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Wrestling with the Greeks – a building lesson in Berlin

In the construction site that is modern Berlin, there is a beacon. Museum Island comprises five separate buildings. Together they make up one of the best public collections of art and antiquities on earth.

The oldest, the Altes Museum, designed by Frederick Schinkel, a Prussian, opened in 1830. Its main façade is a massive 18 columns across.

Schinkel took inspiration from Greece in a big way. One of his paintings, ‘A view of Greece in its Prime’, known today only from copies, imagines a city of arches and pediments, stonemasons and senators.

The painting hangs next door in the Alte Nationalgalerie which might itself have been plucked from this architectural caprice, and which, bulked at one end by a massive but redundant staircase, resembles a temple.

Schinkel did not live to see the other museums on the island completed, the last one being completed in 1904. But his vision of a mini Athens on the Spree had already been absorbed by his followers.

What was the source of Schinkel’s Hellenic fascination? To the architect/artist/civil servant (he was annoyingly good at everything), Greece represented an ideal: of civic order, shared values and prosperity.

Greece represented an ideal: of civic order, shared values and prosperity

That was not unusual for his time. The neo-classical movement had arrived in Europe in the mid eighteenth century and had left its imprint. (In the UK, Edinburgh boasts of being the ‘Athens of the North’, though it is Alexander ‘Greek’ Thomson who left the single greatest built legacy, in Glasgow.)

In Berlin, Schinkel was building a capital almost afresh for his patron, Friedrich Wilhelm III. He re-imagined Athens as a modern state, cultured, confident and outgoing. It was much more than decorative style (indeed, Schinkel raided from Roman as much as Greek antecedents).

So this re-birth had noble intentions. Yet it lacked a true democratic thrust. A united Germany came into being in 1871. Imperial rule only ended with the Weimar Republic in 1919.

That first experiment with popular representation soon struggled amid hyper-inflation, leading to the horrors of National Socialism. Albert Speer took Schinkel and debased him. ‘Corridors of power’ describes his notorious Chancellery, 400 metres across and 20 meters high, to a tee. 

Since the war Germany’s desire to confront its past has created philosophical as well as practical challenges. With 70% of its buildings destroyed, Berlin, in particular, has asked what should be re-built; and what rebuilding means if the new is a mere facsimile of what was there before.

The most sensitive project, the Reichstag, or old state parliament, has become a potent metaphor, not just for reconciliation with the former East Germany (GDR) but for the restoration of representative government.

The Norman Foster-designed glass dome doubles as a public viewing gallery, and makes Germans rightly proud.

The treatment of Museum Island has been of lesser general interest. The museums there ended the war under the GDR. Unlike some buildings which affronted the socialists and were pulled down, these were quietly patched up.

Except, that is, for one building, the Neues Museum, which the GDR left as a shell. After re-unification the city planners briefly courted Frank Gehry for a masterplan, seduced by the potential ‘Bilbao effect’ of one of his trademark designs.

Eventually, in realising the Neues Museum was the key to the whole island, they turned to a Briton, David Chipperfield.

He chose to keep the Neues Museum’s proportions but left the bullet holes and created largely from exposed brick a new shell that happens to look old. His work provides a subtle foil to the remarkable Egyptian collection, including the famous bust of Nerfetiti, for which the original was purpose-built.

The project took ten years. The overall revamp for Museum Island will take 25 years in all. Chipperfield says what struck him was that debate focused on what the museum stood for rather than his design.   

Negotiation appears to have been hard won but fair. In that it was emblematic of the new Germany through and through: the endless committees, the appeals to reason and the painful forging of consensus. 

If it also seems a little, well, Athenian – ‘demos’ in action, if you like – then another thought follows: if Berlin has had this attachment to ancient Greece, in building and in thought, reaching back to Schinkel, what does she really make of the modern Greece?    

Angela Merkel does not want another taxpayer bailout. She gives every impression of thinking Athens has brought its problems on itself. A politician who reads the popular mood first, you search in vain for her soft spot.

But perhaps there is another side to the national mood, a sorrow bordering on puzzlement. How is it that the country which gifted the West its founding civilization and organising principles can be so careless of its past, and so feckless? 

It is not that Germany could run things better in Greece (it could do the same in most countries). It is that Germany appreciates Greece, or the idea of it, more than she may admit. High mindedness is unfashionable these days. But on Museum Island, amid the colonnades and sublime statuary, you feel it as a vital force.