Out of the Ashes A New Look at Germany's Postwar Reconstruction
Part 5: The Berlin Model
Many people oppose the radical reshaping of their accustomed and organically developed surroundings. The fact that part of one of the city's listed hallmarks (the nearly 100-year-old train station) is to fall victim to the wrecking ball, and that about 300 old trees in the park surrounding the city palace are to be cut down (although 5,000 new ones will supposedly be planted there at a later date), only serves to fan the flames of opposition.
Stuttgart-based sociologist Ortwin Renn says local inhabitants are simply afraid of losing a part of their home, especially at a time when family ties are also weaker. "This is why many people are wondering with increasing urgency where they really come from and where they belong," he says, adding that this phenomenon is stoking people's interest in history, especially the past right outside their front doors.
"Whether people like it in each individual case or not," says the Munich-based architectural historian Winfried Nerdinger, "the citizens of democratic countries have the right to help determine how public spaces are shaped."
Those who value historical architecture have been buoyed by the reconstruction of Dresden's Frauenkirche, or Church of Our Lady. Still, that project too was initially met with strong resistance, with critics concerned of creating a historical Disneyland. But a wave of popular support pushed through the plan's approval. Given the splendor of the finished product, no one now dares question whether it was worth it.
Retirees Who Want to See Their Past
Feelings are more mixed about the rebuilding of baroque buildings on Dresden's Neumarkt, an area completely obliterated by Allied bombing raids 65 years ago. When the plans were first made public, Dresden-born architect Peter Kulka asked: "Why should we grant the wishes of retirees who only want to see their past once more?"
Locally, Kulka's view hasn't gained much traction. "The people of Dresden have been amazingly intransigent in their belief that their city is beautiful -- even when it wasn't," says Dirk Syndram, the director of the Grünes Gewölbe (Green Vault) museum, home to a massive collection of European treasures. The city's citizens have been vehement in their rejection of anything which smacks of contemporary architecture.
Only one person is in the process of providing the city with a visible counterpoint: Daniel Libeskind. The American architect is currently converting Germany's military museum, a classicist ensemble dating back more than 100 years. Right next to the entrance, Libeskind is planting a 30-meter (100-foot) wedge that both slices through the building and extends outward from it. The tip of this unsettling thorn points across the river directly toward Dresden's old town.
Perhaps projects like these will help reconcile the proponents and opponents of modern architecture by making the new visible as part of the old. After all, it's worth considering the objections that have been raised to the endless and thoughtless rebuilding of historic buildings.
Architecture critic Wolfgang Pehnt warns of the dangers of a "retro-world" that no longer represents what it appears to be. In many cities, he points out, the things that are supposed to be old paradoxically often look brand-new. "Only that which appears perfect is truly old," he quips. "Otherwise it would have been renovated." Indeed, Pehnt wants architects and urban planners to be more careful and reflective -- "to embrace what we have without denying what is new."
Finding a Balance
British architect David Chipperfield masterfully achieved precisely this balance with his renovation of Berlin's Neues Museum, a construction project that was Germany's most controversial for many years. The museum, which reopened last October, combines elements of the original building with modern accents. It preserves the ravages of war and pollution, providing an impressive fusion of the old and the new and simultaneously celebrating both ruins and contemporary construction.
And, yet, the Neues Museum, like the rest of the reunified city, is a symbol of the fissures in Germany's varied history -- its rise, fall and reconstruction as well as the humanism, megalomania and barbarism that have indelibly etched themselves onto so many places across the country.
Berlin, in particular, demonstrates relatively consistently that the upheavals and scars of the past should not be papered over by a yearning for the (supposedly) "good old days." Instead, as is the case with the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, even the sins of the past can be confessed, and one's own history can be commented on.
Indeed, Germany's capital attracts nearly 8 million visitors a year from around the globe precisely because you can experience contemporary history -- both the good and the bad --more immediately here than anywhere else in Germany.
Translated from the German by Jan Liebelt