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08/10/2010 05:52 PM

Out of the Ashes

A New Look at Germany's Postwar Reconstruction

By Romain Leick, Matthias Schreiber and Hans-Ulrich Stoldt

Germany's rebirth following the annihilation of World War II is nothing short of a miracle. But the country's reconstruction was not without controversy and it resulted in cities filled with modernist buildings which have not aged well. Now, a new wave of construction is underway coupled with a new desire to rebuild the old.

It was a curious procession that wound its way up the Fockeberg in the eastern German city of Leipzig in May. The participants pushed strange wheeled contraptions up the 153 meter (500 foot) hill, climbed into them and shot back down again. The event was the 19th Prix de Tacot, an annual soap-box derby that sees daredevil teams race weird and wonderful vehicles to the delight of thousands of spectators. The race has several events and a number of special prizes, including the "'Long Live Yuri Gagarin' Special Award," which this year went to a team calling itself "Stag Party." A rolling beer-garden umbrella was among the sights.

Perhaps more interesting, however, is the venue where the Prix de Tacot takes place. The Fockeberg wasn't created by glacial erosion or tectonic movements. Rather, the hill was created entirely from rubble leftover after the bombing of Leipzig during World War II. It is a soap-box derby on the ruins of the Third Reich.

There are similar man-made hillocks in many other German cities. Mönchengladbach, for example, has the Rheydter Höhe. Its counterpart in Frankfurt is dubbed "Monte Scherbelino" (a faux-Italian pun meaning "Shard Mountain"). And Stuttgart's Grüner Heiner is particularly popular among model airplane enthusiasts.

The residents of Berlin lovingly named the piled-up remains of their destroyed houses, factories and churches "Monte Klamotte" ("rag mountains"). One of them, the Teufelsberg ("Devil's Mountain"), is the second-highest point in the German capital, at almost 115 meters (380 feet) above sea level. During the Cold War, the US military stationed gigantic listening devices on the hill to pick up radio and other transmissions from the other side of the Iron Curtain. Many years on, mountain bikers, para-gliders and snowboarders have claimed the hill as their own. The German Alpine Association has even set up a climbing wall there.

From Massive Losses to New Beginnings

During World War II, carpet-bombing by Allied forces leveled up to 80 percent of the historic buildings in Germany's main cities in an unprecedented wave of destruction prompted by the no less unprecedented barbarity of the Nazis. In a seemingly endless catalogue of annihilation, Berlin, Cologne, Leipzig, Magdeburg, Hamburg, Kiel, Lübeck, Münster, Munich, Frankfurt, Würzburg, Mainz, Nuremberg, Xanten, Worms, Brunswick, Hanover, Freiburg and Dresden were all devastated.

Never before had so much been lost -- and, yet, never before were there so many new beginnings. Never before had an entire country been rebuilt. Indeed, the lion's share of buildings standing in Germany today was erected after 1948.

In West Germany alone, some 400 million cubic meters (14 billion cubic feet) of rubble was piled up after the war -- enough to build a wall two meters thick and seven meters high all the way around the western half of the divided country. From an architectural and urban-planning point of view, Germany's phoenix-like resurrection from the inferno resembled a continuation of the wartime destruction by other means: Another 30 percent of the country's historic buildings were simply wiped off the map to make way for the new.

This reconstruction phase lasted well into the 1980s -- before the fall of the Berlin Wall and German reunification kicked off yet another wave of building. And even today, the process of constant self-renewal is far from being completed. Indeed, 65 years after the Germans crawled out from under their ruined houses, and 20 years after the country's successful reunification, there is still much talk of reconstruction, that which has already been built is being reappraised and even the very idea of what a city should be is up for discussion.

A New Approach to Urban Planning

The aim is to undo past mistakes made due to urgency and an obsession with modernization. A new aesthetic need is thrusting aside the principle of pure functionality that was spawned by necessity. And demographic change -- including an aging population, the flow of immigrants and thinning population densities in certain regions of eastern Germany -- calls for a new approach to urban planning.

Urban planners are rethinking their ideas, and the radicalism of the early postwar era is being replaced by cautious renovation and, in some cases, rebuilding. A third phase of Germany's renaissance is gathering steam and, paradoxically, it is characterized by a growing nostalgia and yearning for history, tradition, focal points and urban centers that provide orientation and a sense of identity within the metropolitan morass. Historical old cities are more popular than ever.

It is perhaps not difficult to understand why. The architecture critic Wolfgang Pehnt posits that, if the rate of change is too great, the urge for the comforts of the past is all the greater. In addition, much of what was built during that initial, chaotic recovery phase after 1945 -- when the most important goal was just to clear all the rubble away and give people a roof over their heads -- was not completely successful from an architectural and city planning point of view. Things had to be done quickly, which rendered them more improvised than thought-out -- the desperate demand made mistakes easy to disregard.

Sixteen million apartments existed before the war. By 1945, 2.5 million had been utterly destroyed, and another 4 million were damaged to the point of uselessness.

Temporary accommodations were erected everywhere to try to mitigate the worst of the homelessness. Even so, many opted to camp out in their ruined homes for months. The influx of millions of refugees, those expelled from parts of Poland and the Czech Republic, and the displaced augmented the misery.

Forward to the Past

But how to quickly build the urgently needed housing? Should destroyed houses and prestigious buildings be rebuilt to look just like they were and in the same location? Or, since everything was destroyed anyway, should the cities take advantage of the opportunity to make a fresh start -- by, for example, broadening the narrow, winding alleys of historical city centers to make them more car-friendly or by providing inhabitants with modern housing surrounded by greenery?

Absurd ideas were debated, such as the proposal to just abandon the ruins and rebuild the cities nearby. But not everything was destroyed. Under the rubble, there were still semi-intact electrical systems and sewage, water and gas pipelines. In the end, Munich didn't migrate to the shores of Lake Starnberg, and Hanover is still on the Leine River.

What's more, most people wanted their old houses back. Across Germany, they formed associations to lobby for the preservation of their old towns -- and urban planners found themselves embroiled in a bitter debate over the right course of action. There weren't, after all, only functional and aesthetic aspects to consider, but also -- and perhaps more importantly -- the paradigm that reconstruction was to communicate.

Those in favor of a new beginning warned that one-to-one reconstruction would be tantamount to ignoring that the war had ever happened. But those who advocated historical faithfulness, on the other hand, argued that it would be downright ahistorical or even a type of repression to wipe out the traces of the past, which consisted of so much more than the 12 disastrous years of Nazi rule.

The Intellectual Divide

The 1947 dispute over the rebuilding of the birthplace of the famous German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe in Frankfurt is a classic example of the ideologically charged postwar rhetoric -- and one that typifies Germany's difficult relationship to its largely destroyed historical architecture.

The row struck at the heart of culture-loving Germany, the country that coined the phrase Weltliteratur. Fires started by the Allied bombing of Frankfurt gutted the house Goethe was born in -- a mid-18th-century, three-story, half-timbered structure -- and it collapsed a few months later. The building had served as a Goethe museum since the 19th century; all of its historically valuable contents had been removed prior to its devastation.

In 1947, two years before the 200th anniversary of Goethe's birth, Ernst Butler, a literary scholar who was also the museum's curator, lobbied Germany's intellectual elite to lend their voices to calls to rebuild the museum.

Hermann Hesse, who had received the Nobel Prize in literature in 1946, wrote: "Should it be rebuilt? I must answer that with a wholehearted yes." Agreeing with Hesse were poet Hans Carossa, novelist Ernst Robert Curtius, physicist Max Planck, philosopher Karl Jaspers and many other German intellectual celebrities.

'Facsimiles Can Never Replace an Original'

But the German Work Federation, an influential alliance of artists, architects and entrepreneurs, conducted its own straw poll among a group of German intellectuals who subscribed to the tenets of modernism. Not surprisingly, they opposed reconstruction. "Facsimiles of precious relics can never replace an original," said art historian Richard Hamann, whose stance is espoused by hard-line curators even to this day.

The prominent critic Walter Dirks, by contrast, adopted a more argumentative point of view. "If the land of thinkers and poets -- and, with it, the rest of Europe -- hadn't turned away from Goethe's spirit of moderation and humanity, it wouldn't have embarked upon this war or provoked the destruction of this house," Dirks wrote in the magazine Frankfurter Hefte. "This demise is correct, which is why it should be accepted."

In the end, Hesse and his supporters finally got their way, and the rebuilding of Goethe's birthplace was completed in 1951. It did not, however, mark a seminal moment in post-war Germany. Although there were a few exceptions -- such as in Freiburg, Freudenstadt and Münster (where the baroque gable-roofed houses on Prinzipalmarkt were rebuilt in simplified form shortly after the end of the war) -- the modernizers generally held sway.

The Nazi Pedigree of 'Urban Landscapes'

It was a time of strange, powerful coalitions. Even before the Nazis came to power in 1933, many architects and urban planners had developed a weakness for modernism. Now, suddenly, they found themselves in the same camp as developers who thought the country needed a radical break from the past, both morally and politically. Paradoxically, they were joined by a whole host of architects who had had close links to the Nazi dictatorship.

These architects now pulled out plans they had been tinkering with since early 1943, when Albert Speer, Hitler's personal architect, established a working group tasked with drawing up plans for rebuilding Germany's cities once the war was over. All the famous names were involved.

Plans to redesign the country had been hatched even earlier. Already in 1940, Hitler had forged his visions for reshaping Germany's cities.

Konstanty Gutschow, an architect based in Hamburg, immediately set to work. Gutschow dreamt of the "structured and dispersed urban landscape" favored by Nazi planners in the hope that it would make Germany's cities less susceptible to bomb damage. He reasoned that sprawling "urban landscapes" (to use the expression popular among his contemporary urban planners) were harder to attack effectively from the air than densely packed older cities, which could be devastated with a single direct hit. Gutschow also planned to erect monumental structures in Hamburg, including a high-rise administrative building, a parade ground and a meeting hall, "as evidence of Hamburg's international standing."

Operation Gomorrah, the week-long Allied bombing campaign that leveled Hamburg in July 1943, served Gutschow's purposes. "This act of destruction will be a blessing," the architect said of the horrific fate which had befallen Hamburg and its residents. "The Führer's prophesy that the ruined cities will rise again more resplendent than ever applies doubly to Hamburg," he said, adding: "We won't shed any tears for the vast majority of the destroyed buildings."

After the war, Gutschow's involvement with the Nazis prevented him from being eligible for any public contracts. His contacts, however, quickly ensured that he had work. It was the same story elsewhere in Germany, particularly in Düsseldorf. Nazi-era architects helped each other land jobs and projects while keeping them out of the hands of former Nazi opponents.

Free From Historical Ballast

These architects were quick to pretend that they had absolutely anything to do with the bombastic architecture of the Nazis and their megalomaniacal ideology. After the war, Speer's architects hid behind Bauhaus, the modernist style initially developed by Walter Gropius and others before 1933. Because the Nazis had persecuted its followers, being associated with Bauhaus was good for one's career after the war -- and it allowed them to actively promote modernism free from historical ballast.

In West Germany, in particular, new machines and construction techniques transformed the traditionally leisurely pace of urban planning into a hasty, spectacular upheaval. The speed of change alone was impressive. Financially, it was only possible because the West needed the fledgling West Germany to be a bulwark against the Soviet Union. Money poured into the country via the Marshall Plan and other conduits.

New roads, schools, hospitals and housing developments sprouted up all over West Germany. By the 1960s, an average of 570,000 apartments were being built annually -- the record was 714,000, in 1973. Between 50,000 and 150,000 single-family homes were likewise constructed each year. In all, no fewer than 5.3 million new apartments were built in West Germany in the first 15 years after the war. In communist East Germany, builders started churning out residential units at a rate of 100,000 a year beginning in 1974.

It was a good time for architects, urban planners, entrepreneurs and communist building collectives. The task seemed endless and money was everywhere. The outcome, however, was less than impressive -- mass produced buildings that compare poorly with the prewar buildings which they replaced.

The Spiritual Failure of Suburban Developments

Indeed, with the exception of a few lucky areas in southern Germany, the newly constructed zones across virtually all of West Germany looked the same wherever you went. Advertised as open and green, oversized apartment blocks and nightmarish developments multiplied from the 1950s onward.

During this same period, the communist rulers of East Germany created their own serial housing complexes, although the prefab residential blocks erected across the country were of a poorer quality than those in the West.

As early as 1965, the Frankfurt-based social psychologist Alexander Mitscherlich complained of Germany's "inhospitable cities."

Still, the clear spatial division of the classic urban functions -- sleep, work and recreation -- was not a German invention. Such zoning lay at the heart of the famous Athens Charter drawn up at the international architecture conference of 1933 and first publicized a decade later -- albeit in revised form -- by the Swiss architect Le Corbusier.

The new residential quarters planned according to this model of the "functional city" were "loosely" arranged and "well-ventilated." Remaining faithful to the motto of "Light and air for all!" they were to provide "clarity" rather than the "confusion" of the historical city with all its "bothersome neighbors."

Unfortunately, the clean new suburbs and satellite towns didn't result in a better quality of life. Instead, the sterile environments elicited feelings of loneliness and boredom. Indeed, many of those who moved to these soulless ghettos were soon pining for the familiar, chaotic confinement of their former cities.

A Turn to Embrace the Past

Still, not all post-1945 urban planning was a failure. A car-friendly infrastructure was established and many outstanding monuments underwent simplified repairs, including Berlin's Charlottenburg Palace and similar structures in Karlsruhe, Stuttgart, Munich and Würzburg as well as the Zwinger in Dresden, Cologne's Romanesque churches and the Paulskirche in Frankfurt. In 1947, donations for the reconstruction of the Paulskirche flooded in from around the country, and there was even a donation of 10,000 reichsmarks -- which remained the common currency of all of Germany until 1948 -- from the East German Socialist Unity Party (SED).

In divided Berlin, competition between the opposing political systems overshadowed the architectural debate. In the western half of the city, the ruins of late-19th-century villas were replaced by airy rows of apartment blocks interspersed with greenery. East Berlin authorities struck back with Stalinallee (today's Karl Marx Allee), the main boulevard of East Berlin, which was designed in accordance with strict symmetry and formal coherence.

But after 1975, which the Council of Europe declared European Architectural Heritage Year, the zeitgeist in the West finally turned to embrace its architectural past in all its different forms. This sea change spawned countless citizen action groups dedicated to saving and preserving old buildings and districts.

The spectacular first volley in this change of heart was the battle between squatters and real estate speculators over the fate of Frankfurt's Westend district. It was an upscale area west of the predominantly medieval town center and home to grand houses built by the wealthy in the 19th century. It had escaped the war relatively unscathed.

Defending Past Capitalists against Present-Day Capitalists

Ironically, the conflict saw left-wing squatters -- including future Green Party politician and German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer -- defending the capitalists of the past against the capitalists of the present, seeking to protect the luxurious residences and gardens of former traders, manufacturers and civil servants against latter-day sharks of the financial and real-estate worlds.

At the time, anyone who managed to get a hold of 5,000 square meters (54,000 square feet) of land, no matter where it was located in Westend, was permitted to put up a high-rise building. But that all ended after the clashes with the squatters, which provided the inspiration for Rainer Werner Fassbinder's controversial 1975 play "Der Müll, die Stadt, und der Tod" ("Garbage, the City and Death").

Frankfurt's municipal services building also provoked the scorn of local residents for decades. The triple-towered washed-concrete edifice was erected right next door to St. Bartholomeus Cathedral in 1972 according to plans drawn up in 1963. Three of the few houses in the old town that Allied bombs had missed were bulldozed to make way for the administrative eyesore.

Now, though, the monstrosity itself is to be torn down, and nine old-fashioned houses will be built in its place.

Almost seven decades after the end of World War II, Germany is once again by the emotional questions of what's worth keeping and which of its lost icons are worth rebuilding.

Only rarely do the authorities pull down one of those truly horrific, lifeless concrete outrages with garbage-chute entrances -- those that merit this fate most. Instead, it is the once successful postwar reconstruction projects -- which some have grown to love -- which tend to succumb, such as the canteen of the Bauhaus University in Weimar or the parliament building of the state of Lower Saxony, in Hanover.

'Better People through Better Construction'

Often, as was the case with the latter, the experts were full of praise. But the rest of the population was skeptical. "If I had 16 million marks, I would buy something else," one visitor wrote in the guestbook. Another simply wrote in French: "My opinion: all merde." Now dilapidated, the building is now set to be demolished.

"Of course, with hindsight, it's easier to say that not everything was successful," says Albert Speer, the son of the Nazi architect and minister of the same name. "But you must remember what it was really like in 1945." The younger Speer, who was born in Frankfurt in 1934 and is now an urban planner himself, says that, after the war, the idea of modern architecture was associated with the utopian vision of "creating better people through better construction."

Architect Christoph Mäckler, for his part, believes that modernism was popular because enlightened souls didn't want to be reminded of the past. "Simply putting two columns next to each other was considered fascist," he says. And he should know: In 1947, his father, the former master builder Hermann Mäckler, even proposed giving Frankfurt's cathedral a flat roof.

In its desperate attempt to create modern, car-friendly, "honest" cities, Mäckler says, his father's generation forgot that a viable city "is about beauty, and beauty is linked to the history of the place you are building in."

Lobbying Preservationists

Indeed, when Germany's postwar renovators were deciding where to put their residential clusters and schematic developments, the historical significance of these locations was the last thing on their mind. Which is why so many preservationists in Germany are lobbying for the resurrection of unforgotten buildings and complexes.

As early as 1989, for example, the "Knochenhauer Amtshaus," a splendid half-timbered house erected in the central German city of Hildesheim in 1529 and destroyed during World War II, was brought back from the dead, replacing the Hotel Rose, an ugly cement building dating back to the 1960s. In the western city of Wesel, a citizens' action group has long been lobbying for the reconstruction of the unusual Flemish Gothic façade of its 490-year-old city hall. And, in Hamburg, people have even taken to the streets to demand the preservation of the few remaining houses in the Gängeviertel district.

Less than a mile away in Hamburg as the crow flies, one can watch the development of the 157-hectare (390-acre) HafenCity, a modern quarter that will have little in common with the narrow, winding, working-class districts of old. The contrast will be stark -- but charming harmony could result nonetheless. New does not necessarily mean inhospitable.

The quarter is being developed on former docklands not far from the main downtown area of this growing city. Once the project has been completed, the district will be home to enough offices, shops and restaurants to employ about 40,000 people. In order to breathe some life into the district, a third of the entire space has been earmarked for residential housing.

A Far Cry from the Postwar Era

HafenCity is an ambitious urban planning concept that is a far cry from the projects of the postwar era, when satellite towns were erected willy-nilly in largely isolated rural areas. Here, kilometers of quayside footpaths are to frame the metropolitan office and residential areas. A marina and a university are also planned. And with its Elbphilharmonie concert hall, the city is building itself nothing less than a new trademark, a kind of German Sydney Opera House.

Financially a bottomless pit, the exciting building of curved glass and red brick seemingly floating on the River Elbe will draw millions of visitors from around the globe and give Hamburgers themselves plenty of grounds to identify with their hometown once more. Or, at least, that's what the developers hope.

Düsseldorf has already gone through a similar development. The old city harbor was rezoned and developed, complete with buildings by international star architects like David Chipperfield and Frank Gehry. The quarter has been a major success.

Stuttgart 's 'Project of the Century'

It remains to be seen whether a similar project in Stuttgart will be as successful. After more than two decades of planning, in February construction finally began on "Stuttgart 21," the largest development project in Germany.

The terminus station and its associated tracks in the heart of the city are to disappear and be replaced by a modern through station built 11 meters (36 feet) underground. According to the plans of Düsseldorf-based architect Christoph Ingenhoven, huge futuristic outward-bulging portholes will flood the platforms with daylight from above.

In their current form, the tracks and crossings cut a wide swath through Stuttgart. But, once they have been taken underground, the planners envisage a new city center being established on a roughly100-hectare (250-acre) site, complete with office blocks, apartments, parks and recreational facilities.

"How often does a major European city get a chance like this?" asks Wolfgang Drexler, the vice president of Baden-Württemberg's state parliament and the project's director of communications. "This visionary transportation solution will give the entire region a boost." Given that the city is surrounded by hills and bursting at the seams, there's no denying that the additional space will be a blessing. Still, most inhabitants are ambivalent about it. Indeed, while planners raved about the "project of the century" when construction began, demonstrators chanted "Pack of liars! Pack of liars!"

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

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