Just a quick note…I’m on a two-week European coda, backpacking with my daughter through her choice of cities and enjoying the chance to be a tourist. But along the way…
I listed off day trips from Berlin and Dresden sounded most interesting to her. I was here about ten years ago doing a bit of writing for my old firm, and found the place utterly fascinating. Her tastes run toward the historically complicated, too–we’ve seen a lot of Cold War and WWII sites in Berlin proper, and Dresden is all of that piled atop one another. And atop a rich history of baroque architecture and urban design.
The Frauenkirche is the prime example of just how layered Dresden has become. Built in the early 18th century, it was from the beginning a Lutheran church (there’s a statue of Martin Luther in front of it), but it was intended to rival anything the Catholics had built in Europe–at nearly 100m tall, its dome was 2/3 the height of St. Peter’s. But its central plan was designed to emphasize the inclusiveness of the protestant liturgy, making it a unique example of neo-Italian baroque combined with the (relative) simplicity of plan and ornament of the north.
The church survived wars, riots, and serious doubts about its stability until February 1945, when along with everything else in Dresden it fell to Allied bombing. After the war, the East German regime maintained the pile of rubble as a ‘peace memorial,’ but one with a clear subtext that kept memories of the British and American raid alive. Popular sentiment for rebuilding the church only gained traction after reunification, and the church was painstakingly rebuilt–using volunteered wedding photographs where original documentation was missing–between 1989 and 2004.
The finished reconstruction uses a combination of charred original stone and clean new stone, which highlights the fact that what you’re looking at is essentially a new building while commemorating the losses from 1945. Most of the exterior, in fact, is new stone, which makes the original pieces all the more compelling. The interior is entirely new, of course, and its bright finishes and perhaps too-flawless faux marble have struck some as a bit slick given the intentionally blemished exterior. The project remains dogged by controversy over its costs, its faithfulness or lack thereof to the original, and its status as a object of complicated blame–does its reconstruction read as an attempt to claim victimhood? Is that appropriate given the massive civilian casualties of Dresden? And how do we measure the impact of the bombing against that of German aggression? Obama’s visit to Dresden in 2009–during which he lit a candle in the church–was a flash point for all of these issues. Sixty years, it appears, is still too soon to really contextualize.
A finer balance between old and new, and commemoration and function takes place in Dresden’s train station, done by Foster’s and completed around the same time. The arches of the original shed survived the fire, along with the head house’s structure and the undercroft that served as an ineffective bomb shelter for thousands. Keeping all of those, but replacing the burned-out roof with a light shelter of translucent fabric created a bright but elegiac space, a fitting way to come into and to leave the city.
The whole day left me missing feedback from my colleague this year at AAR, Max Page, whose work focuses on preservation of difficult or complex sites. He’s been studying fascist architecture and WWII sites in Italy, and Dresden offers the same sort of paradoxes at every turn…