The Humboldt Forum on Berlin’s Museum Island opened in December 2020 to reactions that have so far alternated between sharp criticism and indifference. The ambivalence of its reception can be blamed, at least in part, on the fact that few people have been able to visit the building, due to ongoing pandemic-induced restrictions. However, when you look at images of the completed Forum, it becomes clear that the tepid response of the architectural and popular press cannot be blamed on COVID-19 alone. Put simply, the building is not an easily likable object.
That it fails to register as a city landmark, either new or old, has much to do with the project brief, which stipulates several design criteria. For instance, the three primary exposures in Italian architect Franco Stella’s design are hyperfaithful re-creations of the baroque sandstone facades of the Berlin Palace, which once stood on the site. As one rounds the corners and moves toward the Spree, these elaborate ornamental forms morph abruptly into a crisp grid of finished concrete and recessed windows. The same bait and switch is repeated on the Forum’s inner court, where three baroque portals protrude from the matrices of neo-modernist grids.
The stark juxtaposition of zombie baroque with new contemporary designs raises the question, is the Humboldt Forum a historical reconstruction or a modern reinterpretation of a historical structure? The answer, I would argue, is that the Humboldt Forum is both and neither—too similar to the original palace to qualify as a reinterpretation, but too different from the older structure to be considered a reconstruction. As such, the Forum provides a telling example of the challenges of historical reconstruction projects, as well as their limitations.
A historical reconstruction, particularly of a civic building like the Humboldt Forum, requires for its success a shared sense of history that is collectively acknowledged, if not embraced, by a public and that corresponds to a formal vocabulary that resonates with said public. For example, in restoring the Neues Museum, just a block or so away British architect David Chipperfield satisfyingly integrated his design with elements of the original building, by architect Friedrich August Stüler. It had been in ruins since World War II. Because Chipperfield was not asked to re-create the previous structure as it had been but rather to reenvision it for a newly reunified Germany, he could actively engage with the legacy of Stüler’s former master, Karl Friedrich Schinkel, whose Altes Museum (1825–30) stands just across the street, and with the entire complex of cultural buildings on the northern end of Museum Island. These are all institutions long familiar to Berliners and to Germans. Even if they have never visited these museums, they no doubt recognize many of the famous objects in their collections, such as the iconic Bust of Nefertiti in the Neues Museum.
Before the so-called “palace debate” (Schlossdebatte) of the 1990s, the Berlin Palace had never enjoyed the same degree of familiarity or regard, among architectural historians nor the German public more broadly. The palace was established in the 1440s as a medieval fortress and subsequently renovated over the years, most extensively from the 1680s to 1710s, during the reign of the first king of Prussia, Frederick I, according to designs by Andreas Schlüter. Renovations were suspended upon Frederick’s death, and aside from the construction of its dome in 1845, the structure stayed as it was, more or less, for the next several decades. However, for most of its existence, the palace was not open to the public, nor was it associated with particularly famous works of art. In general, Berlin’s architectural claims to fame are not buildings of the baroque period but the neoclassical works of Schinkel and the designs of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Erich Mendelsohn, Bruno Taut, and other architectural avant-gardes of the early 20th century. And while the palace is linked with the Prussian Hohenzollern dynasty, its significance in this regard was always eclipsed by the complex of parks and palaces in Potsdam, just outside Berlin (where most of the dynasty’s rulers preferred to live).
This is all to say that the Berlin Palace never inspired strong feelings in anyone; it was, in short, a background building, albeit a rather large and ornate one. Its meaning was malleable enough that when East Germany’s ruling party decided to demolish the ruins of the palace, dismissing it as a relic of the Prussian monarchy, Gate IV from its north facade was preserved as the site where Karl Liebknecht declared Germany a free socialist republic in November 1918. Gate IV, now called the Liebknecht Gate, was incorporated by Roland Korn and Hans-Erich Bogatzky into their design of the East German State Council, built in 1964 on the other side of Palace Square (Schlossplatz). In preserving this bit of the Berlin Palace, the East German regime recognized that the gate’s baroque forms could serve as a reference to a shared past. Moreover, this was a past that had a distinct meaning in 1960s East Germany, regardless of whether East Germans themselves believed in the socialist ideals their government purported to endorse.
In any case, what slight relevance the Berlin Palace might have had to the German public would have evaporated by the time the decision was made to partially rebuild it, in 2003. At that point, the palace had been gone for over 50 years. One might argue that its past symbolism is not terribly germane at all, considering the new building is not a royal residence. Instead, the Humboldt Forum is a public cultural center, offering cafes, lecture halls, a movie theater, and restaurants, along with museum exhibition spaces. While such venues are a welcome addition to any city, their usefulness in Berlin, where the divided past created a double helping of cultural venues, is less apparent. It is particularly confounding when one remembers that the building the Forum replaces, the East German Palace of the Republic, which opened in 1976, was a similar type of architectural mélange, offering art and cultural exhibits, restaurants and cafes, large and small performances venues, and even a bowling alley.
It did not help supporters of the Humboldt Forum that its directors have consistently failed to articulate a clear sense of its mission. Instead, they seem to speak only in vague terms about public engagement or the values of the Enlightenment, as embodied by the project’s namesakes, Wilhelm and Alexander von Humboldt. When one reads their description of the Humboldt Forum and its function, questions emerge: Why this building on this site? And why Berlin? What is this building meant to symbolize, exactly, and to whom?
The project’s ambiguity is only compounded by the attempt to use re-created baroque forms to speak to a present-day public, even as the project as a whole seems increasingly out of step with that public. For example, the directors probably expected that their decision to highlight the collections of the Ethnographic Museum and Museum of Asian Art would address concerns of Eurocentrism. Instead, debates about looted or stolen objects and repatriation quickly ensued. This discourse grew throughout the 2010s, alongside and beyond the reconstructed palace, to encompass objects in a number of Berlin’s museums, including the Nefertiti Bust.
Similarly, the decision to name the building after the Humboldts might once have seemed a safe or at least neutral choice. But owing to the controversy about the provenance of the artworks that will be displayed in it, that instead functions as a reminder that many of the activities central to the project of the Enlightenment—scientific documentation, measurement, standardization, rationalization—are likewise central to the project of colonialism. Rather than resolving the complex issues related to colonial or racist legacies, or even offering a considered response to them, the Humboldt Forum succeeds mostly in providing ample evidence of just how entrenched they are. Moreover, the Forum demonstrates the limitations of an approach that attempts to honor, sustain, and fundamentally critique such legacies, all at the same time.
Considering the history of the Berlin Palace and the dubious premise of the Humboldt Forum project, it is hard to fault Franco Stella alone for the sense of muddled purpose the project seems to radiate. Already in 2008, there appeared to be a feeling among critics that the decision to rebuild the palace would turn out to be, in the words of New York Times critic Michael Kimmelman, a “grand blunder.” Regardless, the Forum’s contemporary and baroque forms both seem unconnected to the building’s function, to the collections it exhibits, and to the natural scientist and linguist whose name it bears. Without the sense of a shared past or architectural symbolism, the Humboldt Forum is unlikely to emerge as a collectively embraced symbol.
On the other hand, the partially reconstructed, partially reinterpreted Berlin Palace may be the only building it was possible to erect on this site. After all, the original palace, and the Palace of the Republic, which stood there until 2007, were both demolished by governments that were unsatisfied with what each represented. Both governments sponsored building projects that, in their view, would more accurately reflect their respective Germany’s political, social, and cultural values. While it is far too early to tell what the final judgment of the Humboldt Forum will be, considering its reception so far, one can’t help but wonder if it is destined to meet the same fate.
Emily Pugh is an architectural historian based at the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles. Her research focuses on postwar architecture in the U.S. and Germany, as well as technologies of architectural representation. Her first book, Architecture, Politics, and Identity in Divided Berlin (2014), is available from University of Pittsburgh Press. She is at work on a second book, focused on architectural criticism on U.S. television in the 1950s and 1960s.