Curb-side symbolism as Berlin rebuilds

A block of glass and stone, held together with several hundred tons of asbestos-laced concrete, looms incongruously at Berlin's historic center.

Barely 25 years old, the crumbling construction is called an eyesore by many.

Yet the fate of the Palace of the Republic - the parliament building of the former East Germany - is as uncertain today as it was after German unification nine years ago.

To some, the building represents a part of their identity. To others it is an architectural blasphemy that must make way for a reconstruction of Berlin's historic castle, built on this spot centuries ago.

In the 10 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall, the face of the once-divided German capital has changed enormously. A new government quarter is under construction, and drab neighborhoods on the eastern side have been completely renovated.

The Palace of the Republic, however, stands as an unseemly reminder of the past.

"From my transitional office ... I always have to look at the Palace of the Republic," said Chancellor Gerhard Schrder in a recent interview with the weekly Die Zeit. "It is so monstrous that I would prefer to have a castle there."

The statement raised expectations among groups supporting a reconstructed castle - and raised the hackles of palace supporters, who charge him with taking on the airs of a monarch.

German kings and emperors resided in the original castle, established as the heart of Berlin by the 18th century. During the Allied bombing of the city in World War II, much of the castle was damaged by fire, and the new Communist rulers in East Berlin had the Baroque structure razed in 1950. It was replaced by the East German parliament building in the mid-1970s.

The Communists called the building the Palace of the Republic, but people on the street mocked it as "the biggest lamp shop in the republic" because of its pompous chandeliers.

The palace was open to the public and contained restaurants, an art gallery, a disco, and a bowling alley. In August 1990, the East and West German governments signed the unification treaty here. But a month later it was closed because of asbestos contamination.

Berlin's restoration as the capital - the transfer from Bonn should happen sometime this year - fired the imaginations of Germans who look back at the city's proud architectural traditions with nostalgia. In 1993 one group set up a "castle simulation," a steel and plastic full-scale replica of the castle's Baroque faade.

The proposal to demolish the Palace of the Republic also has fed suspicions among eastern Germans that the West is attempting to erase all signs of their past identity. Gregor Gysi, head of the successor party to the East German Communists, had himself hoisted to the roof of the palace with a crane. There he unfurled a banner stating: "Stop the demolition of the palace."

For years the Palace of the Republic stood empty, while politicians stalled and hipsters skateboarded down its deserted halls after dark. Finally workers have begun removing the embedded asbestos from the structure, a project that will last two years and cost $40 million. Meanwhile, the federal and city governments are examining concepts for the future use of the controversial plot of land.

THE Association for the Preservation of the Palace of the Republic has proposed a full renovation of the building, to be used as a cultural center, with a glassed-in palm garden on the roof.

"It's the property of all the citizens, not just the hobby of some former East Germans," says Lieselotte Schulz, president of the association. She says that the asbestos removal is a pretext to begin demolishing the palace.

Still, Ms. Schulz does not deny that the Communists' dynamiting of the castle was a mistake, and her plans include a partial reconstruction of the west wing of the earlier structure.

Likewise, supporters of the castle are showing a willingness to compromise. One popular plan foresees the reconstructed castle incorporated with one side of the Communist parliament.

"If a part is kept, then East Berliners will see that their most recent history is being respected," says Helmut Eichmeyer of the Society for the Reconstruction of the Berlin Castle.

The main question for both sides is who will finance the expensive projects. Many of the castle's supporters have suggested cutting costs by disguising a modern building with a Baroque faade.

But the new German chancellor has said that he would support only an authentic reconstruction, inside and out. Otherwise, Mr. Schrder said, he would want to look out on an altogether new building that evokes memories of neither the kaisers nor the Communists.

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