One of the most famous quotes about Berlin is that it’s ‘a city condemned forever to becoming and never to being‘. And this summer is no exception. There are cranes hovering over the entire length of Unter den Linden and Karl-Liebknecht Straße between the Brandenburg Gate and the Fernsehturm. The traffic weaves in and out of roadworks and under the blue or pink pipes that carry the water away from the swampy soil of the construction sites. Tourists have to use their imagination rather than their cameras – it will take a few years for the historic centre of Berlin to be picture perfect again. But there is so much to look forward to, despite the complaints among Berliners about how much everything is costing.
Great controversy surrounds the extension of UBahn line 5. From 2019 there will be three new underground stops – Berliner Rathaus, Museumsinsel and Unter den Linden – forming a link with the U55 so that passengers can travel underground from Alexanderplatz to the Hauptbahnhof (main railway station). This route already exists on a parallel SBahn line (overground rail) and on buses and many Berliners think that 433 million euros could be better spent in other ways. They have nicknamed the tunnel boring machine the ‘Bärlinde’ and worked out that the cost per metre is 200,000 euros. You can find out all the details of the project simply by walking past the Rathaus where there are information boards in both German and English. Personally, I am looking forward to whizzing underneath Berlin’s historic centre when it’s cold or wet above ground…
One of the many information boards outside the Rathaus
Cranes also huddle around the Staatsoper (State Opera House) which closed in 2009 for renovations to the tune of 300 million euros. This elegant building was originally commissioned by Frederick the Great as part of his classical-style Forum Fridericianum, the name given to what is now Bebelplatz (the square now infamous for the Nazi Burning of the Books in May 1933). It opened in 1742 as the Hofoper (Court Opera House), was renamed the Königliches Opernhaus (Royal Opera House) in 1844 and then became the Staatsoper unter den Linden in 1918 when Imperial Germany collapsed at the end of the First World War. The Staatsoper was destroyed twice in the Second World War, was rebuilt in 1942 and then again in 1955 in a divided city. My Staatsoper programmes go back to the 1980s when the audience was chiefly composed of citizens of the GDR and members of the Allied forces in West Berlin, easily identifiable by their uniforms. The most popular ballet of that era was Khachaturian’s ‘Spartacus’ with its strong socialist message. I last saw the inside of the building over five years ago at a piano recital given by Daniel Barenboim, General Musical Director of the Staatsoper since 1992. This was one of the final performances before the Staatsoper moved to its temporary home in the Schiller Theater. The grand reopening of the Staatsoper is currently planned for October 3rd 2015, the Day of German Unity (Tag der deutschen Einheit). In the meantime you can book a guided tour of the construction site for 15 euros (but only in German) or have a virtual tour if you follow the link on the Staatsoper’s website.
Staatsoper, Unter den Linden
The final cluster of cranes moves busily to and fro above the biggest building project that Berlin has seen since Potsdamer Platz and you don’t need to book a tour to see what is going on. Simply pay three euros and go to the top floor of the bright blue temporary Humboldt Box opposite the Lustgarten. The viewing terrace gives you a bird’s eye view of the ‘reconstruction’ of the Berliner Schloss, the palace which dominated the centre of Berlin for over five hundred years until it was badly damaged in the bombing and demolished in 1950.
Stadtschloss in 1900 and in 1950 before it was demolished. Photo above of the Humboldt Box
In the mid-1970s, another ‘palace’ took its place, the Palast der Republik. This building housed the GDR parliament (‘Volkskammer) but was also a ‘people’s palace’ with restaurants, bars, a theatre, a bowling alley and a discotheque. I loved the way the Berliner Dom (cathedral) was reflected in its copper-coloured glass exterior, but otherwise felt it was rather a garish-looking place. As such it attracted a variety of amusing nicknames such as ‘Palazzo di Protzo’, ‘Ballast der Republik’ and ‘Erich’s Lampenladen’. After reunification in 1990 the building was closed and found to be contaminated with asbestos. This was duly removed and for a while the structure served as an arts venue. Eventually the government decided to demolish the Palast entirely and replace it with a reconstruction of the Berliner Schloss. The project caused a great deal of controversy, especially among East Berliners who feel some nostalgia (‘Ostalgie’) for their GDR past and don’t want it eradicated without trace.
Palast der Republik in GDR days – with ‘Trabis’ parked outside
Unlike its predecessors the new ‘Schloss’ won’t have a political role. It will have a fabulous façade with architectural details from the original design and contain an entirely modern interior – the ‘Humboldt Forum’, described as ‘a centre for art, culture, science and learning with significant global reach’. Its name recalls the legacy of two famous Berliners, the brothers Wilhelm and Alexander von Humboldt, whose research on foreign cultures at the beginning of the 19th century made a significant contribution to global understanding.
Wilhelm and Alexander Humboldt
The Humboldt Box has an exhibition about the history of the Humboldt Forum project and you can see exactly what the final building will look like and what it will contain. There is also a large model of Berlin in 1900 and a good café on the top floor with plenty of tables outside. Once you have seen the construction site from above, take a walk along its eastern fence boundary and enjoy the ‘Spree Side Gallery’. The current exhibition is called ‘The Old and Young in 20th Century Photography’. On the opposite bank of the Spree, hidden amongst the trees, are the huge statues of Marx and Engels watching benignly as the former imperial palace is being rebuilt before their very eyes, like a phoenix rising from the ashes. It is ironic to think that these two socialist thinkers have temporarily been moved to face west whilst the new U-Bahn tunnel is being constructed beneath them.