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Renaissance of historic city centres

Pull down or rebuild? German cities long preferred the wrecking ball. But things have changed.

Frankfurt: The Old Town was rebuilt in 2018.
Frankfurt: The Old Town was rebuilt in 2018. © dpa

A lot of concrete and hard edges: the appearance of many inner cities reflects the long-standing strategy in dealing with destroyed or dilapidated historic buildings in Germany. Urban development and heritage protection did not always go hand in hand. Why the time is ripe for a recentring on the cultural heritage.

As modern as possible

Since the end of the war there have been great reservations in Germany about the “folkloric”. Poisoned by the ideology of the Nazis, the term has become the bogeyman of the Enlightenment. This manifests itself particularly drastically in architecture. German post-war modernism, which shaped the reconstruction of the war-ravaged country, was guided not only by technical-practical prudence, but also a cultural defensiveness about the urban appearance of the old German state, which had brought such incredible suffering on the world.

Post-War Modernism in Frankfurt: the Technical City Hall
Post-War Modernism in Frankfurt: the Technical City Hall © dpa

Reconstruction of war-torn districts or symbolic buildings remained a taboo, even as the ravaged neighbouring countries of the war were restoring their lost architectural heritage and rebuilding their old city centres according to the historic layout as best they could in the old style. In Germany, city planners used the tabula rasa of the bombing campaign to be as ultramodern as possible.

New yearning for local identity

This background helps to understand why over half a century had to pass before a new generation of city planners dared to build in the old styles. Last but not least, the triumphal march of the reduced formal idiom of modern architecture and its sad result of cities that are becoming more and more similar around the world have strengthened the longing for diversity and local identity.

Berlin City Palace and Humboldt Forum

The new building of the Berlin City Palace, with the old exterior and new innards for the Humboldt Forum exhibition centre, is still discussed in Germany in terms of a breach of taboo. Elsewhere, however, reconstruction projects have met with great approval. Many planners see in the qualities of historic urban planning, with its small-scale development, lively ground floor zones and the varied house forms, the only remedy for the yield-driven construction of monotonous big structures.

Berlin: City Palace and Humboldt Forum
Berlin: City Palace and Humboldt Forum © dpa

Frankfurt, Lübeck and Dresden are making old things new

Frankfurt am Main has just rebuilt its Old Town in this spirit. Lübeck is rebuilding its historical founding district in the city centre in the form of the medieval town. And Dresden resurrected the Frauenkirche from its ruins. The basic principle: key buildings are reproduced as much in the original style as possible. The gaps in between are filled by modern interpretations of old styles.

Dresden: the reconstructed Frauenkirche
Dresden: the reconstructed Frauenkirche © dpa

Freed from the rectangle compulsion

In these reconstruction projects, the rectangle compulsion, still deeply rooted in the homeland of the Bauhaus, has found its way back to playfulness. Suddenly, the individual addresses again have a personality, stand distinctively in the city structure. Elements such as oriels, saddle roofs, timber framing, arcades and shutters, frowned upon in modernism, are being rediscovered as invigorating components of a cityscape.

Reconstruction of historical ornaments by hand
Reconstruction of historical ornaments by hand © dpa

For a hundred years now the theory of modernism has successfully maintained that it is the architecture which gives equal opportunities to all people. But the yearning for the expression of home and personal attachment has remained. The newly built Old Towns in Frankfurt and Dresden attract people from all over the world who would never set foot in a modernist development area, which looks as boring as at home. They are not visitors to a “Disneyland”, as modernist architects revile these neighbourhoods. Recentring on the qualities of the pre-modern city is rather a testament to the ability of citizens and visitors to recognize what makes a city vibrant and diverse.