holiest of architectural dogmas; thou shalt not reconstruct
To make matters worse, Professor Stella’s presentation made it clear that essentially only the external appearance of the three main sides of the Schloss and the dome were to be reconstructed, compounding the unforgivable crime of historical reconstruction with the mortal sin of facadism. Not only that, but in his efforts to not upstage the original baroque architecture, Prof. Stella had designed the new bits around the back and in the courtyards in a stripped classical style that everyone in the room instantly connected with Speer and Mussolini, adding another layer of architectural abhorrence to the package. You half expected one of the slides to show a Fritzl basement just to round the whole thing off.
When Professor Stella finished his presentation, through the mildly embarrassed Italian speaking architect pressed into the role of interpreter, the discussion panel assembled on stage beside him like a firing squad ready to carry out their function.
Professor Stella’s only certain friend on the discussion panel was Manfred Rettig, a career diplomat and chairman of the Berlin Palace project, who, as the first panel member to speak, dutifully backed the architect’s account with a further outline of the rational for the project from a Berlin perspective, emphasising the cultural gain that the new facilities to be housed in the reconstructed palace would bring. So far, so diplomatic.
The second speaker, Kathleen James-Chackraborty, currently an art-history professor out in UCD, is one of those American academics who cut straight to the chase without pausing to observe any outmoded diplomatic niceties. Her thrust was that this was all ‘a bunch of facades that don’t mean a lot’
and if you want to see how to insert new cultural buildings into historic European cities go off to Paris and look at Jean Nouvel’s Arab institute. Failing that, the Reichstag project also showed how to get your contemporary interventions right, glass dome, public access, people on top, that kind of thing. That got the crowd going; they had come out on a miserable night to register disapproval in person and finally somebody was getting the show started. proper Michelle Fagan on the left . . . .
The person purporting to be Michelle Fagan was next up. In contrast to the shoot-from the-hip-approach of the previous contributor, Michelle Fagan [we’ll call her] had come to the proceedings with ‘as open a mind as possible’
and, as if to establish that an inner struggle with even handedness was going on, she did a certain amount of squirming in her seat in a convincing display of someone determined to thread a diplomatic line between what it would be polite, and presidential, to say about a project steeped in architectural heresy, like this, and the disdain that she was really feeling on the inside. Searching for positives, Fagan derived some satisfaction from the fact that a historical reconstruction like this does, by its nature, generate a demand for craftsmanship [ - that contemporary architecture isn’t interested in - ], but one sensed that this point was being made in a semi-detached sort of way as one might abstractly admire the technological achievement behind the making of a nuclear bomb, without remotely conceding that it’s a good idea to let one off. There was mention of a tension between the past and the present and of ways of neutralizing that tension. Importantly, Fagan recognised that there is a distinction to be made between ‘ordinary people’
and, you know – architects. Ordinary people are inclined to like old buildings, bless them, and it was implied that while this shouldn’t excuse the likes of the Berlin Palace reconstruction, it is an explanation of sorts. Her final thought was; if we accept the idea of historical reconstruction, what if in a hundred years, the people of Berlin started a campaign to demolish the reconstructed baroque palace and rebuild, in its place, the demolished 1973 Communist Party Palast der Republik
There was no way Shane O’Toole, the final panel member, was going to drink from that poisoned chalice, but he had some artful dodging of his own to do on the subject of Archers Garage which, as a practiced professional, he accomplished without breaking sweat. Archers Garage might have been a DOCOMOMO cause celebre, but it wasn’t a reconstruction per se, it was making the guy pay the penalty for unauthorized demolition, which is a different thing.
With that, the discussion was opened to the floor, and before you could scan for the nearest exit, Frank McDonald, who had been getting visibly hot under the collar as Prof. Stella’s presentation progressed, was up and out of his seat to denounce the Schloss reconstruction as having no more value than the fantasy structures in Vegas. Frank lambasted the professor’s presentation for the shameful absence of any consideration of the lost communist Palast der Republik
in the discussion, but his primary charge was that the palace reconstruction ‘lacked all authenticity’
The term ‘Authenticity’ tends to be trotted out on these occasions as though this is a scale with just one notch. In reality, there are multiple degrees of authenticity and what we need to do is strike a balance between the legitimate desire to maintain the highest possible levels of authenticity in any dealings with historical buildings with the equally legitimate goal of passing on to the next generation the most complete and accurate building record we can, not just the easy bits that taste or chance have avoided destroying. The Berliner Schloss is an authentic and significant part of Berlin’s urban record, it is not a fantasy someone dreamed up and people who try to put its reconstruction into the category of a Las Vegas fantasy structure display a very deep misunderstanding of the concept of authenticity.the war torn remains of the palace shortly befor the DDR decided to demolish this old remnant of imperialist Berlin
From the back of the hall, the ever reliable spanner in the works, Alan Mee, brought up Fitzwilliam Street and the ESB building, which gave Fagan the gift wrapped opportunity to retort with the valid enough argument that the Stephenson/Gibney building has its own undeniable architectural merit and, like it or not, this is a complicating factor, no matter how much one might yearn for the 17 Georgian houses that the ESB building replaced.
The final contribution from the floor was from the venerable Shaffrey who made the point that after the devastating bombing of their town centre, the people of Omagh were determined to rebuild one of the destroyed commercial premises, somewhat in spite of professional opinion to the effect that the building was effectively gone. In the end, the building was reconstructed, but it was done, ‘to not let the bombers win’
, so again, no architectural consciences were harmed in the reconstruction.
Overall, while the event was interesting and the discussion lively, the idea of pitching this; the first serious discussion here on the topic of historical building reconstruction, around the controversial [and not particularly relevant to us] example of the Berlin Palace has probably set the subject back about ten years.
If anything, I suspect that old prejudices are more likely to have been reinforced rather than broken down.
The principles at stake here still remain elusive:
Is historical building reconstruction a valid option?
Is there a difference in principle between restoration and reconstruction?
What are the circumstances that permit reconstruction?
Is the manner of the original building’s destruction a factor?
Is there a five second rule, like when you drop a hot dog on the floor? Does time lapse invalidate the process?
Must reconstruction be total, or can it be selective?
Is it a prerequisite that the original building was of high architectural worth, or can it just have been a big presence that is now a big absence?
Who is entitled to have a say on whether a lost historical building is reconstructed or not?
The reality is that the architectural community’s disdain for historical reconstruction is as ingrained as any of the ideological strands that facilitated and sustained the modern movement. When you consciously erect a division between the past and the present, as the modern movement did, you make it almost impossible to interact with the past in any normal way.
The desire to rebuild lost buildings is bewildering to most architects brought up in the milieu of the modern movement and consequently it can only be understood by them as some kind of nostalgic impulse and nostalgia, as we all know, is the lowest form of fondling looking backwards, like keeping worthless memorabilia in an old biscuit tin. But when a city loses a building that people feel was somehow intrinsic to its distinctiveness, whether in itself an artistic triumph or not, much deeper impulses than we traditionally associate with nostalgia come into play.
Because cities are made up of a great number of individual buildings, urban buildings, by definition are always part of a bigger picture and the more significant the individual building, the greater the gap in the bigger picture when the building is lost. A lost building leaves an imprint on that place where it stood that lingers there in the civic consciousness usually until either, memory fades completely, which one would hope it never does, or, something better is built in the space.
Certainly, building something better in the space solves all the problems, but as long as there is a genuine disconnect between the public perception of building worth and the architectural establishment’s opinion on the same subject, asking people to have faith in contemporary architecture’s ability to deliver something better is like asking the people of Berlin to agree that the DDR Palast der Republik
was a better building that the Hohenzollern Schloss. Even mustering all the nostalgia that must be lying about in old DDR biscuit tins, you’ll still struggle to do that.