In October 2017 a new exhibition entitled Behind the Mask: Artists in the GDR opens at the Museum Barberini in Potsdam. Amongst the works on display will be sixteen large paintings originally commissioned by the German Democratic Government (GDR) for display in the Palast der Republik, the parliament building and cultural centre that opened on the site formerly occupied by Berlin’s royal palace in 1976.1 The sixteen paintings include works by some of the GDR’s most prominent artists, including Bernhard Heisig and Wolfgang Mattheuer, and though stylistically eclectic, were all responses to a single question: are communists allowed to dream? (dürfen Kommunisten träumen?) The paintings have not been on public display for over twenty years.2
So much of the GDR’s art and architecture was hidden away – or worse, destroyed – after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, and Germany’s reunification the following year. The Palast der Republik closed its doors to both parliamentarians and public in 1990, and was slowly, painstakingly demolished between 2006 and 2008. I first laid eyes upon the condemned building on a bitterly cold morning in February 2005. I saw it from the Unter den Linden, across a windswept and desolate open space. On that day, seven six-foot-high neon capital letters stood atop the building, spelling the word ‘ZWEIFEL’ (doubt). This being my first trip to Berlin, and with scant knowledge of German at the time, I was clueless as to what the building was, or for what purpose it had been intended. The building looked like a giant shed, so I assumed it must be a hypermarket of some sorts, that ZWEIFEL was Germany’s answer to Walmart…
I later learnt that the Norwegian artist Lars Ramberg had installed the letters as part of an artwork commenting on the uncertainties surrounding the fate of the building, and more broadly, East German identity.3 At about the same time I also encountered Tacita Dean’s lovely film piece Palast at the Tate Gallery in St Ives, and to this day I cannot be sure if the memory I retain of the neighbouring cathedral reflected in the Palast der Republik’s windows comes from my own first-hand observations, or second-hand, from Dean’s film…4
Hazy recollections provoke doubts, as murky as a grey winter’s day in the German capital – the kind of day that makes you wonder whether Wim Wenders actually shot all of his 1987 film Wings of Desire in colour; he’d just done so in similar monochrome conditions. Ambiguities of this sort are entirely appropriate when it comes to Berlin’s monuments to its past, present and future, some of which survive while others like the Palast are now gone, and others still exist (or have only ever existed) as ideas, half-demented or otherwise.
What I am in no doubt of is that the Palast der Republik was there. I saw it more-or-less intact just twice. The first time, on that February morning in 2005, wide-eyed in wonder and ignorance, frozen breath clouds against grey sky, and then later on the same year, through the darkness and heavy drizzle of a December evening, on my second visit to Berlin. In the years that followed, over the course of several extended stays in the city, I regularly passed what was left of the Palast as I crisscrossed streets and squares, through summer heat and winter chill, piecing together the ideas and arguments of my thesis. On these later encounters I saw the building endure an undignified and laborious process of dissection, as it was dismantled block by concrete block, girder by steel girder, 25,000 tonnes of the latter material being reused to build the Burj Khalifa in Dubai.5
In truth, the demolition of the Palast had started long before I first laid eyes on it. It was the discovery of large amounts of asbestos in the building’s fabric that led to its closure in 1990. In the mid-nineties the Berlin authorities stripped the main facade of its GDR crest, a gesture documented by Sophie Calle in her work Die Entfernung of 1996. By 2003 the asbestos, the building’s marble cladding, and the rest of the buildings fixtures and fittings had been removed. The Palast der Republik that I saw in 2005 was already little more than a shell.
There’s much to be regretted about Berlin’s regeneration after reunification – much to be applauded as well – yet I can’t help but feel the demolition of the Palast der Republik robbed the city of one of its most important architectural statements. The reasons given for its demolition, and the arguments for and against it, are well-documented, as are those for its replacement, a reconstruction of the Berlin royal palace that is slated for completion in 2019.6 What word should be spelt out in six-foot-high neon letters atop this building, I wonder?
Doubtless the new Schloss will be an impressive sight, but at what cost the loss of the demolished Palast’s remarkable incongruity, sitting as brazenly as it did like a marble- and glass-clad spaceship, amidst the antiquities of Wilhelmine Berlin, this Athens on the Spree? The city’s architectural wonders are manifold, but how many other of its buildings are capable of causing the heart to skip a beat, as the Palast could do, when the evening’s setting sun set alight its decaying copper-mirrored windows?
In 1993 photographer Thorsten Klapsch was allowed to document the Palast’s abandoned interiors. From my own experience of post-war public buildings in England, the interiors are frequently more impressive than the outside (cf. the National Theatre and other buildings on London’s Southbank, the Barbican, Southend-on-Sea public library).7 The Palast der Republik was no exception. I would have liked to see for myself first-hand those sixteen paintings, in situ underneath the myriad lights illuminating the foyer that gave the Palast its nickname, Erich’s Lampenladen (Erich [Honecker’s] lamp shop). I would have also liked to explore the building’s thirteen bars and restaurants, to recline in a comfy chair in the Palast’s milk bar, and look out at the city’s fractured skyline across a sea of parked Trabants.
The biggest loss, perhaps, is that of another of those fascinating juxtapositions that Berlin once had in abundance. A juxtaposition of styles, materials, and purpose, through which one could get a sense of how fierce an ideological battleground the city was prior to 1989. That sense is fast eroding now, as corporate investment in the city grows, and gentrification continues apace. Hopefully the Barberini Museum’s exhibition can lead to a greater recognition of and reignite debate about the art and architecture of the GDR.
- Karim Saab, ‘Kommunistenträume im Barberini’ Märkische Allgemeine, 29 July 2017 <http://www.maz-online.de/Nachrichten/Kultur/Kommunistentraeume-im-Barberini> [accessed 1 August 2017]
- Deutsches Historisches Museum, ‘Dürfen Kommunisten träumen? Die Bilder aus dem Palast der Republic’ (Berlin: DHM, 1996) <http://www.dhm.de/archiv/ausstellungen/pdr/homep.htm> [accessed 27 September 2017]
- Lars Ramberg, ‘Palast der Zweifels’ <http://www.larsramberg.de/1/viewentry/3890> [accessed 26 July 2017]
- Tate, ‘Tacita Dean, Palast’ <http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/dean-palast-t12212> [accessed 26 July 2017]
- ‘Zombie Palace: The Afterlife of the Palast der Republik’ Uncube Magazine <http://www.uncubemagazine.com/blog/10642637> [accessed 26 July 2017]
- Peter Schneider, Berlin Now: The Rise of the City and the Fall of the Wall (London: Penguin, 2014).
- Thorsten Klapsch, Palast der Republik (Mannheim: Edition Panorama, 2010)
Banner image source: Postcard from the author’s own collection.