Travel + Leisure

February 2002, Travel + Leisure

The Rebirth of Dresden

Heavily damaged during World War II, Germany's loveliest city will soon look as good as new—some might even say better. The politics of rebuilding, brick by brick.

At the lofty entrance to Dresden’s Old Masters Picture Gallery hangs a series of canvases by Bernardo Bellotto. Completed in the mid 18th century, these panoramic cityscapes depict Dresden in all its Baroque splendor. Paradoxically, they also reveal the shape of the city’s future. Just outside the museum’s fortress-like walls, the landmarks immortalized by Bellotto are being resurrected with astonishing exactitude.

Before Allied bombs demolished much of its historic center, Dresden was considered a storybook place of palaces, fountains, and elegant avenues. By the time I visited in 1982, it was a patchwork of half-restored buildings, Soviet bloc designs, and unkempt empty lots. In the closing phase of World War II, eight square miles of the city center were reduced to rubble. Most put the number killed at 35,000; some maintain the death toll was as high as 135,000. The architectural legacy of the Saxon princes, who for centuries made Dresden their seat, was obliterated. Dresden, once dubbed “Florence on the Elbe,” became a byword for devastation. The ornate Semper Opera House, where Richard Wagner’s Flying Dutchman and Richard Strauss’s Salome were first staged, remained a pile of debris for decades. Gone, too, was the Zwinger, an immense Baroque structure built to house an extraordinary collection of paintings—Raphael, Giorgione, Vermeer, Rubens. (Most of the artworks had been evacuated for safekeeping and survived intact.) The city’s most distinctive landmark, the towering Frauenkirche, or Church of Our Lady, burned for two days before collapsing into a heap of charred stones.

Part of the new East Germany, Dresden reemerged slowly from the war, stalled by the ideological and economic constraints of Communist rule. The GDR left the Frauenkirche’s blackened remnants untouched, as an admonishment against capitalist militarism. The cash-strapped East German regime did its best to rebuild the Zwinger—in an effort to affirm its belief in high culture—but the results were shoddy. In the late 1980’s, the opera house was more faithfully resurrected. Now, a little more than a decade after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the city is moving swiftly to recover its vanished grandeur. The rebuilding surpasses anything undertaken here since the war. Attempts are at last being made to accurately reproduce the carved cherubs and decorative swags of the Zwinger’s façade. Construction cranes loom near the banks of the Elbe River where the Frauenkirche’s colossal 305-foot stone dome has risen again. The Residential Palace, a mélange of Renaissance and Baroque styles, is being painstakingly reconstructed based on archival documents.

Not surprisingly, the touristic potential of these refurbishments has not been lost on Dresden’s freshly minted capitalists. Another grand palace, the Taschenbergpalais, built by Prince Elector Augustus “the Strong” for his mistress, has been transformed into a hotel by the luxury Kempinski chain. The Königstrasse is again a street of elegant shops and restaurants, where, I’m sure, there is no longer any danger of being served the sort of glutinous sauerbraten I consumed one gloomy day in the early eighties. Display windows brim with Meissen porcelain, including replicas of the legendary Swan service produced near Dresden for an 18th-century Saxon statesman, Heinrich Graf von Brühl. (A single teacup goes for $400.) Such reminders of Dresden’s historic wealth are no longer glaringly out of place. Though the city is still working to revamp its economy after years of centralist control, Dresden is already an island of relative prosperity within hard-pressed eastern Germany. Its leafy residential districts were spared bombing and are filled with Jugendstil villas, many recently refurbished by high-tech executives whose presence has earned Dresden the nickname Silicon Saxony.

Over drinks at a wine bar—a recently converted brick-lined cellar in the lively Neustadt district—Matthew Goldstein, an American who works for the Dresden branch of LightPointe, a U.S. telecommunications firm, describes the city’s appeal for foreign businesses: “Dresden has a high standard of living. There’s an upper-echelon feel.” In fact, the city’s Technical University is considered one of Germany’s best, and its students are among the more than 25,000 who have revitalized Dresden’s nightlife, filling jazz bars and trendy clubs. Well-heeled tourists from Italy, France, and Britain are a common sight in the city center and at concerts given by Dresden’s celebrated Staatskapelle.

This resurgence has been hard-won. Once Dresden disappeared behind the Iron Curtain, most of its core was rebuilt in a boxy modern style. In 1953, Communist chief Walter Ulbricht proclaimed that Dresden’s architecture “would mirror the historic victory of the working class.” The Communists had little use for what remained of old churches, theaters, banks, and department stores, dismissing them as worthless feudal and bourgeois relics. Most of the city’s bombed-out structures were razed to make way for the future: boulevards broad enough for military parades, a communal square to accommodate mass celebrations.

As the Communists radically reinvented Dresden, a book documenting the pre-war city, The Old Dresden, kept alive memories of what had been lost. First published in 1955, the coveted volume was reprinted 14 times, and there’s a copy in almost every home—even though by 1962 the East German regime had dubbed it “backward-looking” and “harmful to municipal cultural policy.” Predictably, the official antipathy to the past only served to feed the longing among Dresdeners for their vanished landmarks.

Beginning in 1982, during the arms buildup initiated by the Reagan administration, a new generation started holding illegal peace gatherings in front of the despoiled Frauenkirche every February 15, to mark the day it collapsed in 1945. Then, when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, a drive to rebuild the church was taken up as a concrete statement of Germany’s survival and will to begin anew. Replicating the church has become a national obsession, one followed closely by the media in all corners of what is again Europe’s most powerful country. But this frenzied campaign to recapture the lost glory of what many considered the Reich’s loveliest city prompts questions, for some, about what lies behind it: mere aesthetic yearning for harmonious urbanism or an attempt to turn back the clock? For others, those questions have receded into the past. Britons and Americans have not only made substantial monetary donations but also loaned expert builders and restorers. And today, the city’s ongoing struggle to rebuild can’t help but seem newly resonant. Though the destruction wreaked on Dresden marked the beginning of the war’s end, and was considered by many at the time to be justifiable, the recent devastation in New York has raised similar issues: how to appropriately commemorate the dead while preserving urban symbols and affirming belief in the future.

Originally dedicated in 1743, the Frauenkirche will be completely restored in 2005. Already, the crypt is open for worship and concerts, the interior dome in place. Stonemasons are busy replicating the bell towers. The total cost is expected to surpass $120 million; $60 million has already been raised. Günter Blobel, a 1999 Nobel laureate in medicine who was born near Dresden and now lives in New York, donated more than 90 percent of his $1 million prize. “Young people who have never seen the old Dresden want it back, because most of the modern architecture is very boring and mediocre,” Blobel tells me when I visit him in his lab at Rockefeller University, in Manhattan. He has also organized an American group, the Friends of Dresden, to support the city’s rebirth. Its honorary directors include architect Philip Johnson, former secretary of state Henry Kissinger, financier David Rockefeller, and the director emeritus of Washington’s National Gallery of Art, J. Carter Brown. “The rebuilding of Dresden’s Frauenkirche demonstrates an international commitment to overcoming the cruelties of war and to building bridges among nations,” says Kissinger, who himself fled Nazi Germany at the age of 15. A separate, British-based Dresden Trust, whose patrons have included violinist Yehudi Menuhin and the bishop of Coventry Cathedral—itself rebuilt, in modern form, after being gutted by the Luftwaffe—is also raising funds. Queen Elizabeth reportedly made a personal donation of several thousand dollars.

The Frauenkirche, though still under construction, is already a tourist attraction. Postcards of the scaffolded cube that houses what has been built so far sell briskly at kiosks, and onlookers gather along a perimeter fence hung with information panels in both German and English. Plastic tarps that shield workers from inclement weather also give the resurrection of the Frauenkirche the feel of a slow-motion spectacle, one that some Germans liken to Christo’s 1995 wrapping of the Reichstag in Berlin. And like the Reichstag, the wrapped church is imbued with enormous symbolic potency. “Build bridges—live in reconciliation,” proclaims a large banner. In that spirit, a British metalworker whose father took part in the 1945 bombing has fashioned a new 15-foot-high gilded cross and orb to crown the dome.

I visit the site with Walter Köckeritz, an architect who serves on the Committee to Promote the Rebuilding of the Frauenkirche. “Authenticity is very important,” he tells me as we climb the scaffolding high above the newly completed interior dome. To this end, surviving fragments of the first building are being integrated wherever possible. About 40 percent of the stones in the new structure are original, many singed black by the firebombing. Salvaged pieces lie carefully numbered on shelves. New sandstone blocks, dug from the same quarry as the 18th-century ones, stand nearby.

Bellotto might recognize the scene. Today’s builders are guided not only by his paintings but also by the drawings of the Baroque church’s architect, Georg Bähr, as well as by archival photographs. But Köckeritz is also concerned that it be evident the church has been re-created. He goes on to tell me about the fierce tug-of-war over how many reminders of the bombing should remain. At stake are not just aesthetic issues, but Germany’s very identity.

Some Dresdeners fear that re-creating a picture-perfect Frauenkirche is a way of rewriting history, of denying that Germans actually started the war. This is why Köckeritz advocates a more blemished reconstruction, arguing that preserving signs of the bombing will “provide an impetus to reflect on the war and the destruction.” He wanted to leave the scarred western gable on the ground in front of the church and install a new one on the building itself. The proposal was rejected by the project’s other architects and donors. “The perfectionists have gotten their way,” he says with a sigh. The altar has occasioned a similar debate. “The extreme position would be to make it as perfect as a Bavarian village church’s,” says Köckeritz, who wants to leave damaged portions of the altar in view and use a restrained palette. Of course, what the remnants of the old church end up memorializing is in the eye of the beholder. Some will see the fruits of Nazi policies; others, the remains of an unbridled vengeance.

Architects also hope to reproduce the Frauenkirche’s famed acoustics. A massive new pipe organ will replace the one on which Johann Sebastian Bach once played. This, too, has sparked controversy. Nikolaus Harnoncourt (conductor and founder of the renowned Concentus Musicus early music ensemble) and other Bach specialists object to the planned installation of a modern instrument behind a traditional organ façade, although church architects say that an up-to-date organ will allow for playing a wider repertory.

After the effort to rebuild the Frauenkirche began, in the early 1990’s, a separate ecumenical drive got under way to replace the city’s synagogue, built in 1840 and destroyed on Kristallnacht, November 9, 1938. Sixty-three years to that day, a strikingly modern structure opened on the same site. Of the 5,000 Jews who lived in Dresden prior to 1938, only 60 remained in the war’s immediate aftermath, and for the past half-century that tiny community has gathered next to the former synagogue’s cemetery, in a burial hall converted into a prayer space by the East German regime. But, surprising as it may seem, the worshipers recently outgrew that space; a wave of new Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union has swelled the number of Jews in Dresden to nearly 400.

“There was no question of reconstructing the old building,” says architect Wolfgang Lorch, whose firm, Wandel, Hoefer, Lorch & Hirsch, designed the synagogue and adjacent Jewish community center. “Our design represents a fresh start.” Two cubic structures face a central courtyard: one houses the community center and the other a sanctuary. In a visual reminder of the violent disruption of German-Jewish history, the synagogue’s walls are twisted and out of kilter. Inside, large expanses of golden metal mesh encase the sanctuary itself, giving the impression that the congregation is praying within a shimmering tent.

“At the Frauenkirche, the next generation will not see that Dresden was destroyed,” Lorch says as we stand before the temple. “Here there is no avoiding it. The form must mirror history.” In the courtyard, the floor plan of the razed synagogue is traced in lines formed by shards of glass, and a wall enclosing the area contains fragments of the old building.

Outside the Frauenkirche, an information panel reminds visitors that it was Dresden’s own citizens who ravaged the Jewish house of worship. “For this reason it is only right for friends and sponsors of the Frauenkirche to also support our Jewish neighbors in the building of their new synagogue,” it adds. Nobel laureate Blobel led the way by donating $50,000 of his prize money for the project.

“Without the synagogue there would be an imbalance,” says former mayor Herbert Wagner, one leading advocate of a renewed Jewish presence. “But,” says Jan Post, spokesman for the Association for the Construction of the Dresden Synagogue, “that doesn’t mean the whole city is enthusiastic about it. People ask, ‘What do the Jews need a synagogue for?’ and ‘Why don’t they pay for it themselves?’ ” According to Heidrun Hannusch, a reporter for the local newspaper, the Dresdner Neueste Nachrichten, “One hears people talking about the synagogue on city trams, saying, ‘The Jews are making unreasonable demands.’ They criticize the building’s architecture, but mean something else.”

The East German regime saw itself as anti-fascist and disowned any responsibility for Nazism, thus managing to sidestep the issue of Jewish suffering during the Holocaust. West Germany made far greater strides in honestly grappling with the past. As a consequence, religious intolerance is more firmly rooted in the former East Germany than in the West. The day after the new synagogue opened last November, a vandal drew a swastika on an exterior wall.

For some, the aversion to the project has nothing to do with religion and everything to do with the synagogue’s eye-catching modernity. “Dresdeners have a hard time with the modern,” says Pastor Siegfried Reimann, chairman of the interfaith synagogue construction association, noting that modern architecture was long favored by the Communist regime. Indeed, prominent East German—built structures have been deemed architectura non grata by many residents. Green netting covers one side of the Communist-built Culture Palace, a leading concert hall and theater complex, obscuring a large mosaic that depicts the triumph of the working class. The netting was put up 10 years ago, ostensibly to prevent loose tiles from falling off. Yet no repair work has been undertaken and the mosaic remains intact. Matthais Lerm, a young architect with the Dresden city planning office, tells me simply, “People are ashamed of it.”

According to Lerm, many Dresdeners also loathe the Prager Strasse, a now shabby pedestrian zone drawn up by the East German government in the 1960’s to replace the bombed-out remnants of the city’s main shopping thoroughfare. Lined with gargantuan apartment blocks and hotels of glass and steel, it is disliked by the older generation. Meanwhile, a savvy younger set has come to value the street’s look—the same favored by high-style design magazines like Wallpaper and Nest. Even the prestigious German weekly Die Zeit recently judged the Prager Strasse to be “one of the most successful modern urban public spaces.” Still, ever since unification, Dresden city planners have striven to alter the ensemble, building new department stores at its northern end and adding a dramatic crystalline cinema designed by the avant-garde Viennese architecture firm Coop-Himmel(b)lau—known for its edgy, deconstructivist façades.

“These are all tasteless shoe boxes that would not be missed if they were torn down,” complains Fritz Reimann, chairman of a group advocating the traditional reconstruction of some 80 houses, palaces, and other buildings that once surrounded the Frauenkirche. His organization, the Society for the Historic Neumarkt, is trying to persuade the city council to adopt its approach and has also won support from Britain’s Prince Charles, who co-financed an architectural competition last spring for historic designs to re-create the Neumarkt, or New Market. “We shouldn’t resign ourselves to accepting what the dictatorships of the 20th century have left behind,” the society argues.

Some local architects and planners have no patience with the group’s insistence that only traditional architecture is suitable for the church environs, saying that too many people have an idealized, mythical image of the heart of old Dresden. “If we were to rebuild it the way it was before the destruction, many Dresdeners would be deeply disappointed,” says Günter Just, who was responsible for city planning from 1994 until September 2001. Shaking his head vigorously, Just adds, “It would be a Disneyesque lie.” Nonetheless, most local politicians back the idea. “Politicians think they can win votes by advocating traditional reconstruction, and they worry about being spurned by the electorate,” says Rolf Zimmermann, spokesman for the Dresden chapter of the German Architects’ Union. “There’s a great fear of doing something wrong.”

By rebuilding the Frauenkirche, Dresden may regain its spiritual and spatial center. But as the city edges toward an even more extensive re-creation of what Kurt Vonnegut called a “Sunday school picture of heaven,” those who hanker for lost urban touchstones are bound to keep wrestling with those who want a fuller accounting with the city’s past—and future.