Humboldt-Forum: A Stunning New Cultural Center in Berlin

Amazingly, while in 2020-2021 Berlin was pretty much out of reach for tourists from abroad, quite a few projects were finished. My Blog will feature them all so you can include them into your plans for your Berlin visit!

Berlin has a brand-new palace. What looks like a longing for Kaiser and monarchy rather is a longing for a past before WW2 bombings (and before the guilt-laden Nazi past as well). Late in pandemic 2021 the reconstructed building was opened, named Humboldt Forum which is meant to enlarge Museum island by more museums, opening up the view to the world, as Alexander von Humboldt did around 1800 when exploring, above other regions, the Americas.

There is a position from which one can get a perfect impression of the beauty and the absurdity of the palace project. Between palace bridge and Zeughaus (Berlin’s former arsenal, today the German Historical Museum) there is a tree, from which you can eye the splendid baroque architecture, however concrete at the core, and appreciate the setting with all those other buildings around: cathedral, Old Museum, Unter den Linden boulevard with Brandenburg Gate at the other end. It does make sense to have it reconstructed, big as the misery was when the communist East German government had it blown up in 1950. The idea was to gain a wide open space for parades to accommodate tanks and stuff, too – and to impress Mr Stalin over in Moscow. War time damages had been not that much; it would have been easy to repair the building dating back to the 1700s.

Over the cold war decades, memories faded, plus East Germany in the 1970s had their communist palaces erected right here, the palace of the republic. Opinions divide as to whether that one was a nice building or not; for sure it aimed at making people inside forget grey communist reality outside.

After German reunification, at first nobody had the intention of reconstructing the palace, until some private initiative advertised to do what most people thought impossible: Bring it back! So here it is, albeit mixed with modern architecture by the Italian architect Stella. Walking around you will find the brutalist riverfront which is, well, ambitious. In the two courtyards and the Florentine style passage in-between, however, the mixture works out great. The problem with the riverfront was that what had been there before the blow-up was a hotchpotch of former palaces’ remains from medieval and Renaissance times. No way to get that rebuilt, so Stella was free to see his ideal of modern architecture combined with baroque looking fake part. 

Going back to the position at Zeughaus, there is another view worth taking in. Take a look at portal no. 4, the first one opposite the pleasure. It’s fake for being new, like 99,9 % of Humboldt Forum. But looking more to the right, past the imposing main portal under the dome (already the original portal there was a copy, namely of a Roman triumphant arch) there is a modern, reddish building lurking behind the palace. That one, East Germany’s Government building (today a private business university), has a portal front taken from the real palace before blowing up everything else. Isn’t that weird, getting rid of a palace for symbolising everything bad in German history, but keeping on of the entrance gates? Well, on November 9, 1918, when a revolution abolished monarchy sending the Kaiser into exile, right here one of the founders of the German communist party, Karl Liebknecht, proclaimed a communist Germany. So whereas most of the palace was as if from hell, portal no. 4 was to the East German communist government a holy relic to cherish. Absurd, as is the fact that now we have the portal twice.