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Explosions and budget delays ruin Germany's main artistic projects

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COLOGNE, Germany – "A fiasco," said a local legislator, shaking his head grimly. "A shipwreck," said a former city construction chief. The people of Cologne, known throughout Germany for their friendly joy, lose their bonhomie when it comes to the renovation of their opera house and main theater.

Arriving eight years late and now more than double the budget, city construction authorities now say they hope to hand over the keys in 2023.

"It's a disaster," said Ulrich Wackerhagen, spokesman for the Free Democrats party on cultural issues at City Hall.

The project has been rumbling since 2011, when the city approved plans to modernize the concrete complex of the 50s that houses both institutions, adding a new study space and a stage for children's opera.

But a city council report He described how hurried and inadequate planning and a supervisory structure that left no one in charge clearly engendered a monster in the bowels of the building: a tangle of cables, pipes and conduits, placed by independent contractors working without coordination, that no one could unravel

"Everyone just laid cables anywhere," Wackerhagen said. "No one had the overall responsibility."

Until the authorities discover how to solve the disaster, construction is on hold, as it has been since 2016. Part of the work completed will also have to be torn off and started over.

With an initial figure of 253 million euros, around $ 281 million, the most recent estimated cost is up to € 571 million. Including interest on loans taken to finance it, the total bill expected to reach € 841 million.

And the Cologne opera saga is not an isolated case at all. Balloon budgets and years of delay are becoming a common feature of prestigious cultural construction projects in Germany. For a country that draws on a reputation for efficiency and engineering skills, its recent history is sobering.

In this context, it may not be surprising that plans for a new 20th-century art museum in Berlin have met with skepticism. Even before an opening ceremony in December, the museum's costs, designed by Swiss architects Herzog and de Meuron, had doubled.

One factor behind these uncontrolled costs is that estimates are often deliberately underestimated initially to ensure political approval, said Professor Mike Gralla, head of the construction management department at Dortmund Technical University.

These estimates, Professor Gralla said by telephone, represent "the political price," a figure that is acceptable to the public but may not have much to do with the actual cost. "Public authorities will only give approval for a project if it is within their budgets," he said.

Art projects are often supervised by culture officials in city councils or state legislatures that may be out of reach in the management of major construction sites, Mr. Gralla added. Germany's particularly cumbersome building regulations also add to the expense.

A decade-long construction boom in the country has caused a shortage of materials and labor and, with them, an increase in costs. Construction companies have many orders, and some hesitate to work for state agencies that are generally obliged to go with the lowest bidders, Professor Gralla said.

"Companies that offer the highest quality and the greatest flexibility are not the cheapest, so they often don't have a chance," he said.

The local, state and federal governments of Germany spend generously on culture: in 2018, the last year for which complete figures are available, they awarded more than 10 billion euros in arts subsidies.

This is due in part to the fact that the country is a historical fusion of small states and cities that were once led by princes and nobles, all determined to demonstrate their cultural prowess. It is one reason why 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, was opened in 1957. Designed by Wilhelm Riphahn in a monumental style and difficult to define, somewhere between the Bauhaus and brutalism, many Come as a symbol. of the rebirth of the city of the ashes of war.

Cologne Opera Company He performed there for the last time in 2012. After a spell in a tent on the banks of the River Rhine, he now shows up at the Staatenhaus, a former trade fair hall.

At the construction site, the stage is fully functional, equipped with hydraulic systems that allow silent set changes at mid-stage and computer-operated winches to lift and lower the landscape. The machinery must be activated regularly to run smoothly.

The site costs € 80,000 per day while construction is on hold, according to Bernd Streitberger, a former City Hall construction official hired as a crisis manager in 2016. But it will be more than three years before the state of the art. Technology delights the public.

A visit under the stage, through a series of concrete stairs, made it clear where things went wrong for the renovation project.

An underground well is a clogged jumble of orange and gray wires, some with loose ends, others tight through a hole in the roof. It was already full to capacity, although about a third of the cables it was supposed to accommodate have not yet been installed, said Christopher Braun, spokesman for the theaters in the city of Cologne, during a recent tour.

Planners have identified 700 "collisions," where cables and conduits are blocking each other's routes, and therefore also the air, water, and electricity that are supposed to circulate, Braun said. They are still calculating how much of the building will need to be dismantled and rebuilt to accommodate the technical infrastructure and comply with strict fire regulations, he said.

In makeshift offices a few steps from the desert construction site, Mr. Streitberger, the crisis manager, was coordinating a team of 40 people who worked overtime to formulate the plans.

"The organizational structure was broken: there was no schedule, there were 63 companies involved and the main technical planner had been fired," he said. “We had to start over with all the contracts, we had to build a team, we had to find a new technical planner. We had a big problem. "

But then he played a more hopeful note, saying: “We are back in progress. We will resolve it ".

Frankfurt and Stuttgart are also planning major improvements to their opera houses. In November, the state of Baden-Württemberg, of which Stuttgart is the capital, announced an estimated initial budget to renovate and expand the city's opera house and build a provisional theater. The figure, 960 million euros, provided there are no delays, is almost double the budget of The renovation of David Geffen Hall at the Lincoln Center in New York.

The authorities there say they are simply being realistic.

"This is a very large project, and we want the costs to be as transparent as possible from the beginning," said Gisela Splett, the official in charge of public construction at the state ministry of finance. "It is important that we leave our cards on the table."

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