Berlin

Lars Ramberg

Palast der Republik

It’s hard to miss Lars Ramberg’s Palast des Zweifels (Palace of Doubt), 2005. The word ZWEIFEL (doubt)—written in three-story-tall letters sculpted in aluminum and filled with white neon-tube lighting—glows from atop the empty Palast der Republik, which is due to be demolished this fall. The former East German parliament building—and a civic-cum-entertainment center offering restaurants and bowling—was closed due to asbestos in September 1990, just weeks after what was touted as the GDR’s first freely elected government voted to join the Federal Republic. When the Palast reopened as a gutted yet asbestos-free shell in 2003, tickets for tours rapidly sold out, although there was little left to see inside. The building’s persistent popularity led to a series of concerts, talks, and exhibitions—notably those organized by Volkspalast (People’s Palace)—as an attempt to reclaim the communal project of socialism, minus the dictatorial state apparatus.

Ramberg’s sign of doubt initially functions as a temporary monument to the history of hesitations that have surrounded the building’s fate since 1990. Should the palace be demolished or not? Does it have symbolic value as history or use value for the present? In light of these debates, it should come as no surprise that it took Ramberg six years to realize his project. Like Christo and Jeanne-Claude, who wrapped the Reichstag before its renovations began in 1995, Ramberg had to overcome a mountain of bureaucratic resistance from state officials, including a veto from the federal advisor for culture, Christina Weiss, who went against the Berlin Senate’s approval for the project in 2003.

The sign’s super size—while a press attraction—makes a sly comment on the vast sums spent in the name of stately representations. As the Palast was being closed in 1990, asbestos was discovered in West Berlin in the main buildings of the Freie Universität, but they were not condemned; instead, walls were sealed with high-tech masking tape. The Palast will be torn down to make way for the recon- struction of the Prussian royal castle, which occupied much of the site until it was destroyed by Allied bombing in World War II and then demolished under the German Democratic Republic government. Considering Berlin’s astronomical debt—fifty billion euros and rising—tearing down a defunct parliament building to rebuild a defunct castle recalls the symbolic excesses of both the Third Reich and the GDR, two regimes that sacrificed the welfare of citizens for ideological ends, albeit with vastly different political agendas. With the help of private funding, architecture is now called on to serve neoliberal propaganda and make a cityscape that can be consumed by tourists without doubt. When the planners are finished, this historic center of Berlin will look like the twentieth century never took place.

Finally, the word Zweifel points to the heart of democracy. After all, democracy assumes the possibility for doubt and debate. Dictatorship suspends, if not extinguishes, any such hesitancy. Yet the Palast became a home for doubt only once the government moved out and the host of a debate that turns solely on its own survival. Ramberg’s literal sign reflects the exceptional equation between the Palast’s symbolic function and its material existence. Since a government needs a building to hold debates, the architecture that houses these debates must generally escape democratic processes. Ultimately, Ramberg’s “palace of doubt” suggests that the architecture of the state, however visible, exists in a state of suspension.

Jennifer Allen