Beware the Pseudo-Historical Retrofit Craze Sweeping Over Europe

The planning debate that sparked Turkey's recent protests is part of a larger, kind of weird architectural trend.

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Robert Atanasovski/AFP/Getty Images

Turkey’s ongoing wave of anti-authoritarian protests has spread so fast and far that it’s strange to recall its first spark was a small Istanbul planning struggle. Protestors first gathered last month to defend Gezi Park, among central Istanbul’s last green spaces, from being partly torn up to rebuild an Ottoman era barracks, demolished 73 years ago, as a shopping mall designed to nest within the remaining facade. Thanks to police brutality, government persecution of anyone involved and domestic media rotating coverage blackouts with one-sidedly pro-government reporting, the protesters’ grievances have since extended well beyond Gezi Park. But what makes this rapid spiral yet more striking is that the initial debate – on appropriating public space to construct ersatz historical monuments – is actually being played out across Europe.

Last week, demonstrators in Skopje, capital of the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, formed a human chain around a 1970s shopping mall, fighting plans to clad it in neoclassical colonnades and domes, with a roof bristled by statues. This grandiose, kitsch, and expensive refit is just one part of a larger plan to flatten and rebuild central Skopje along grander lines. Across the center, communist concrete is receding and being replaced with pseudo-classical edifices, triumphal arches and monumental columns that resemble a mash-up of CGI backdrops from Game of Thrones or 300

The phenomenon extends far beyond the Balkans. In 2009, Lithuania completed the Palace of the Grand Dukes in Vilnius (this time with a concrete core) two centuries after the Russians had it razed, while the German city of Braunschweig gained a palace shopping mall on the site of a post-war park back in 2007. Berlin arguably capped the lot last week, however, when it began work rebuilding Berlin’s old City Palace, a huge baroque pile that was damaged in World War II and later demolished by the East German government, despite being eminently salvageable. 

Vilnius’ Palace of the Grand Dukes, rebuilt in 2009. Image courtesy Flickr user Mark Healey.

From the 1970s onwards, the demolished castle’s site was long home to the modernist Palace of the Republic, a hulking parliament complex with an interior so flashy it earned the nickname “Erich’s lamp shop” after the East German leader Erich Honecker.  With East Germany abolished, the debate over the complex’s future proved divisive. While western Germans tended to see the building solely as a relic of an oppressive past, easterners also remembered happier occasions there (beyond the parliament, it contained restaurants, a concert hall and even a bowling alley) and sensed their recent history being swept under the carpet. In the end, it was practical considerations that tipped the balance towards demolition – like much 1970s construction, the complex was riddled with asbestos.

Demolition of the former GDR "Palace of the Republic" in 2008. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Berlin is experiencing nothing like Istanbul – Germany’s government conducts its business with a far less heavy hand – but rebuilding the baroque city palace is proving almost as controversial as knocking down the GDR parliament. The idea certainly has its advantages. With the castle site currently empty, the end of Berlin’s Unter Den Linden avenue looks like a gap-toothed smile at the moment, and the new building will fit in well with the opulent historical buildings nearby. Many locals are asking, however, if building a mock-up of the Kaiser’s old home is really such a step forward after demolishing a rubber-stamp parliament. 

The City Palace will cost a staggering 590 million, or roughly $1,860 per square foot, for which Berlin will also get airy, contemporary museum space housed within the palace’s historic shell. This has mollified some critics – museums bring tourists, who bring cash after all – but as the future home for Berlin’s fairly minor ethnography and Asian art museums, the building’s future as a culture palace seems like an afterthought. This could be why a recent poll suggests two thirds of Germans are against rebuilding the palace, and why Chancellor Merkel, facing elections later this year, avoided this month’s foundation-laying ceremony.

So why is Europe currently so keen on playing historical dress-up? Widespread suspicion of contemporary architecture is partly responsible, though successful projects such as as I.M Pei’s Louvre Pyramid and Norman Foster’s Reichstag dome show that skillful modern insertions into historical sites can meet public approval. A sense of unease about Europe’s present is also at play. With faith in the European project’s future at low ebb, conservative governments are turning backwards to their nations’ pasts, even if all these buildings sometimes offer is big box shopping with imperial trimmings. It would be unfair, of course, to identify Germany, FYROM and Turkey too closely simply because they’re all currently building pastiches of old stuff. But what the various backlashes against these projects demonstrates is that historical reconstruction can no longer be seen as a softer alternative to modern redevelopment.  Crass, intrusive or hugely expensive building projects remain divisive, with or without a marble crust.

Top image: The Monument to Fallen heroes for Macedonia is pictured in the center of Skopje on October 2, 2012. The building is part of the massive government-backed make over plan of the Macedonian capital dubbed Skopje 2014. (ROBERT ATANASOVSKI/AFP/Getty Images)

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