Budget Blowouts and Delays Blight Germany’s Major Arts Projects


COLOGNE, Germany — “A fiasco,” said a local lawmaker, shaking his head grimly. “A shipwreck,” said a former head of construction for the city. The people of Cologne, known across Germany for their friendly cheer, lose their bonhomie when it comes to the renovation of their opera house and main theater.

Running eight years late and now more than twice over budget, the city building authorities now say they expect to hand over the keys in 2023.

“It’s a shambles,” said Ulrich Wackerhagen, the Free Democrats party’s spokesman on cultural matters in City Hall.

The project has been rumbling on since 2011, when the city approved plans to revamp the 1950s concrete complex that houses both institutions, adding a new studio space and a stage for children’s opera.

And the Cologne opera-house saga is by no means an isolated case. Ballooning budgets and years of delay are becoming a regular feature of prestigious cultural construction projects in Germany. For a country that thrives on a reputation for efficiency and engineering prowess, its recent record is sobering.

Against this backdrop, it is perhaps unsurprising that plans for a new museum of 20th-century art in Berlin have met with skepticism. Even before a groundbreaking ceremony in December, the costs for the museum, designed by the Swiss architects Herzog and de Meuron, had doubled.

One factor behind these runaway costs is that estimates are often deliberately understated initially to secure political approval, said Prof. Mike Gralla, the head of the construction management department at the Technical University Dortmund.

Such estimates, Professor Gralla said by telephone, represent “the political price” — a figure that is acceptable to the public but may not bear much relation to the actual cost. “Public authorities will only give approval for a project if it is within their budgets,” he said.

Arts projects are often overseen by culture officials in City Halls or state legislatures who may be out of their depth in handling major construction works, Mr. Gralla added. Germany’s particularly cumbersome construction regulations also add to the expense.

A decade-long building boom in the country has brought shortages of materials and labor and, with them, increased costs. Building companies have plenty of orders, and some hesitate to work for state-run bodies that are generally obliged to go with the lowest bidders, Professor Gralla said.

“The firms that offer the highest quality and greatest flexibility are not the cheapest, so they often don’t have a chance,” he said.

Germany’s local, state and federal governments spend lavishly on culture: In 2018, the last year for which complete figures are available, they gave out more than €10 billion in subsidies for the arts.

This is partly because the country is a historical fusion of small states and cities that were once run by princes and nobles, all determined to prove their cultural prowess. It is one reason that Germany has more opera houses than anywhere else in the world: 78, according to the German Theater Association.

The Cologne opera complex, built to replace the original theater destroyed in World War II, opened in 1957. Designed by Wilhelm Riphahn in a hard-to-define, monumental style, somewhere between Bauhaus and Brutalism, it is seen by many as a symbol of the city’s rebirth from the ashes of war.

Planners have identified 700 “collisions,” where cables and ducts are blocking one another’s routes — and therefore also the air, water and electricity they are supposed to circulate, Mr. Braun said. They are still working out how much of the building will need to be dismantled and rebuilt to accommodate the technical infrastructure and meet stringent fire regulations, he said.

In makeshift offices a short walk from the deserted building site, Mr. Streitberger, the crisis manager, was coordinating a team of 40 people working overtime to formulate the plans.

“The organizational structure had broken down: There was no schedule, there were 63 firms involved, and the main technical planner had been fired,” he said. “We had to start again with all the contracts, we had to build a team, we had to seek a new technical planner. We had a huge problem.”

But then he struck a more hopeful note, saying: “We are back on course. We will solve it.”



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