BERLIN (AP) — Germany launched construction of a partial replica of a Prussian palace in the heart of Berlin on Wednesday, embarking on a delayed and often-criticized 590 million-euro ($783 million) project to recreate a building dynamited by East Germany's communist rulers.
Germany's Parliament voted 11 years ago to reconstruct the 18th-century palace, which was demolished in 1950 and later replaced by East Germany's Parliament building — itself now knocked down. When completed in 2019, the new palace will house a modern museum containing Berlin's collections of African and other non-European art.
Most of the cost will be covered by the federal government, though the total cost includes 80 million euros that is supposed to be raised from private donations to recreate the baroque palace's facades. The start of construction was pushed back two years because of a government cost-cutting package.
Rebuilding the palace is a step toward "healing the wounds" left on Berlin's landscape by its Cold War division and overcoming "the architectural devastation wrought after the demolition of the old palace," Peter Ramsauer, the Cabinet minister responsible for construction, said before President Joachim Gauck hammered the foundation stone.
Ramsauer insisted that the project is "absolutely not" backward-looking, noting that the new building designed by Italian architect Franco Stella will have three baroque facades and a modern one.
Still, rebuilding the palace has been far from universally popular. Some former East Berliners had fond memories of the Palace of the Republic, the 1970s East German Parliament building, which also housed restaurants and a bowling alley but was considered an eyesore by most westerners.
"Berlin needs many things, but not a baroque palace," said Stefan Liebich, a lawmaker with the opposition Left Party, which includes many ex-communists. He also complained of the high cost to taxpayers of rebuilding the palace of Prussian kings and German kaisers.
"I'm a little sad that they didn't find a more creative model," Renate Kuenast, a leader of the opposition Greens, told ZDF television. She said lawmakers should have considered a thoroughly modern building, as well as reflecting the site's former status as a center of power in East Germany.
Berlin Mayor Klaus Wowereit dismissed the criticism.
"It would perhaps have been popular to say, we'll do without a 'palace' ... in these times of financial crisis," he said. But he insisted that "it is much more than recreating a historical building."