Vision of past glory revealed as just a front: A mock palace provokes heated debate, writes Adrian Bridge in Berlin: A vast block of scaffolding draped with painted vinyl panels lovingly recreates the Kaiser's residence

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BERLINERS cannot believe their eyes. More than 40 years after it was blown up, the city centre has its old palace back again. It is almost as though the Kaiser had returned. And it all seems to have happened overnight.

The cause of the wonderment is a massive new construction dominating the site of the original palace, once the home to Germany's imperial family. From a distance it is the spitting image of the baroque palace designed by Schluter in the 18th century, badly damaged in the war and then, in 1950, blown up by an East German regime that felt uncomfortable about its association with Prussian militarism.

Actually, it is all - literally - a front. The new palace is nothing more than several enormous pieces of vinyl on to which Catherine Feff, the mural designer from Paris, and a team of 100 art students have spent the last eight weeks painting Schluter's design. Ms Feff, said to have charged some 3m marks ( pounds 1.2m) for her handiwork, was commissioned by private businessmen and civic groups who are fervently campaigning for the real reconstruction of the city palace.

According to Bernd Schultz, one of the campaigners, most of the money for the mock facade has already been raised through private donations. And he is convinced that, after seeing what a restored palace could look like, a majority of Berliners will want it back.

'The East German Communists destroyed the key building in the heart of the city,' said Mr Schultz. 'Without it, everything else was thrown out of proportion. But we want people to look for themselves and then decide.'

Most Berliners agree that anything would be an improvement on the brash Palast der Republik built by the East German regime on the site of the palace. In 1990 it was discovered to be riddled with asbestos.

But many are staunchly against the rebuilding of the palace. The prime objection is the cost, estimated at between DM2bn and DM15bn, a ridiculously large sum to splash out at a time of stringent public spending cutbacks, it is argued.

Other objections concern the possible use to which a rebuilt palace could be put. With no kaiser, it would be far too large for the president or chancellor and also too large for any company headquarters.

Like the East Germans, many Berliners are also wary of the association with the Prussian past. 'Whatever anyone says, that palace always conjures up images of militaristic parades and drills and the pomp and circumstance of the Kaisers,' said Michael Cullen, a Berlin architecture expert. 'Its reconstruction would be much too controversial.'

With the Berlin senators for building and city development opposed to the scheme, it does not look as though the palace will go ahead. For the next three months, however, Berliners can look back at what once was, and enjoy what a local newspaper described as 'a nice midsummer night's dream'.

(Photograph omitted)