Grand Facades

Kristian Vistrup Madsen on the Humboldt Forum in Berlin

The Humbolt Forum in Berlin. SHF © Photo: Christoph Musiol.

“DARLING, AT A CERTAIN POINT ONE MUST STOP BITCHING and get to work,” Detlef Weitz told me when we met at a sun-showered Humboldt Forum shortly before Christmas. He had a point. My bad-mouthing the reconstructed Baroque Royal Palace had stopped being interesting. For years, every mention of the project has sparked animated discussions of the sort where each statement lights a fire under the next, resulting in extraordinary conflagrations of fury. In that way, the Humboldt Forum is a bit like Donald Trump or Brexit: I don’t know a single person who thought it was a good idea. Yet here it is, 766 million euros later, courtesy of a unanimous Bundestag. This new umbrella institution was inaugurated with an online ceremony in mid-December and is set to further centralize Berlin’s cultural landscape, bringing the Museum for Asian Art and the Ethnographic Museum (both part of the State Museums), as well as other initiatives, together under one roof. It still isn’t open to the public, and Weitz’s scenography firm, chezweitz, had made the only finished installation—a video panorama that narrates the history of the site—so I needed his help to get inside. I took a deep breath and closed my eyes, and when I opened them again, the marzipan-colored facade of the wedding-cake monstrosity appeared almost graceful in the soft morning light. Say what you want about tacky resurrectionism, if you switch your brain off, it works. Kind of.

But circumstances require me to keep the tired organ working. My first question: Why? Why reinvest in the historical seat of the Prussian monarchs more than seventy years after it was wholly demolished by East German officials? Why tear down Palast der Republik, the old GDR parliament building that stood in the same place, a valuable remnant of a country and social model that shaped generations of German citizens, many of whom are still very much alive today? I don’t buy the widely touted asbestos argument. Plenty of buildings have asbestos; not all are torn down, certainly not entirely. Something could have been done with its frame; indeed, things were done—exhibitions, concerts, happenings—in the years of its protracted disassembly. Adding insult to injury, and in keeping with the farcical nature of the whole affair, the steel skeleton of Palast der Republik was sold for scrap to be used in the construction of the world’s tallest building, Dubai’s Burj Khalifa. So the why, it turns out, is in no small part ideological.

The east facade of the Humbolt Forum. SHF © Photo: Christoph Musiol.

Then there’s the delicate matter of aesthetics. Many blame German architecture’s propensity for ugliness on bureaucratic interference (pervasive rumors have it that the Swiss cult architect Peter Zumthor pulled out of the Topography of Terror project on that account), but I am not so sure. Germany is a nation of philosophers, and philosophically speaking, beauty is a specious proposition, something to be exposed as a construct or ironized as kitsch. This skepticism has worked wonders for art, and, during Germany’s partition, it worked them for architecture, too—take the funky and difficult postmodernism that sprouted like weeds from every bombed-out plot in Frankfurt and Cologne. But since reunification, things have changed. New buildings appear either as ghosts (like the Humboldt Forum or the rebuilt medieval center of Frankfurt)—soulless Sim City–like derivatives, more engineering than design (hello, Potsdamer Platz!)—or dressed up in a desperately tasteful mode of neoclassicism. The latter, in the best of cases, looks like the Speer-lite of British architect David Chipperfield, whose firm, responsible for the whole Museum Island, is currently overseeing the refurbishment of the Neue Nationalgalerie (originally, a late left-hand job of Mies van der Rohe) as well as the still-disputed makeover of Munich’s Nazi temple, the Haus der Kunst. One finds a degraded version of this style in the zombie beige facades of every single new shopping center and apartment block, an innovative, hard type of ugliness that isn’t the result of some cerebral deconstruction but the corpse of a retro brand of bourgeois elegance as revived by algorithms—totally bizarre.

The entrance foyer of the Humbolt Forum. SHF © Photo: Alexander Schippel.

The palace was constructed over the course of several centuries, its final incarnation partly inspired by the Royal Palace in Stockholm. This makes sense. I’ve long had it in for that outsize eighteenth-century coffin so clumsily dumped onto Gamla Stan. And yet, despite this poor aesthetic inheritance, the real tragedy is that the Humboldt Forum is probably better than any original structure we might have realistically expected to be built today. One of Germany’s favorite architectural firms, the Hamburg-based von Gerkan, Marg, and Partners, would likely have been chosen to follow up the triumphantly sanitary nonthings they made out of Berlin’s central station (2006) and the long-awaited, arch-conservative, and über-charmless BER Airport (2020), two exemplars of architecture-as-engineering. (In Berlin, the same three offices seem to do absolutely everything.) Instead, in the Humboldt Forum, we have the same ill-proportioned and lavatorial interior as in those and every other new building, only this time wrapped in historicist scare quotes. I suppose we should be grateful.

Franco Stella is the auteur behind the resulting affliction on the Spree Insel. While most of the new castle’s facades are reconstructions of the Prussian palace, the one facing Alexanderplatz is all Stella’s achievement: his signature, if you like. Its severe grid of shelves calls to mind Rome’s Colosseo Quadrato, built between 1938 and 1943, except that where the irresistible elegance of Italo-fascist architecture really did make for efficient propaganda, the rear end of the Humboldt Forum will move people only by sheer mass.

Protestors gather in front of the Humboldt Forum in December 2020. Photo: Kristian Vistrup Madsen.

The day before I went inside to witness the banal bravado of the too-long escalators, too-wide balcony rails, and too-white everything else, I had gone to a protest on the grounds. A group known as the Coalition of Cultural Workers Against the Humboldt Forum (CCWAH) had installed a banner saying TEAR IT DOWN on the other side of the canal from the brand-new copper cupola. “What goes up must come down!” they chanted, dressed in brown bags and wearing Dadaesque cone hats attached to their knees. They waved their hands in the air: “If all things must pass, even an empire won’t last.” In a less goofy parallel initiative, the artist Aram Bartholl had made a series of postcards of the building on fire (something that actually happened last April) to invite us to dwell on that instance of ontological instability. Aglow with schadenfreude, I took several of each to distribute among everyone I know.

The CCWAH want the Schloss torn down because it will house the Prussian state’s ethnographic collection, which includes many looted items, including hundreds of contested Benin Bronzes. The group’s objection, though admittedly far nobler than my primarily cosmetic distaste for the project, nonetheless strikes me as somewhat beside the point. The problem of looted artifacts in European museums far exceeds what will be on display at the Humboldt Forum. And the argument that this architecture in particular promotes a colonial mindset because it was partly constructed during the time of German colonialism (1880–1920) suggests that other buildings—say, the suave modernist complex in Dahlem that was the ethnographic collection’s home until now, or even the so-called washing machine of the Federal Chancellery—could be somehow innocent or independent of such a logic. All architecture at this scale is an expression of power; by virtue of its price tag and location alone, it has to be. Merkel-era Germany has mostly wielded its influence covertly, through a thornbush of bureaucracy or behind the smoke screen of the EU. At least the Humboldt Forum speaks honestly about the conservative and rather unimaginative agendas that have long been shaping the city.

Humboldt Forum’s Video Panorama by chezweitz. Photo: Kristian Vistrup Madsen.

That said, no building is in itself fascist or colonialist; it’s what we do with it. And that’s what Mr. Weitz meant when he told me it was time to get to work. The panoramic video, a collaboration between chezweitz and the artist Dominique Müller that stretches for almost ninety feet across the ground floor, tells the story of a site plowed over time and again by ideology, politics, and power. When the kaiser got the boot after the Treaty of Versailles, photographs show, his castle was used for music and dancing. In 2005, the artist Lars Ø. Ramberg installed the word Zweifel  (Doubt) in enormous aluminum letters on the roof of Palast der Republik. The video installation itself is in a bare concrete room very much in contrast with the other interiors and, certainly, with the ornate facade, almost as if pushing against it or, like Bartholl’s postcards, imagining its disintegration. In the end, what we’re left with is an ugly building for an ugly time. There’s something sobering about the authenticity of that.