Ambitious new centre for the arts and science

Construction on Berlin’s Humboldt Forum began eight years ago and was recently completed. The centre opened on 16 December, online only due to the pandemic. When the restrictions are lifted, in-the-flesh visitors can expect to find a modern, multifaceted museum and event complex behind the reconstructed palace façade.

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The Humboldt Forum project – that is, the proposed reconstruction of the royal palace that was bombed during the Second World War and flattened in 1950 under East Germany’s Socialist regime – fired imaginations and controversies long before any construction started. It all goes back to the fall of the Iron Curtain and the end of the GDR. A debate then sparked over whether to keep the Palast der Republik, the defunct GDR parliament building, or tear it down. Finally, in late January 2006, the diggers moved in.

The advocates of restoring the grounds to the baroque design created for Frederick William, The Great Elector (1640-1688), had won.
And so, the former seat of the Prussian kings was recreated in its 1720 guise as the Hohenzollern winter residence, with the addition of the 1853-built cupola, and adapted for a new, contemporary function. The reconstruction, incorporating statues and sections of the façade that were saved from demolition, was designed by Italian architect Franco Stella. Both publicly and privately funded, it cost a total of 677 million Euros and covers 100,000 m² total floor area, including all the administrative areas, offices, and workshops.

After just eight years, the reconstructed palace is standing and ready to be a centre for the arts and science, for discussions and exhibitions – with compromise pervading every stone. “One building, four players,” is the forum’s slogan, designed to promote the image of a trendsetting, collaborative project by Berlin’s major (art-)historical institutions, Stiftung Preußischer Kulturbesitz (SPK), Staatliche Museen zu Berlin (SMB) represented by the Ethnological Museum and the Museum for Asian Art, Kulturprojekte Berlin and Stadtmuseum Berlin, the Humboldt University (HU) and the Stiftung Humboldt Forum im Berliner Schloss.        

Due to the Corona pandemic and consequent lockdown, the opening on 16 December took place online only. Guests were invited to take a digital tour of the building’s interior, which they could subsequently repeat at will. After years of debate and controversies, of pangs of heartache at losing the Palast der Republik and scepticism about the re-emerging palace façade, after anachronistic celebrations of Prussia and postcolonial storms of indignation, after lengthy planning and a complicated but surprisingly smooth-running construction period, the Humboldt Forum is now ready to open its gates to the public. The virtual tour has been made permanently accessible, offering a 360° view of the monumental structure, right up to the roof.      
Standing in the foyer, where the visitor’s gaze is drawn upwards into the hollow of the cupola, is a tower of cuboid monitors, known as the Kosmograf. Special guests appeared on the monitor screens at the opening. Next to this hall, which is modelled on one of the two original palace courtyards, is a reconstruction of the open courtyard known as the Schlüterhof, due to be permanently accessible post-lockdown. An extreme contrast is provided by the Eosander portal, a mighty, classically inspired triumphal arch by Johann Friedrich Eosander, who along with Andreas Schlüter defined the palace’s character around 1700. 
But mostly, the architecture is sober and functional, exuding the spirit of the eighties and nineties with many grid patterns and rectangular sequences and only hints of classical elements. The most convincing aspect of Stella’s winning design of 2008 was the arcade connecting the two courtyards and leading into the palace interior. The arcade will be open around the clock and allow the public to traverse the complex from South to North. It remains to be seen whether it will really feel like a Milanese colonnade or a Parisian walkway, on which it is purportedly modelled. In the digital world, the fronts with their arrangement of round bars and windows look more like the workaday architecture of an office block or a shopping mall. In this context, the façade pieces from the original palace at the ends of the arcade have the feel of props for a historical stage production. 

The first floor will house the Humboldt University’s science laboratory and the Berlin city museum’s “World. City. Berlin” project. The Humboldt Forum aims to be a modern cultural centre that is more than the sum of the individual museums under its roof. “We are interested in the place itself as well as its function,” says Hegner. Following the ‘percent for art’ principle, the Federal Government has pledged to spend between 0.5% and 1.5% of all project building costs on public art. Four locations have been earmarked for these art projects: the two stairwells over portals I and V, the major staircase, the small foyer leading to the event halls and the entrance area outside the Berlin exhibition and the Humboldt Forum Akademie. 
Original pieces from the medieval Dominican monastery which once faced the palace are displayed on the lower floor, as well as the historical palace foundations. Via multimedia information points, visitors can find out much about the turbulent history of the place and gain a deeper sense of it than all the reconstructed baroque scenery can convey. 
Another major attraction is the 28-metre-wide video panorama on the ground floor of the Schlüterhof courtyard. Here, all the historical stages and changes at this site of German memory – the original renaissance-era palace, the extended and converted baroque version, its post-war demolition, the Socialist parade ground, the Palast der Republik, its art-appropriated shell, the bare lawn that followed and finally the palace reconstruction – are spread out as if on a giant light table. Together with the archaeological cellar, this huge projection gives important insight into the reason for and roots of the forum and its dual concept. 
The hybrid blend of the baroque façade, modern architecture, and the non-European collections it is due to house already marks a thorny challenge. The collections – the Ethnological Museum’s holdings on the cultures of Oceania, America, and Africa and those of the Museum of Asian Art – are not yet installed. But they are set to be the main attraction. Because here, in what is probably Germany’s most ambitious new centre for the arts and science, these long-neglected artefacts will not only gain a new home at the heart of the city but also form the basis for discussions of colonialism and its after-effects in various programme contexts. 
The complex as it now stands, a model of pragmatism, is perhaps no highlight of museum and architectural history. But it will no doubt fulfil its function well. Basically, this project – both the building and its contents – could never be anything other than a major compromise.

BTR Ausgabe 1 2021
Rubrik: English texts, Seite 114
von Irmgard Berner

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