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Time running out for East German Communist palace

October 21, 2005

By Alexandra Hudson

BERLIN (Reuters) – The end is nigh for Berlin’s most famous
eyesore, a colossus of concrete and steel which once housed
East Germany’s Communist government and now stands derelict on
the city’s main tourist drag.

Demolition of the Palace of the Republic is set for
December to the dismay of eastern Germans nostalgic for its
socialist heyday and a legion of artists and beatniks who have
used the ruin’s vast spaces in recent years to provoke and
entertain.

Now the graffiti-daubed building, whose fate stirs
lingering divisions between eastern and western Germans, is
taking leave of the city with one last defiant gesture — an
exhibition about death.

“It’s heartbreaking to see it now,” said 72-year-old Gisela
Plock, whose daughter held her wedding reception in one of the
building’s restaurants.

“I can’t bring myself to pass it too often,” said the
Berlin pensioner, a frequent patron before the palace was found
to be riddled with asbestos in 1990 and closed.

Three years ago, parliament voted to tear down the Palace
to enable the reconstruction of the old Prussian “Schloss,” the
stately residence of the last Kaiser, Wilhelm II, that stood on
the site until 1951.

Supporters of the Schloss argue it will restore the city
center’s historical layout and architectural coherence.

Opponents point to the massive cost of demolition for the
cash-strapped city — the palace stands in a concrete basin in
the River Spree which cannot easily be removed without
adversely affecting the water table.

They also highlight the troubling symbolism of effacing an
East German icon, when 16 years after the fall of the Berlin
Wall many East Germans feel reunification failed them.

“A TRAGEDY”

Inside the Palace, a visitors’ book lies ready for remarks
about the contemporary art installation on display.

Yet few visitors devote comments to the artworks.

“It is a tragedy this beautiful building should have been
allowed to become such a ruin. West and East will never be
reconciled,” writes one visitor in huge emphatic script.

Plock has vivid memories of the Palace which was opened
with much pomp in 1976 but served just 14 years.

“When you came in on every floor there were the most
beautiful plants and indoor flower beds among the stylish
leather seats. The scent was incredible. It really hit you.”

“It had a bar for youngsters, a wine bar, beer cellar,
restaurants, theater and concert hall. It appealed to everyone.
You could come for a meal, or a quick stand-up coffee.”

Ripping down the Palace is an affront to all those who used
and enjoyed the building, ensuring it was never just the haunt
of the Communist elite, Plock argued.

“We East Germans paid for it ourselves from our taxes and
East Germany was not a rich country. All the natural resources
were in the West.”

“It is a part of Berlin’s history, of East German history,
and we cannot allow it to be simply swept aside and ignored.”

ERICH’S LAMP SHOP

In order to remove the asbestos, workers had to strip the
building of its marble steps, interior walls and the hundreds
of bulbous light fittings which earned the building the
nickname “Erich’s lamp shop,” after Communist leader Erich
Honecker.

Some of those lamps are now bathing a new generation in
their curious orange light, after being rescued by some of
Berlin’s trendiest bars.

Since the eerie shell of exposed girders and copper-colored
glass reopened in 2003 it has inspired some innovative
projects.

The current show by little-known contemporary artists
offers disquieting reminders of human mortality. A wall of
grainy photos depicts the pained dead faces of men, women and
children. An airport arrivals and departure board mocks
visitors, reminding them of the uncertainty of their own
departure date.

Over the last year, the building’s basement was flooded,
allowing people to tour it in rubber dinghies. Visitors have
sat on the former entrance staircase huddled in blankets to
watch old East German propaganda films, or have danced to
blistering electronic music, echoing through the void.

Organizers have staged operas and glamorous balls, as well
as ironic tours of the building pretending it is half-way to
completion rather than reaching the end of its life.

During last year’s dark winter months, a huge light
installation on the top of the Palace spelled out the word
“doubt” — visible from a half-mile away. It captured the
spirit of a nation beset with insecurity about its future,
commentators said.

“I think when it comes to the day of the demolition we’ll
see people from both camps outside protesting,” said
30-year-old actress Ulrike Recknagel.

“It will be an outrage if it goes. Berlin has a unique edge
at present, yet city planners are sucking the life out of it
with all the new hotels and smart buildings for tourists.”

“Here artists have had a prominent site and have done some
remarkable things. This is not a wealthy city and precisely
when people are suffering economically is when they most need
accessible art and culture.”

Some even advocate turning the building into a museum about
life in Communist East Germany to meet growing tourist
interest.

Yet among those catching a last look at the interior of the
palace, there are those who are completely mystified by the
poignancy of the moment for others.

“I’m just here for the art,” said 23-year-old midwife
Susanna Rohleder from Brandenburg.

“This place is ugly. I won’t miss it when it’s gone.”




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