Rebuilding the Past

A 14-hectare site, just off Unter den Linden, Berlin's old imperial boulevard, has long been the city's most fought-over chunk of real estate. There, after 15 years of heated debate, demolition began last month on the Palace of the Republic, the empty 1970s-era home of communist East Germany's rubber-stamp "Parliament." Once upon a time, the plot was occupied by an even vaster edifice: the 1,200-room Stadtschloss, the 12th-century palace of Prussian kings and German kaisers, damaged in World War II and razed by the communists in 1950. Now, the Bundestag has decreed, a replica of the old imperial palace will be rebuilt on the same spot, with a historically accurate façade and a mostly modern interior.

Berlin is not alone in catching reconstruction fever. Projects to rebuild prominent landmarks lost to Allied bombs and postwar wrecking balls are underway in Frankfurt, Potsdam and a host of other German cities. Destroyed monuments, of course, have been reconstructed as long as there have been fires, earthquakes and war: in Moscow, one of the latest additions to the skyline is the Cathedral of Christ the Savior, a copy of a 19th-century original blown up during one of Joseph Stalin's anti-church purges. But in Germany, rebuilding seems to have turned into a national trend.

The retro wave got its biggest boost last October, when Dresden reconsecrated the Frauenkirche, one of Europe's most significant baroque landmarks until the 1945 Allied air raid that wiped out most of the city. The project--a painstakingly exact replica using some of the original blackened stones--was immensely popular, financed by donations from all around the world. Visitors love it, too: more than 500,000 have toured the church since October, and the city's hotel bookings are up over 20 percent.

In Dresden, existing 18th-century plans made possible a perfect copy. Other old landmarks are being rebuilt with a modern twist: in Brunswick, private investors are rebuilding a massive royal palace whose baroque façade will hide a shopping mall. Reconstruction projects in Dresden will house hotels, offices and shops. Naturally, purists are appalled. The German Landmark Foundation calls such reconstruction "sinful," and preservationists worry reconstruction will draw donations away from needy existing landmarks.

Why now? Architects recall similar retro phases in the past, when developers in Europe and America fell in love with fake Gothic, neoclassical and Renaissance styles--think London's neo-Gothic Houses of Parliament, or Mad King Ludwig's pseudo-medieval Neuschwanstein castle. Then, as now, such artifice evoked a simpler past in a rapidly modernizing world. Critics may call them "fake" or "artificial." But as with those beautifully gaudy monuments of a century ago, people may one day appreciate these reconstructions as an authentic expression of our times.