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Shaping the City

Dresden Architects Perfect Art of Restoring Without Replicating

By Roger K. Lewis
Saturday, September 4, 2004; Page F05

When it comes to preserving, restoring or rebuilding historic architecture, and then harmoniously juxtaposing the antique and the new, Europeans continue to show the way.

One of the best examples of the fusion of historic and contemporary design is a beautiful city battered by war almost 60 years ago: Dresden, Germany.


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During the night of Feb. 14, 1945, several months before the end of World War II, waves of Allied planes bombed Dresden and set it ablaze, not because the city had any strategic military value, but rather because the British and American high command believed, according to one theory, that a terrifying assault on civilians would persuade Germany's leadership to more quickly ask for peace.

Whether Dresden's destruction and the deaths of tens of thousands of people were justified is still debated today.

Situated in the western corner of Germany near Poland and the Czech Republic, Dresden was for many centuries a river-based trading settlement. At the end of the 15th century, the Wettin family made the city the royal capital of Saxony. Dresden's architectural glory days began early in the 18th century, after the Thirty Years War, when high-living Augustus the Strong, elector of Saxony and king of Poland, decided that Dresden should rival other great capitals.

Over two centuries, architects, masons, carpenters, sculptors and painters created impressive palaces, churches, a grand opera theater, new bridges across the Elbe and ornate homes for merchants and courtiers. As elsewhere in Germany, Dresden's architectural styles had evolved, ranging from pure German Gothic to neo-Gothic to neoclassical. But it was exuberant baroque that made Dresden an architectural masterpiece.

Photographs of Dresden, taken shortly after the bombing, show that this legacy was wiped out. When the Russian army arrived in 1945, it found little more than charred wall fragments and roofless, blackened building husks standing amid piles of rubble.

After the war, although East Germans needed housing, schools, hospitals and workplaces, the communist German Democratic Republic reconstructed some of Dresden's historic edifices, most notably rebuilding the magnificent, Italianate opera house, completed in 1985. Primarily, though, the East Germans invested in concrete apartment blocks and utilitarian civic and commercial buildings.

Today many Communist-era buildings remain. Fortunately, following German reunification, efforts to reclaim the city's architectural legacy accelerated, despite the expense. From across the Elbe, Dresden's skyline increasingly looks as it did before World War II, an urban phoenix rising from its own ashes.

Adjacent to the vast opera theater plaza stands the richly adorned Hofkirche, or Court Church; the lavishly baroque Zwinger Palace, with its gilded, cupola-topped entry pavilions and Versailles-inspired courtyard and gardens encircled by galleries, now serving as a museum; and the Schloss, or castle, built in 1547, destroyed during the war and still undergoing restoration begun in the 1960s. Nearby, the less ornate, early 18th-century Taschenberg Palace, restored in 1995, is now a five-star hotel with simple, elegant, entirely modern interiors.

Due for completion in 2006, after 12 years of painstaking work, is Dresden's most recognizable architectural symbol, the soaring, domed Frauenkirche, or Church of Our Lady, built in 1743. After the bombing, only a tall, slender section of the outer wall remained. With the exterior and 312-foot-high cupola now finished, workers are completing the interior.

Only a few minutes walk from all this is the less imperial, less monumental Dresden, formerly the city's medieval core, which had not been well documented and could not be rebuilt. It contains a mix of a few 18th- and 19th-century buildings or building fragments, brutalist Communist-era buildings and brand new late 20th-century architecture.

An exemplary blend of all of these occurs within a city block, Marktplatz, just south of Dresden's imperial quarter. Masonry buildings, dating from different periods, embrace open courtyards outfitted with high-tech pavilions and outdoor cafes, artfully composed paving patterns, well-placed vegetation and decidedly contemporary streetscape elements -- seating, pergolas, light standards, signage. Penetrating through the block and linked to courtyards and surrounding streets are lofty shopping galleries framed with stainless steel and roofed with glass.

Designers thought carefully about how new, industrially produced materials and thin, relatively transparent elements would harmonize with the more massive forms and surfaces of Dresden's prevailing stone and concrete buildings. Visually the new components work very well. Their transparency and lightness ensure that the architectural fabric of the block's historic buildings remains visible and dominant.

Even the limestone-clad facades of a pair of new, courtyard-facing buildings have been sensibly and sensitively designed. Unmistakably modern, they fit in geometrically but avoid emulating the materials or details of older, neighboring buildings. What you won't see in Dresden, or for that matter in most other European cities, is new construction designed to replicate or mimic historic architecture. The Europeans' commitment and skill in preserving, restoring or reusing historic buildings is matched by their commitment and skill in exploiting modern materials and compositional motifs when new is to coexist with old. They understand that juxtaposing new and old enhances the character of each.

On this side of the Atlantic, we are still struggling to learn this lesson.

Roger K. Lewis is a practicing architect and a professor of architecture at the University of Maryland.


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