Away from the primacy of permanence

9 min read

As an art and architecture historian, I find it anything but easy to make a statement on the occasion of the imminent completion of the cross-topped cupola of the Humboldt Forum. I have never been a supporter of the partial reconstruction of the Berlin Palace. However, I am still curious to see what the developments at the Humboldt Forum will be in the long term and in consequence of lively discussions. I therefore view the current invitation to an open, controversial debate due to the completion of the cupola as a promising sign in this direction.

Even if some of the construction work is gradually coming to an end, the architecture should remain a productive bone of contention and – this would be my statement – continue to be perceived as a process itself. Just like the aesthetic, social and political perception and meaning or interpretation of architecture remains unchanged, the partial reconstruction of the palace must also not be viewed as something static or even permanent. This does not mean taking an anything goes approach, but refers to the question of whether and to what extent anything related to the process is constantly called to mind as an element of the (concept) history of the palace construction. It does not have to be repeated here that the Berlin city palace was demolished under Walter Ulbricht, that Portal IV was incorporated into the GDR’s state council building, the “Staatsratsgebäude”, and that the partial reconstruction of the palace was tackled on the site of the “dismantled” Palast der Republik. It does also not have to be repeated here how many discussions were necessary to decide which construction stages of the palace could and should be restored, considering that the building itself, up to the moment of its demolition, had been the result of numerous extensions, conversions and ongoing additions.

Granted, in his antique treatise on architecture, Vitruvius talks about firmitas (strength), utilitas (utility) and venustas (grace/beauty) as the highest principles of architecture. However, beyond this, architecture has also always been reflected on as something that resembles a process, and is not only a creation that is simply begun and completed. The 15th century architect and theoretician Antonio Filarete, for example, expressed this particularly well by comparing architecture to a living creature. Like Roman ruins, it would die if it were no longer adequately fed. The analogy between architecture and people, or rather living creatures, is as old as the reflections on architecture itself, and is still used by contemporary architects such as Pritzker Prize winner Balkrishna Doshi (*1927), who calls architecture “a growing organism”. Publications with titles such as How Buildings Learn, What Happens After They’re Built (1994) support the idea of architecture as a process. We may interrupt it with certain laws, with decisions for social, listed building conservation etc. reasons, but we will never truly bring it to a halt. From a cultural and architectural history perspective, it seems to me to be an important point to keep in mind in the course of the debate, because architecture is also, as contemporary architect Petra Čeferin, for example, calls it, “a thought process”.

So, what thoughts come to mind at the sight of the soon-to-be completed cupola topped by a cross, which was already hotly debated over a year ago? In recourse to the communication of the palace construction in the 19th century, just a few of the facets that are related to the process-like character and concern the relationship between the interior and the exterior as well as that between architecture and urban spaces should be addressed here.

In the 19th century, numerous travel, art and culture guides praised Berlin’s city palace. They described the facade with Eosander’s portal that faced the palace courtiers’ residential quarters with sometimes more, sometimes less enthusiasm. It was inspired by the triumphal Arch of Septimius Severus in Rome – i.e. an antique monument, whose sculpture and relief work iconography is dedicated to Mars, the god of war, and the campaigns against the Parthians, so to war, victory and rule, and whose dedication inscription announced that the emperor had “restored the republic and spread the rule of the Roman people”. So what about the inscription on the Eosander portal at the Berlin Palace? According to magazine Der Salon, for example, which translated it into German for its readers in 1873, it said: “This is the imposing structure Frederick built in the middle of a war; he created this great house whilst leading a war, the vanquisher is worthy of this work.” Even though the Eosander portal was probably more than a purely formal reception of the Arch of Septimius Severus in Rome in terms of concept and meaning history, the later process of crowning it with a cupola was also a lengthier process. Anton Gubitz described the shift in meaning in the national-liberal magazine Die Grenzboten in 1851, so whilst the building work was still ongoing (1845-1853). Apparently, Eosander had actually planned to install a tower with Corinthian columns and a cupola above the portal; the model of this design was still on display at the palace. “King Frederick,” Gubitz continues, “intended to equip the lower level of the columns [of this tower] with water reservoirs to make the fountains in the Lustgarten spurt higher, and in the upper level of the columns, he envisaged installing his beloved chimes, […] they are now known as Berlin’s ‘singing clock’.”

The author explained the concept originally associated with the Eosander portal, which was abandoned in the course of the changes to the plan under Frederick William IV and the construction of the new chapel, to a wider public: “Under the king that was now on the throne, the plan for the cupola construction was revived, but with a different purpose. It was now not dedicated to water displays and chimes, but to worship” – and this was expressed externally through the cross and the cupola, whose inscription in gilded letters on a blue background, unveiled on 15 October 1848, we will also soon be able to read again: “Neither is there salvation in any other: for there is no other name under heaven given to men, than the name of Jesus, to the glory of God the Father, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth.”

So what is therefore part of the Berlin city palace’s DNA? When we will be looking at the Eosander portal and the cupola topped by a gilded Christian cross in the near future, the question arises which of these idea, planning and reception histories will be included in the contemporary communication of this partially reconstructed architecture. From the mid-19th century onwards, no magazine, no travel guide reflected the cross-topped cupola disassociated from the fact that it is an element of the palace chapel. And no one described the Eosander portal by referencing its dual function: it formed the entrance to the palace courtyard and also housed stairs that led to the upper floors and therefore also to the royal chapel.

If the cross and the cupola are now viewed merely as almost-representatives of a historical past, the architecture is split into an interior and an exterior. Granted, right from the start, there were also urban planning reasons for the size and the look of the cupola. However: no cupola of this type, with this inscription, of this size and with this golden cross without the appropriate interior: the chapel. Symbols and that which they indicate fell in with each other during planning and construction. Not many palaces have a cupola, and the “secular” buildings that already had one in the 19th century (like the Capitol in Washington) or were about to get one at the end of the century (like Prague Castle) associated other ideas and functions with it.

There are gaps if we are talking, on the one hand, about the architecture of the city palace and on the other, about the Humboldt Forum, one the one hand about the museum conceptualisation and on the other about “cityscape” issues. The urban planning dimension will definitely have a decisive effect on the future perception and impact of the palace, and it will necessarily be connected to historical images of the palace. However, even without these oblique links, the golden cupola cross on top of the palace/Humboldt Forum will evoke a direct visual correlation with the building opposite: with the cathedral, which also features a golden cross-topped cupola. It was built in 1894 to replace its 18th century predecessor.

What will the city’s future passers-by feel about these connections? How will future visitors to the Humboldt Forum be prepared for the discrepancy between the form and the contents of a piece of architecture that is always more than just a shell, outer skin or interior concept? What will be said about the “view from the window” of the Humboldt Forum onto the cathedral, whose intended remodelling, together with the former arsenal (now the German Historical Museum) and the Altes Museum, represented William IV’s politically and culturally connoted forum concept? My hope would be that the Humboldt Forum manages to engender an awareness of the architectural and the urban planning levels through linked analogue and digital media, and that this inspires associations with what architecture is also about: spatial structures as well as ongoing processes that are anything but unchangeable. Its DNA is fed by many ideas and decision-making processes that should – particularly also due to changed political situations – be part of historical-political awareness raising, as a dialogue “with the world” could and should also be a dialogue about why and under which conditions something like a (new) city centre is being created that cannot extricate itself from its powerful symbolism, neither here nor elsewhere, as little today as in any other times.

I therefore vividly remember one design submitted for the competition for the partial reconstruction of the Berlin Palace, whose creator I cannot now recall, but who managed a wonderful adaptation by covering the model of the palace with a shiny, transparent material in order to thereby evoke associations with a number of domed buildings all over the world. I hope that the alternative designs will be on display as they form a part of the (design concept) history of today’s palace/Humboldt Forum – just like the apparently rediscovered design for “Schinkel’s dream” used by Tillmann Buddensieg and Axel Schultes in 1996 to fire the debate as they literally turned the palace inside out and made it into an urban forum.

Photo by Brigitte Sölch
Brigitte Sölch

Prof. Dr. phil Brigitte Sölch is professor of Architecture and Design History/Architecture Theory at the Staatliche Akademie der Bildenden Künste Stuttgart.