Reading about Dubai’s Burj Khalifa in the German press, you’d be forgiven for thinking the building was in Leipzig, not the Middle East. “The tallest building in the world is so German,” said Der Spiegel when the tower opened in 2010. “The Burj Khalifa is an Ossi!" shouted Bild, using the common nickname for East Germans. The headlines were partly right: when East Germany’s old parliament building, the Palace of the Republic in Berlin, was demolished in 2006, several thousand tonnes of steel girders were stripped from its carcass and shipped to the Gulf for use in the construction of Burj Khalifa.
It's not hard to see the irony when a showcase for communist values is reincarnated as part of the world’s largest monument to capitalist excess. There's further irony in the structure currently growing up in the parliament’s place: a lavish mock-up of its predecessor the City Palace, former home of the Kaiser.
When this building is topped out next year, it will be an uncanny apparition from Berlin’s past, a palace brought back from the dead. It’s just one example of a retro building craze that has been embraced around Europe with the reconstruction of historic buildings long lost to bombs, fires and wrecking balls. Governments and developers have decided that the way to the future lies in looking backwards.
Moscow embarked on such rebuilding by bringing back the Soviet-demolished Kazan Cathedral in 1993 and the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in 2000. In 2005, Dresden resurrected its baroque Frauenkirche, destroyed by allied bombing back in 1945. When Vilnius rebuilt its Palace of the Grand Dukes in 2009, the building had been gone 208 years. Potsdam has just reopened its own City Palace, ruined in the war and cleared in the 60s. Dresden and Frankfurt are also recreating long-since demolished marketplaces, while Warsaw – with an already reconstructed historical centre – has plans to rebuild its Saxon and Bruhl palaces. Britain has joined in with a planned reconstruction of the Crystal Palace. Even cities lacking ancient models have just gone ahead and invented them. The largely modern Macedonian capital Skopje is now restyling its centre, filling its squares with supersized, entirely new neoclassical statuary.
Europe has seen historical reconstruction before but something new is afoot here, something different from other forms of historical reuse and from the backward-looking, portico-inclined designs beloved of Prince Charles. Michael Falser, Heidelberg University’s Chair of Global Art History clarified this difference: “Since people have built, they have improved, renewed and rebuilt their buildings after damage,” he wrote in Der Tagesspiegel. What we are arguing about today is (the) picture-perfect, full reconstruction of buildings that have often been completely disappeared over long periods.”
The reopening of London’s Covent Garden Market as a shopping centre, for example, could be likened to a patient close to death being given a new lease of life on the operating table. Norman Foster’s design for Germany’s parliament nested within Berlin’s part-ruined Reichstag can be seen in a similar light. Even the rebuilding of old Warsaw after the war restored something only just departed.
Buildings like Moscow’s new cathedral and Potsdam’s palace, however, were neither dying nor recently lost. They are new buildings, serving contemporary ends even as they pay homage to a supposedly great past. Yet, by rubbing out the recent past to return to an earlier starting point, they try to wipe the slate clean as if the intervening history had never occurred.
This is certainly true of Berlin’s revived City Palace. Once the Prussian kings’ winter seat, the 18th-century building’s sombre grandeur loomed over central Berlin until wartime bomb damage saw it cleared for redevelopment in the 50s. That was the official East German line, at least. In reality it was the palace’s awkward ancien régime associations that signed its death warrant. It was replaced in 1976 by the Palace of the Republic. This was the home of the German Democratic Republic’s parliament, and much besides. Glass-clad and hangar-like, it contained not just an assembly chamber and political offices but also concert halls, restaurants, shops, a nightclub and a bowling alley. By the 90s it was looking shopworn and its uncomfortable status as a GDR monument was apparent; but in the end, it was the palace’s asbestos-filled fabric that tipped the balance towards demolition.
Now on this site the resurrected City Palace aspires to being a beacon of its republic’s values, a ‘cultural lighthouse’, according to Berlin’s mayor Klaus Wowereit. Two existing suburban museums will be transplanted there, joining a branch of Berlin’s central library, a space for temporary exhibitions and a restaurant. There may also be a bathing spot along the River Spree.
This sounds appealing, but there’s a sense that those new uses are secondary, a hotchpotch of occupants assembled to justify the resurrection of their baroque shell, which is what has really galvanised opinion. Its many critics see the palace as a ludicrous backward step, though the main public objections were to the €590m construction cost.
Writing in Die Zeit, Munich University Sociology professor Armin Nassehi thinks the strict recreation of the old palace’s appearance moves into territory quite different from traditionally inspired architecture that merely quotes from the past: “Quotations in architecture live by producing new combinations and contextual surprises. They have emancipated themselves from the search for presence. A reconstruction true to the original, however, is not quotation but plagiarism. The quote refers to something –plagiarism copies in order to hide something… the result is a historicising national cowardice.”
The palace will make a somewhat pompous addition to a city whose post-1989 public image has emphasised the experimental, the provisional. Over the past 25 years, Berlin has built a reputation – to the point of cliche – as a city of cheap artist studios and 24-hour nightclubs, with rundown neighbourhoods supposedly retooled as startup and creative hubs. The City Palace site played a walk-on part in this picture: in the 90s, the old parliament’s partly gutted hulk briefly hosted art exhibitions and was replaced after demolition by a ‘temporary art hall’ bankrolled by corporate sponsors. Now, with Berlin settling into its role as Germany’s capital, a more sober, establishment image emerges. As the City Palace places its haunches back on the Spree riverside, its arrival won’t signal the end of ‘edgy’ Berlin but may ultimately appear as a giant bookend to the city’s creative years of transition: a monument to the new Germany harking back to a time before the country was tainted by 20th-century nightmares.
The popularity of such retro building projects often has a simple root: people tend to like the aesthetics of grand, pre-20th-century buildings, especially when compared to the postwar modernist architecture that typically replaced them. The sight of Dresden’s Frauenkirche dome against the skyline is still one of heart-stopping beauty, even if a sceptic might damn it as part of a heritage Disneyland. Reconstructions can also restore lost coherence to urban spaces. The square where Warsaw’s Saxon Palace once stood is a rather blank space without its colonnade. Moreover, many buildings being resurrected were destroyed against popular consent: no one asked Muscovites directly if they wanted to keep their cathedrals. Seen this way, the new breed of rebuilds are just sewing up an old rip.
To suggest the forces behind the trend stop here, however, would be naive. These developments arrive just as much of Europe is swinging politically towards a conservatism powered by diffidence about the future, evidence of a continent in a state of anxiety. Historical reconstruction suggests societies looking backwards for reassurance to a time when – viewed in retrospect, at least – the ascendancy of the continent's states seemed secure. As Europe becomes ever more cosmopolitan and globalised, redbuilding old monuments promises that, as their countries change, a national tradition with deep roots will remain the state's rallying point. The public appetite for such reassurance can be seen in the growing success of far-right parties in the recent European elections. Such parties have wooed voters by promising to turn the clock back to an essentially mythical time when everyone knew their neighbours, nobody was from abroad and the trains ran on time.
Contemporary historical rebuilds don’t stem directly from the far right, of course, but the rise of both reflects a similar unease. It lies not in an inherent political agenda, but in a shared sense that the future becomes less threatening when presented in forms that draw a thread between today and the past.
Thus as Germany consolidates its reunification, Berlin’s City Palace refers back to ascendant Prussia in its outward-looking, less repressive period, an era with which contemporary Germany might like to draw some affinity. Likewise, Russian reconstructions of grand buildings from Tsarist times remind citizens that their country’s history of resplendent imperial power predates the Soviet Union, and has survived its demise.
But while these ancient facades may recall times past, their concrete cores and contemporary uses are modern. No longer royal residences, barracks or churches, they are exhibition centres, shopping malls and tourist attractions. The ancient appearance works as a form of camouflage, concealing something challengingly new under an appearance that suggests nothing has changed for centuries.
Several new buildings in Turkey follow this pattern. In recent years, the country has been gripped by nostalgia for Turkey’s imperial Ottoman past, just as politicians advocating traditional values have come to dominate the establishment. Culturally, this trend has been dubbed “Ottomania”, and outlined by Elif Batuman in the New Yorker:
“Ottomania [is] manifested in such diverse phenomena as Burger King’s Sultan Meal combo (a 2006 TV spot featured a Janissary devouring a Whopper with hummus), a proliferation of Ottoman cookbooks, Ottoman-style bathroom consoles, wedding invitations with Ottoman calligraphy, and graduation gowns and flight attendant uniform designs inspired by kaftans and fezes. In the past ten years, there have been increasingly elaborate commemorations of the Ottoman conquest of Istanbul, along with the construction of new Ottoman-style mosques and the renovation of old Ottoman buildings, some of which have been repurposed as hotels or shopping malls.”
This Ottoman enthusiasm has a political counterpart. Since 2002, Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party has won three elections in a row. Regularly but controversially described as Islamist, the JDP prefers to call its driving ideology ‘conservative democracy’. Mixing a love of the free market with social conservatism, the JDP has piloted Turkey through a period of galloping growth in which her cities have expanded massively. Istanbul itself has gained over 4 million residents since 2000 alone. This degree of social transformation is alarming for many, not least because the government has been accused of wanton cronyism and has punished any media or protesters holding it to account with prison sentences and police brutality.
As if to help anchor the country during this period of rapid change, Turkey’s attention has turned back to the Ottoman Empire, with the JDP encouraging Turks to see their country’s current growth as the continuation of an interrupted tradition. It has thrown up such projects as Istanbul’s Demirören centre, which conceals a new development in a concoction of late Ottoman design ticks. Architecture critic Ömer Kapinak described it as having been ‘dipped in historical sauce’.
What makes this development more striking is that it stands so close to neighbourhoods where real historic buildings are being destroyed: the nearby Tarlabasi area, dating from the 19th century, is experiencing evictions and demolitions in the name of regeneration.
The current government doesn’t really care about history at all, critics argue. Mardin Artuklu University’s architectural history professor Uğur Tanyeli told the Tarlabasi blog: “In Turkey, the historical has to be brand new and squeaky clean. So what is actually wanted is the illusion of history… it is not allowed to carry any baggage of the past, or any of history’s patina, there can’t be anything about it that creates unease… The fewer traces of the past [a building] carries, the more successful they believe a preservation to be – and there is not only the Demirören shopping centre, but there are hundreds of buildings along the Bosporus like that. There are ‘renovated’ buildings dating back to the 13th century that look like they have been built yesterday and where not a single screw is historically justified.”
It was against this backdrop that Turkey’s Gezi Park protests played out. Primarily a revolt against the appropriation of public space for rampant development, they expanded to express wider frustration with the country’s authoritarian government. But while preserving public space was their focus, it is significant that the authorities planned to appropriate the park to reconstruct an Ottoman-era building: the early 19th century Taksim Barracks, which once stood on the site – again, the plan was for an old looking shell containing modern shops. So running through the protests was also a debate about who should control Turkish history.
The space involved was already freighted with political significance. Gezi Park and Taksim Square, the large plaza facing it, were laid out in the 30s and 40s as the Turkish Republic’s first major project in Istanbul, after abandoning the city as the capital for Ankara in 1923. In demolishing the barracks the project was a conscious break from the Ottoman past. Taksim Square’s status as modern Istanbul’s hub was reinforced in 1977, with the building of the Ataturk Cultural Centre, an opera house and exhibition complex built in a modernist style.
Trying to redevelop such a space could thus be seen as an attempt to downplay the legacy of the Turkish Republic’s founding father Atatürk – especially as the cultural centre was also slated for demolition. Atatürk’s secularist, western-oriented beliefs may have dominated the Turkish political mainstream for most of the 20th century, but Erdogan’s JDP looked elsewhere for models.
Swept away in a wave of resistance to the Turkish government, the Taksim Barracks project ultimately proved too controversial and the plans were shelved in May.
It’s a sign of how tumultuous Turkey’s transformation has been that the kind of reconstruction projects that provoked only newspaper columns and petitions in Berlin have in Istanbul shaken the state itself. There are nonetheless striking similarities between Berlin’s ongoing City Palace project and Istanbul’s aborted Taksim Barracks plan. Despite their backward-looking design, both are projects created by states trying to draw a line under the recent past. Like robots concealed beneath layers of lacy frou-frou, both plans also legitimise new development by presenting it partly as a restoration of tradition. They suggest an impasse, a sense that national and civic virtues are best expressed with tools honed by other eras. Certainly, they say little for Europe’s confidence in its own present.