This article is part of the feature „The Berlin Palace 2.0. Concrete and Baroque

A stage for the cultures of the world, in the heart of Berlin

9 min read

I conceived the Humboldt Forum in the Berlin Schloss as a palace, with its six portals representing city gates and its three inner courtyards serving as city squares – in other words, as a city in the form of a palace. In architectural terms, the concepts of palace and piazza allow for a well-balanced combination of the old and the new – each with its own, unique vocabulary of forms and shapes. The palace serves as the architectural inspiration for the new East Wing, while the piazza inspires the four new interior structures.

The palace – the four-winged palace to be precise – was the architectural model that the three baroque wings of the Schloss originally designed by architect Andreas Schlüter tended to follow. On the other hand, the piazza – or more precisely, the theatre piazza – served as the architectural template for baroque palace courtyards, and specifically for the Schlüterhof.

The Schlüterhof, once a showplace for courtly ceremonies, will be used in future as a venue for a wide range of events. The architecture of its new West Wing is just as indebted to the motif of the theatre piazza as its three reconstructed wings. Likewise, the modern façade supplementing the Schlüterhof has borrowed from the motif of the two-storey, stone arcades that were originally conceived by Schlüter but never built.

The ideal model of a theatre piazza is described in the architectural treatises of the Renaissance, which list its main features: colonnades, loggias, and the triumphal arch or magnificent portal serving as a city gate through which an avenue would open up onto the piazza. The fact that the architecture of the piazza corresponded to that of the theatre during this period was the result of a fundamental evolution: The construction of theatres had been abandoned after the classical Roman period, so that the piazza – along with the interiors of palaces and churches – had become the venue for theatrical, ceremonial, and festive events.

The first theatre built along the lines of its ancient Roman predecessors, the Teatro Olimpico designed for Vicenza by Andrea Palladio in 1580, exemplifies the piazza’s direct kinship with the theatre: The stage is conceived as a sort of plaza, onto which the streets of an ideal city converge via the open portals of a “stage front” in the form of a triumphal arch from Antiquity.

In the foyer, which serves as a reception hall and events space, the architecture again follows the piazza-as-theatre motif, whereby the rebuilt triumphal portal represents the stage front and the new galleries stand for the spectators’ suites.

The new Berlin Palace has three courtyards, each conceived as a theatre piazza. The reconstructed Schlüterhof is joined by two additional courtyards, one open and one roofed over, both of which are oriented by the portals of the former Eosanderhof. They add significantly to the public spaces within the building – and this within a perimeter that could have been turned into a fully built-up area under the terms of the architectural design competition. These new courtyards, in conjunction with the reconstructed ones, allow the thoroughfares and courtyard façades to be recreated for all five portals of the Berlin Palace. Thus, they have regained their important urban function as city gates, instead of being degraded to the status of building entrances. Each courtyard’s distinctive architectural characteristics, as well as its spatial relationship to the portals, plays an indispensable role when it comes to realizing the idea of the “courtyard as a piazza.”

With the reconstruction of the Berlin Palace, the urban spaces surrounding the building will have regained their original sense of scale, along with their major architectural boundary. The traditional squares of Lustgarten, Schlossplatz, and Schlossfreiheit that are being restored, along with the new Spreeplatz created in front of the East Wing, are interlinked with the inner courtyards by way of the six open portals, thereby forming a generously proportioned public space in the heart of Berlin. It is a unique piazza for everyone – for the citizens of Berlin and for the visitors from all over the world who will be coming to see the Humboldt Forum.


The Schlossforum is the passage that runs straight through the building, linking up the Lustgarten with the Schlossplatz. Here, the new and the old, the colonnaded pathway and the triumphal portal, combine to recreate the atmosphere of the public squares of ancient history, such as the Greek agora or Roman forum. They were the templates on which the ideal Renaissance piazza was modeled. Just like the oft-emulated Cortile degli Uffizi in Florence that inspired it, the Schlossforum, too, is both an integral part of a building and seamlessly integrated into the cityscape. The entrance to the interior of the Humboldt Forum on the western side as well as several cafés and a bookstore on the eastern side make this an attractive and inviting urban space.

Photo by Franco Stella
Franco Stella

The architect Prof. Franco Stella won the 2008 competition for the reconstruction of the Humboldt Forum in the Berlin Palace. Since 1990 he has been teaching at the University of Genoa. He also runs an architectural office in Vicenza.