Many historic castles are left to die, fading into oblivion. But the reconstruction of the Stadtschloss (Berlin Palace) at the heart of Berlin has seen it resurrect from the ashes like the proverbial phoenix.
Acclaimed as the “largest cultural development in Europe,” the Berlin Palace has been renamed the Humboldt Forum Museum. The museum’s overarching purpose is to provide a platform where the old marries the new. It will be home to art exhibitions, nature fairs, temporary shows and events, and intercultural exchange.
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Reconstructed by Franco Stella, an Italian architect, the baroque Berlin Palace has been home to Prussian kings and German monarchs for almost six centuries; it has many tales to tell.
Construction began in 1443, and today, this old castle in Berlin is rich in history, mystery, and controversy.
A short history of the Royal Palace of Berlin
The Hohenzollern family started the construction of the Royal Palace of Berlin on July 31, 1443. For the first 200 years, the Stadtschloss served as a fortress (Zwing Colln). It was built on the banks of the Spree River, and from this location, the family could be in charge of the trade route.
Over time, the palace became an ornate palace in the renaissance architectural style. And in the 18th century, it underwent the most extensive reconstructions.
Friedrich III, Prussia’s first king, wanted a royal palace embodying the baroque standards of symmetry and pomp. So he employed Andreas Schluter, the most renowned German baroque architect and sculptor, as the chief architect.
Andreas built one of Europe’s most iconic examples of secular baroque architecture.
The building was the royal palace until November 9, 1918, when Kaiser Wilhelm II was forced to abdicate following world war I. It was then used intermittently until bombs, artillery, and fire damaged it during the second world war.
After its destruction, Hans Schauron, a German architect, devised a cost plan to reconstruct the palace. However, the restoration plans were opposed by the SED (German East Communist Party). In 1950, SED chairman Walter Ulbright ordered the demolition of the palace, and the cleared space was used for parades and festivals.
In 1976, the Palace of the Republic was erected on one side of the former palace site. It became the primary center for the German Democratic Republic’s political and cultural events.
The building was closed in 1990 because it contained up to 5,000 tonnes of asbestos. In 2000, the Forsa Institute surveyed that more Berliners voted to reconstruct the old palace than to construct a modern building.
Following a resolution by the German Bundestag in 2002, the building was demolished between 2006 to 2008, and reconstruction began. It was reopened in 2020 as the Humboldt Forum Museum.
The Humboldt Forum Museum
Cost of the restoration
The reconstruction of the Berlin Palace took over €600 million (US$640 million). Most funds came from the federal government, the state of Berlin, and donors and sponsors.
Why the Humboldt Forum Museum?
So why did they rename it the Humboldt Forum Museum? It is renamed after the Humboldt brothers, Alexander and Wilhelm. Wilhelm von Humboldt was a philosopher and linguist; Alexander was an explorer, naturalist, and geographer.
The ground floor will host temporary shows, events, and an expo about the site’s history. In addition, the first floor will have an expo about Berlin and the Humboldt Laboratory — with exhibitions about nature. Lastly, the upper floors have Berlin’s ethnographic exhibitions and Asian art collections, and the upper floor will have a restaurant.
“I conceived the Humboldt Forum as a palace, with its six portals representing city gates and its three inner courtyards servicing as city squares,” explained Franco Stella.
“In architectural terms, the concepts of the palace and piazza allow for a well-balanced combination of the old and the new — each with its unique vocabulary of forms and shapes,” he added.
Throughout the years, efforts to renovate the Berlin Palace have been controversial. Recently, critics have said the Christianized themes in the Humboldt Forum Museum don’t embrace modern multiracial diversity. Other critics also believe there’s no rationale behind renovating old palaces and castles.
Their big question is what purpose the renovated palaces serve in the absence of monarchs.
Some renovated ancient castles have become local parliaments, university buildings, or museums. But while opponents see reconstruction as a waste of funds, proponents see the reconstruction of castles as a way to preserve our history, heritage, and architecture.
The successful reconstruction of the palace
Rebuilding the Berlin Palace may have been met with opposition, but it was a success. And though its original form is gone, it still serves as an essential landmark in Berlin. The building provides a window into Germany’s past, political revolution, iconic architectural milestones, and, above all, its beauty.
It’s important to preserve ancient castles, collections, or relics. Through them, our history — good or bad — lives, and through our history, we should learn to make our planet better.