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Dresden goes Disneyland

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The Church of Our Lady, or Frauenkirche, in Dresden I felt uncomfortable when I visited Dresden this past weekend. It was the first time I’d been to the city in almost 15 years and a lot had changed since my last visit.

The most obvious change was that the central parts of the city around the Church of Our Lady, Frauenkirche, are being reconstructed. The idea is to give Dresden back the charm it had before the city was destroyed in one night of horrific bombings, February 14 – 15, 1945.

Altar in Dresden\'s FrauenkircheThe last time I was in Dresden, the Frauenkirche was still nothing more than a pile of rubble. But that pile of stones was a powerful monument to the destruction the war had left behind.

Meanwhile, the church has been rebuilt and now stands in its former glory. The inside has been recreated in the original color-scheme and is now once again a place for worship and curch music.old and new stones at Dresden\'s Frauenkirche

Whether to rebuild the Frauenkirche or to leave its ruins as a war memorial was a controversial discussion in Germany for decades. In the end, the “reconstructionists” won and the church was rebuilt, using all the original stones that were still salvageable and usable.

Today, you can see which stones are original and which are new – the old ones are blackened by time, the new ones are light beige.

the old rooftop cross of Dresden\'s FrauenkircheSo to some extent, this is an “honest” reconstruction. The evidence of the war and the destruction isn’t glossed over.

Nevertheless, what impressed me most in the Frauenkirche was the original rooftop cross, which is now on display inside the church. It is bent and battered, parts of it have broken off. It tells the story of the destructive force of the bombing raids – and if you’re a believer, it can also symbolize the triumph of good over evil and destruction.

Plastic surgery

The area around Frauenkirche used to be the heart of Dresden. Nothing much remained of it after the bombings.

rebuilt houses near Dresden\'s FrauenkircheThese days, many of the houses are being rebuilt. It’s a recreation of what once was. But to me, it looks artificial.

The houses around Frauenkirche may have been built to resemble the originals, but you can see that they are new reconstructions. If the houses were really old, you’d see sagging roofs or crooked windows. But here, everything is perfectly right-angled and painted in fresh colors.

These houses look like the ones you’d have in a model train set. They look like “Old Europe” in Disneyworld. But they don’t look lived-in.

Recreate the past or start from scratch?

But what do you do with a city that was as badly damaged as Dresden? Can you recreate it as it once was? Or should you make a new beginning and build a modern city?

Prager StraßeTo some extent, that’s the approach that was taken when the city was part of the German Democratic Republic. The communist city planners levelled the ruins and built broad new boulevards and pre-fab concrete housing units.

On “Prager Strasse”, they created a combination of new shops, restaurants and apartment blocks in the 1960’s.

It was any city planner’s dream – but any resident’s nightmare.

The dimensions were totally off, not on a human scale. And the “concrete brut” certainly wasn’t very inviting or appealing. It was your typical socialist-style shopping boulevard with lots of open space and little to do in that space.

Modernising modernity

Since German unification, there’s been constant reconstruction on Prager Strasse. The gigantic apartment blocks have been given a face lift, other buildings have been torn down and replaced with structures that seem more appealing today.

1960\'s architecture on Prager StrasseBut who knows how people will feel about these buildings in ten or twenty years.

Maybe they will wish the GDR architecture had been preserved. After all, it was testimony to a part of the city’s history. It was also concrete evidence of a philosophy of post-war urban reconstruction. And from an art-historian’s point of view, it was an architectural ensemble that made sense. Almost a Gesamtkunstwerk.

The future is the past

But unfortunately, Dresden’s try at modernism just wasn’t what people want. Human beings don’t feel comfortable in “living machines”. They want individuality, buildings on a human scale and maybe even the charm of yesteryear.

And that’s why you can’t really hold it against the Dresdeners that they are now trying to rebuild parts of their old town. That they are trying to make it as beautiful as it once was. That they are trying to pretend…

Semper Oper, DresdenMaybe we’ll just have to come back to this city in twenty or thirty years, when the reconstructed buildings around Frauenkirche show the first signs of aging.

Maybe then, we won’t even notice that they’re not original.

After all, that’s just how it is with the city’s Semper Oper now: rebuilt in the 1980’s, it already shows many signs of wear and tear. And the casual visitor today won’t even notice that the building isn’t even thirty years old.

Related post: Baroque splendor at Dresden’s Pillnitz Castle

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8 Responses

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  1. Thanks for the great post, Thorsten. Lots of nice ideas in there. I’ve not yet visited Dresden, but when I do, I plan on bringing a printout of your observations with me.

    Fish

    June 19, 2008 at 5:57 pm

  2. Modern architecture needs to find a new style that is not ugly, then we can take pride in new buildings once more.

    Nice article, but you forget to mention that no one, except some architects, EVER liked modern buildings. Even in the 1960s, a vast majority of people surveyed all accross Western nations thought modern buildinsg were ugly, brutal boxes, and di not like it when older buildings were torn down to make way for them. 50 years later, nothing has changed. 50 years from now, it will probably still be the case.

    This is not surrising. If you read the biographies of Mies Van der Rohe of Le Corbusier, you see a disdain for human emotion, a weird rage against it even. These people did not think we should have feelings, and their work is meant to disregard them.

    Robert Ruffo

    June 24, 2008 at 12:57 am

  3. Thanks for that interesting comment. I think you’re right about the modernist architects: they hoped that they could change humankind through architecture – create better people through light, airy, open-space buildings. Which is a pretty presumptious stance, if you ask me. I’d rather have architecture that takes the needs of the people / users / inhabitants as a starting point and then constructs the buildings to suit these needs. Nevertheless, if you think about a Corbusier villa as a piece of constructed art rather than as a place to live in, it’s really stunning.
    Another thing that I left out of my Dresden article is that the rulers in the GDR let old buildings fall to disrepair and failed to modernise them (e..g. install modern heating or bathrooms). So people living in these (once beautiful) old houses were sometimes GLAD to get out and move into one of these pre-fab-concrete apartment blocks. At least they had central heating and their own bathrooms in those…

    Thorsten

    July 2, 2008 at 11:29 am

  4. sexy stuff baby

    dennis

    November 4, 2008 at 10:13 am

  5. Dresden goes soul. Not big anonymous glass box buildings. Do you go Disneyland if you play jazz and not techno? No way.

    Mikkel

    November 26, 2011 at 1:07 am

  6. I grew up in the GDR and saw the ruins of the Frauenkirche as a child. Until today, it has been the strongest representation of the destructive forces of war I’ve ever exerienced.

    I visited Dresden just the previous weekend, and was vastly disappointed to see that this Disneyland version of a baroque church (a concept I had immediately in mind, not just when I saw your article today) has overwritten that impressive monument.

    I think they were right to rebuild the Semperoper and a lot of other damaged buildings. But they should have left this church as it was. Although I am not a Christian, I believe that resurrection cannot come from human hands, or it will always be a lie.

    Elisa

    February 15, 2012 at 10:47 pm

    • Thank you for your comment, Elisa, I feel the same way about the Frauenkirche.

      Thorsten

      February 16, 2012 at 6:24 am

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