Tearing down the socialist Palace of the Republic - once dubbed the "Palazzo Prozzo" by the East Berliners -- is bringing handsome profits for scrap firm operators involved in its demolishment.
Hardly a happy ending for the former seat of the East German parliament which apart from its political role was once a popular dance and leisure facility for East Berliners in the 1980s. Not that many people shed tears about the demise of the former 180-metre-wide building, considered a prize piece of socialist architecture when it opened in 1976.
Heavily involved at the Schlossplatz Palace site is Schrott-Wetzel, a Rosslau-based scrap company in Saxony-Anhalt, some 120 kilometers (75 miles) south-west of Berlin. In recent weeks, 30 of its workers have been using powerful steel-cutting gear to get at the building's maze of steel girders.
An architectural behemoth
Demolishing the building is a costly undertaking for the government, involving the removal of 56,000 tons of concrete, 20,000 tons of steel and iron, 500 tons of glass, as well as other materials. The bill is likely to be high, close on one billion euros ($1.5 billion) according to some city experts. This is despite the fact that the heavily indebted city is likely to gain 10.7 million euros from the sale of the building's steel.
Massive-sized girders from the Palace's once proud parliamentary chamber were dismantled recently, cut into six-meter-long segments, then loaded into barges docked alongside the Schlossplatz site -- prior to a three-day river journey to Rosslau. There, the steel will get melted down for shipment to the United Arab Emirate of Dubai, and to buyers in Turkey for use in Volkswagen engines.
"The quality of the steel is excellent," said Henryk Wetzel, the Rosslau scrap-metal boss in Berlin. "We have no difficulty finding markets for it."
A "Palace" will be reborn
Wolfgang Lindau, the head of the Schrott Wetsel steel smelter, said shipping steel to Dubai is important for his company and that the arrangement would continue. So far the company has gotten two barges with 1,600 tons steel from Berlin. The rest is expected to arrive in November.
The Rosslau company has Europe's most dynamic steel-cutting equipment, possessing a 2,000-ton pressure ability. It's capable of snapping the thickest steel girders like matchsticks, say company workers. Involvement in the Berlin demolition project brings welcome publicity for the firm. Wetzel hopes the company’s equipment will become better known as a result.
Today, little of the once palatial socialist era building remains. Once tagged "Erich's Lamp Shop" because of the many lamps it used to have in its foyer and its links to the late communist leader Erich Honecker -- the task of destroying the "Palast" will be finished by the spring of 2009, perhaps earlier.
Meanwhile, curious tourists gather at the Schlossplatz site, snapping pictures of the ruins and taking shots of the nearby Protestant Cathedral and Museum Island through the yawning holes in the doomed structure.
A new palace for the future
But Gerhard Schroeder, Germany's former Social Democratic chancellor, was unimpressed by such talk. In the mid-1990s he labeled the Palace of the Republic "a ghastly building" and strongly urged it be done away with. Following the fall of the Berlin Wall, experts found the Palace was riddled with 720 tons of hazardous asbestos. Removing it cost a whopping $50 million, reducing the premises to a skeleton-like state. Later, still more asbestos was discovered in the building. By 2002, the German parliament had had enough and voted to pull it down.
Now, the plans are to replace it with a Humboldt Cultural Forum and a building with a "historical facade," reminiscent of the pre-war Hohenzollern Palace, blown up in 1950 by the communist authorities. Redevelopment of the famous Schlossplatz, say city planners, will enable the square to become a focal point of city art, culture, and scientific activity in the years to come.
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