The Berlin Palace Business

Reconstruction of the Berlin Palace: The most important construction project in Germany for years generates little interest among architects. Because of low public acceptance, attempts are made to feign civic commitment and substantial willingness to donate. More than anything, the responsible association provides members with payments.

After a 15-year debate over the design of the palace site in central Berlin, the competition for its realization began at the beginning of this year – the new building being planned, with its reconstructed baroque facade, is to be opened in 2013. Demolition of the Palast der Republik (Palace of the Republic) has already been underway for two years and should be completed this year. Massive protests and a successful cultural interim use of the building in 2004/2005 could not put to question or even postpone implementation of the Bundestag’s ruling for demolition.
The project is the most discussed and controversial construction project in Germany in years. The German Parliament has repeatedly dealt with it in detail and given the architects narrow design parameters: the baroque facades of the Palace, blown-up in 1950, should be reconstructed, a dome should once again crown the building, when feasible, also baroque interior spaces should be recreated, and reference should also be made to the Volkskammersaal (GDR parliamentary chamber) of the Palast der Republik. It will serve as the Humboldt-Forum: non-European cultures are to be presented here with ethnological collections and artworks and in addition, library uses and event facilities are planned. Since only 127 architects duly applied for the competition (with awards totaling nearly 1 million euro) instead of over 1000 the as expected, a qualitative pre-selection was not made (contrary to the original intention) and all of the applicants were accepted, although only 85 ultimately submitted designs. The majority of the architects refused to participate in the proceedings because of the stipulation for reconstruction.

The driving force behind the decision for reconstruction is a private initiative of Hamburg merchant Wilhelm von Boddien, the Förderverein Berliner Schloss (“Union for the Berlin Palace”). Von Boddien, who until 2004 ran an agricultural machinery business that went bankrupt under his leadership, is thus sometimes dubbed as “Schlossherr” (“Lord of the Palace”) in the popular press. In the media, he appeared as the most important advocate and representative of the project. On the previous location of the Berlin Palace facade, which had been dynamited in 1950, the Förderverein Berliner Schloss erected a temporary mockup in 1993, thereby trying to convince the public about its reconstruction. Although the German public opinion about this was (and is) divided, it succeeded however to win over many celebrities and responsible politicians for the endeavor. Von Boddien also profited personally from this success: in May 1994, he became Managing Director of the Berlin marketing group “Partner for Berlin.” In his new job, however, he failed to pay value-added taxes totaling 1.3m DM, so criminal proceedings were initiated against him and he was relieved of his duties in January 1996.
A proceeding to elicit expressions of interest for realization of the Palace project with commercial uses by a private investor, conducted by the Federal Government and the State of Berlin in 1997/1998, ended without result. In April 2002 with a slim majority of 8:7 votes, an Expert Commission established by the Federal and State governments recommended the reconstruction of the baroque facades with a public, cultural use – the Humboldt-Forum. The recommendation of the Expert Commission was the basis for the Bundestag resolutions for realization of the Berlin Palace reconstruction and of the Humboldt-Forum. The promise by the Förderverein Berliner Schloss to use donations to finance the identified extra costs of 80 million euro needed for the reconstruction was crucial for the recommendation to reconstruct the baroque facades. Supposedly, the association already had over several million euro in donation pledges at that time, providing important civil legitimation for the decision. In the meantime, that promise has proven to be one that cannot be kept – despite six years of campaigning, financing through donations is not in sight. What role the Förderverein plays, which interests are pursued and what influence it has on the project is examined more closely in the following text.
Over one hundred architects applied in early 2008 for participation in the Humboldt-Forum international competition. A Berlin architect, however, has already been directly commissioned for the facades. In 2003, the office of Stuhlemmer Architects received the first commission, which in the meantime promises fees totaling € 5.4m; further planning assignments are to follow. Until now, the office, which exists since the mid 1960s, has mostly supervised quite small, landmark preservation construction jobs within Berlin, such as the restoration of two memorials and a villa, the repair of the urban square at Mexikoplatz and the reconstruction of the U-Bahnhof Krumme Lanke and the facade for the Kommandantur Unter den Linden. The architect can thank himself among others for the exceptionally large commission, because his client is the Förderverein Berliner Schloss e.V. (“Union for the Berlin Palace”), and its vice chairman at the time of the initial commission was Rupert Stuhlemmer himself. A resourceful move at a time when the economic situation within the profession in Germany was not in its best state.
But why is the Förderverein designing the facade at all? Isn’t that a task for the client? In 2001, the association promised to cover the known extra costs for the historical facade reconstruction, totaling € 80m, with contributions. One would think that the Förderverein would provide the money at the disposal of the public client. But that is not at all the intention, as revealed by looking at the group’s bylaws. The association sees itself as the client for the facade and wants to plan and construct it, then hand it over as a donation to the client or the users. Conveniently, at the same time the associations’ members can be supplied with paid jobs. Not only Stuhlemmer profits from this. As Managing Director, Wilhelm von Boddien gets a substantial portion of his generous salary for supervising the “project work” in addition to his compensation for managing the association. And there’s more: by carrying out the facade reconstruction itself, the association can define the design. That’s because such an action is not merely a mechanical one. For the Frauenkirche (Church of Our Lady) in Dresden, for example, preserving the difference between surviving building elements and those that have been reproduced is an important conceptual and design decision that refers to the history of the architectural monument. How should one handle such differences in the Berlin Palace? What does it mean that a reconstructed Eosander portal with original elements is already integrated into the neighboring Staatsratsgebäude? Which built state will be striven for: that of 1800, 1870, 1919, 1933 or even 1950? What perception of history will be articulated in the reconstruction? The association doesn’t want to discuss such questions. What von Boddien and his followers are seeking – as the German news magazine Spiegel once wrote in praise about Hotel Adlon on Pariser Platz – is “a building that pretends to have always been there, as if the demolition and all of the pain of history had never happened.”
If one asks at the Building Ministry what stance they take to the fact that Stuhlemmer virtually commissioned himself and that the association wants to hand over building components rather than funds to the clients (or users), they say there is no binding cooperation with the association: “Planning by Stuhlemmer Architects is not a binding basis for constructing the project.” They claim no appeals for donations to the association have been made. Apart from that, they don’t want to comment on criticism of “private initiatives.”
Admittedly, the promised 80 million euro of this “private initiative” have been incorporated as a fixed part of the construction project’s financing. In fact, it doesn’t operate by any means as privately and independently as the Ministry wants us to believe. As early as 2002, Wolfgang Thierse, then President of the Bundestag, publically invited donations to the Förderverein Berliner Schloss. With a press conference in April 2007, Building Minister Tiefensee wanted to send a “signal to donors.” And at the same occasion, he mentioned that the Federal Government wants to erect an information pavilion in which the Förderverein will also solicit donations. Under the headline “Minister Tiefensee Calls on the Population to Make Donations for the Palace,” an interview with the minister was the front-page story of the 8/2007 issue of the Berliner Extrablatt, the Förderverein’s own newspaper. And in mailings, the Förderverein solicits donors with a copy of a letter from Minister Tiefensee. Lately, the German ambassador in Washington, Klaus Scharioth, also solicits donations to the Förderverein. For years, the Förderverein has been participating on various commissions involved with the construction project at the federal and state level and now, two of its members also sit in the jury of the competition.

But what about the association’s stated contribution pledge? The sum of 80 million euro is based on a cost estimate from the year 1993. According to a current calculation by the Building Ministry, the costs for planning and manufacturing the facade – not least because of the general rise in prices and the recent increase in the value-added tax rate – now run up to over 100 million. To keep up public appearances, however, the planning costs of over 20 million euro for the reconstructed facades have been kept hidden in the general category “site development, exterior works and planning costs” and the “natural stone works for the historical facades” alone amount to 80,889,000 euro. The total sum of over 100 million euro doesn’t appear anywhere in the published documents. Moreover, the sum of 80 million never included the considerable costs for soliciting donations as well as the day-to-day costs of the association. If one adds the cost structure of the Förderverein from the year 2006 to their estimate, the invoice would be for double the amount, since half of the revenue has thus far been used for such purposes (i.e. over 100m euro). Even if a considerably more efficient use of its funds would be presumed, as was the case with the society sponsoring the reconstruction of the Frauenkirche in Dresden, costs of approximately 40 million euro remain. As a result, in order to finance the facade with donations, at least 140 million euro is needed as revenue. The association, however, promises only another 66m euro for construction of the facades, since in the meantime it wants to claim 14 million from the originally promised sum for its own services.
And what is the status of the collection for donations? Since 2002, the Förderverein solicits donations for construction of the facade and collected just under 7 million euro in donations between 2002 and 2006, from which, according to the annual financial statement of the association, only 1,545,850 euro in funds remained as of 1.1.2007. According to the association’s financial planning, 2007’s revenue of 2.35m euro will also be largely spent again. In response to critical inquiries by journalists, however, von Boddien claimed that as early as 2003, over 5 million euro was available. In the meantime, the association asserts that it first started soliciting for donations in 2004 and since then has collected 15 million. Also included in this amount are pledged donations for which no payment has yet been received.

Because it is a registered charitable organization and all donations to it are tax deductible, the association has so far cost the government significantly more in lost tax revenue than the money still available, especially since between 1993 and 2001 the association had taken in another 4.5m euro in tax-deductible donations. Internally, the Building Ministry doesn’t really count on revenue from donations in the amount pledged, but is instead considering “bridge loans” in the amount of 50m euro as well as alternative sources of income such as lotteries and commemorative coins. When one asks the Building Ministry or the Förderverein about these inconsistencies, one encounters a wall of eloquent silence, because for both, the unsettled status quo is advantageous – not only for the association, but thus the Ministry. That’s because even if the association contributed nothing at all to the financing, it fulfills many important functions in the debate on the Palace reconstruction. Firstly, it creates publicity for erection of the Palace using extensive financial means and false promises – something that no public entity could do. That’s important, because the endeavor is by no means as acceptable to the public majority as it is in the Bundestag. Public opinion on this matter is as divided as the vote of the Expert Commission. Surveys have shown many times that reconstructions nowhere near as popular as some media and politicians want us to believe. Almost a two-thirds majority of Berliners were against the current demolition of the Palast der Republik.
Viewed politically, a second function of the association, closely related to the first, is just as important: the association gives the appearance that the € 80m for the facade reconstruction is financed by private donations and that broad, civic commitment exists for reconstruction of the palace facades. Such an argument was not only important given the tight budgetary situation in recent years, but also as evidence that the project is grounded in the community. However, the Förderverein functions less as a civic organization, but rather operates quasi like a company that collects donations under false pretenses, using them primarily to finance contracts for its own members.

Philipp Oswalt
German Version published in: Bauwelt 1/2-2008



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