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The planned building itself is not without controversy. Designed to be a mixture of the old and the new, three of its facades, as well as the courtyard, will be direct reconstructions of the old royal palace, while the rest of the building will have a modern design. This composition invited a good amount of ridicule at the time — it was subject to a vote in parliament in 2007 and sparked a huge debate. Some newspapers objected to rebuilding the royal palace and hosting a heterogeneous collection of “world cultures”, which they saw as a clichéd pastiche of the Enlightenment spirit. Nonetheless, the plan has gone ahead and most Germans are now reconciled to the notion of a building that should symbolise the cosmopolitanism of Berlin at its best.

In theory, the Humboldt Forum is a spectacular idea. But it will take the right intellectual architect to pull it off. If he gets it wrong, the whole thing may look like an expensive exercise in PR. We will have to trust MacGregor to use his experience at the National Gallery and the British Museum to avoid that trap and get down to the detail of creating a world-class cultural institution. After all, the Humboldts — who investigated everything under the sun, from remote continents to exotic languages — believed in the importance of precise observation of detail and understanding the world as a whole. Not for nothing did Alexander von Humboldt entitle his last and greatest work simply Kosmos.

It is quite a twist of fate that this chunk of German intellectual history now seems so appealing, and that this area of Berlin feels relevant again. The Humboldt Forum may serve as the manifestation of the fact that, after the horrors of the past, for 21st-century Germans cosmopolitanism is de rigueur. I for one will be happy to see my home town rendered less provincial in this manner — even if it takes a Brit with German sensibilities to make it happen.

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