Breathless Kohl must wait for new palace

`A building fit for the most powerful person in Europe'
In a grand gesture celebrating the biggest project in Europe, Chancellor Helmut Kohl overturned two spadefuls of Berlin soil yesterday. "This is an historic day for Berlin and for our country," Mr Kohl declared, still puffing from the exertion.

It was indeed an historic moment, at least as redolent in symbolism as the spade-work of other politicians who had already laid their foundation stones in the new capital.

In recent months Germany has witnessed the uncloaking of the Reichstag and its disappearance behind a forest of scaffolding. Potsdamer Platz has grown by 20 stories and finance minister Theo Waigel has taken charge of Goring's Luftwaffe building, designed by Nazis for Nazis.

But yesterday Mr Kohl dug for the crown jewel in his empire - the chancellery he hopes will be his home. Better late than never, cynics muttered. For Mr Kohl's dream palace, a hacienda by the river Spree, will not be ready in time for the dawn of the Berlin republic.

The plans were ready long ago, but the Chancellor kept making alterations. As a result, the country's seat of power will still be a building site when MPs and the ministries move into their plush new surroundings.

The move to Berlin is officially scheduled to take place in May 1999 with the ceremonial reopening of the Reichstag, but the Chancellor will have to slum it for at least seven months in Erich Honecker's spartan State Council building.

But when the new chancellery is opened, it will be fit for the most powerful man or woman in Europe. The architects, Berliners Axel Schultes and Charlotte Frank, have created a white cube 120ft tall, with 310 offices, 13 winter gardens, a private footbridge across the Spree, and a small park.

The Chancellor's office will have views over the Reichstag, the Brandenburg Gate and the Tiergarten. The entire complex is to be powered by solar energy and heated with vegetable oil. All this for a mere DM400m (pounds 156m) -a snip compared with the roughly DM200bn that will have been sunk into Berlin by taxpayers and private investors by the turn of the millennium.

At least the chancellery does mark a new beginning, unlike the controversial choices for some of the other arms of the government. It can be argued that the Reichstag was never the mother of German democracy. Debate has also been raging about the wisdom of converting the Prussian House of Lords into the Bundesrat, the second chamber of parliament.

The chancellery is to be erected in the former no-man's land between East and West. The mines have gone, but the whole area remains booby-trapped.

But other ambitions have been circumscribed by economic reality, thwarting plans to convert the square miles between West Berlin's Tiergarten and Alexanderplatz at the eastern end of the Unter den Linden into a vast government theme park.

Plans for the reconstruction of the concrete jungle in the East have had to be postponed until well into next century because of a shortage of public funds. Some of the infrastructure projects linked to the move are also in danger for the same reason.

Work on the rail tunnel running north-south under the Tiergarten and the Reichstag began last week, but the high-speed rail links projecting from the station at the edge of the government quarter may never materialise.

Meanwhile, unemployment in Berlin stands at 15 per cent, soup kitchens proliferate and the city's universities are halving their intake next year because of lack of money. The new capital will be a symbol of Mr Kohl's long reign, though perhaps not in the way he had anticipated.