“The longer I live, the more beautiful life becomes. If you foolishly ignore beauty, you will soon find yourself without it…But if you invest in beauty, it will remain with you all the days of your life.”
– Frank Lloyd Wright
The city of Berlin is in the process of rebuilding one of its oldest and most distinctive buildings. Originally from the 1400s, the Stadtschloss (or Berlin City Palace) was the home to Prussia’s kings long before the modern nation of Germany was formed. Damaged during World War II, it survived into the 1950s, before the communist East German regime destroyed it. They dynamited the solid masonry building over the course of four months.
In its place, they built the Palace of the Republic–a modernist civic building where the parliament met. In the 2000s, after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the reunification of East and West Germany, that building was destroyed. In 2010, the city began rebuilding the original palace from the 1400s, and construction will be completed in 2019. This new version of that historical building will remind Berlin of its history and reintroduce a beautiful and long-admired example of great civic architecture to the city.
Numerous cities across Europe were damaged by the fighting of World War II. Many examples of great architecture throughout the continent were lost. Rather than replacing that architecture and urban fabric with new buildings that are disconnected from the city’s architectural character–and in many cases not especially beautiful in their own right, we should seek to rebuild and recreate those great buildings to reignite the beauty of these places–both commemorating each city’s past and inspiring its future generations.
During World War II, Warsaw, Poland’s capital, was devastated by Nazi forces to punish the Polish resistance fighters. In 1944, Hitler himself ordered the city “be pacified, that is, razed to the ground.”
After this harsh campaign, local citizens removed or recovered the vast amount of debris to be used to repair the city. Rallying under the cry, “The entire nation builds its capital,” Poland used 22 street scenes painted by Bernardo Bellotto in the 1700s as the framework to recreate the city’s Old Town. By 1955, a mere decade after the end of the war, most of the city’s Old Town had been restored with the aid of Polish architects, art historians, and conservators.
The great cities of Europe each have histories that span centuries. By the 1660s, London was by far the most populated city in Britain. It had a sprawling medieval city plan and the buildings were mainly wood. In 1666, the bakery of Thomas Farynor caught on fire and grew into the Great Fire of London. It swept through the old Roman city wall, ignited the heart of the city, and cut off any escape from the Thames riverfront. At the time, the most effective means of extinguishing a fire was demolishing buildings with fire hooks to create blockades that trapped the flames, which could then be soaked with a fire engine. However, due to London’s narrow streets, the city’s panicked residents and fleeing refugees, and a slow response by the Lord Mayor, the fire destroyed a huge portion of the city.
In the fire’s aftermath, Sir Christopher Wren was commissioned to redesign and reconstruct the city. However, his plan– influenced by the garden at Versailles–was never fully realized due to private development and a rush to finish reconstruction. St. Paul’s Cathedral was the crown jewel of Wren’s plan and was completed in his lifetime. He also replaced more than 50 destroyed parish churches throughout the city.
London’s urban fabric was gutted again during the Blitz–a series of Nazi air raids completed at the end of the Battle of Britain during the Second World War. Londoners, as well as residents of other British cities, endured nightly raids intended to destroy British industry and resolve and force a surrender.
Although construction materials were in short supply, both London and Warsaw, rallied from the rubble after the war to repair themselves and their cities. Unlike in Warsaw, London’s fabric was not rebuilt to its pre-war state. “In Britain, the classical landscape was, by the 1950s, as shattered as some of the battlefields that Allied troops had lately been fighting over in the Second World War….[In the 1960s,] these plans were incredibly radical, sweeping away neighbourhoods irrespective of damage and replacing them with high-rise towers nobody wanted to live in,’ says Peter Larkham of the Birmingham School of the Built Environment.
Dresden, renowned for its architecture and known as “Florence on the Elbe,” also lost many of its best buildings and much of its urban fabric during World War II. The city, its rail lines, and industrial quarter were bombed extensively by American and British forces in February of 1945. Several monuments in the city center, including the Zwinger Palace; the Semperoper, the opera house; and the Frauenkirche, the city’s cathedral, were left in ruins.
Designed by the court architect Matthaus Daniel Poppelmann, the Zwinger was built by Augustus II the Strong, in the Baroque style to rival the grandeur of Versailles. Completed in 1728, its buildings and grounds were used as an orangery, exhibition gallery, and festival arena for the court.
The Semperoper has eclectic mix of architectural influences, and it is home to the city’s opera, orchestra, and ballet. In 1869, the building suffered a fire, and the citizens of Dresden repaired the damage in less than ten years. Its architect, Gottfried Semper, had been exiled from the city prior to the blaze, and so his son, Manfred Semper, led the reconstruction. Less than a century later, after the bombing during World War II, it took nearly forty years to rebuild the opera house.
The Frauenkirche, another iconic classical monument of Dresden, was left a ruin by Allied bombing. Although originally Catholic, it is a supreme example of Protestant sacred architecture. As a reminder of the city’s past and a beacon for the future, its eventual reconstruction in the mid-1990s used scorched stones recovered from the original monument to commemorate its history.
A key part of these reconstructions has been new technology. Strides in photogrammetry and 3D imaging technology have greatly simplified the recreation of these complex places. Karl Friedrich Schinkel’s Bauakademie in Berlin originally held an archive of approximately 20,000 glass-negatives that has been used to recreate other lost buildings. The building itself has since been demolished after being damaged significantly in the war, but local architecture students and citizens have campaigned for it to be rebuilt as a new museum of architecture.
The Stadtschloss project has sparked a debate about how cities and nations, and particularly Germany, grapple with their own history and rebuild after enduring the destruction of war. Those historic buildings– once beautiful and beloved for centuries–and their pre-war history are now lost. Rebuilding these classical buildings as they were–and reclaiming what was damaged or destroyed–not only reintroduces architecture that is beautiful and reflective of the past, but also helps to reestablish the connection between each of these modern cities and its own history.