Dresden goes Disneyland
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.
The 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.
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.
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.
The area around Frauenkirche used to be the heart of Dresden. Nothing much remained of it after the bombings.
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?
To 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.
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.
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…
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