March 18, 2007

Dresden: The Frauenkirche

On my first day in Dresden, I headed to the Neumarkt to see the Dresden’s most famous landmark, the Frauenkirche. As I mentioned before, the church, one of the finest Protestant churches in the world, was reduced to rubble during the famous firebombing of Dresden in February 1945. Only one fragment of one wall was left standing. When the war ended, Dresden fell under the rule of the Soviet-backed Communist government, which decreed that the ruins of the church should remain untouched, as a memorial to the victims of the war – and also as a useful propaganda tool against the West.

However, after Reunification, Dresdeners immediately began an international fundraising campaign to rebuild the church. (An interesting fundraising letter addressed to the Queen of England is on display at the Staatmuseum, reminding the Queen in no uncertain terms that she should pony-up, as her government had destroyed the church in the first place. It doesn’t say how much she gave.)

Anyway, the reconstruction of the Frauenkirche is an amazing technological feat. Using historic blueprints and “the latest computer technology,” they’ve managed to rebuild the church exactly as it was before the bombing, and, wherever possible, they’ve used the remaining stones from the original church. But of course, it is impossible to match sandy new stones to the original dark grey ones, which had been seasoned by hundreds of years of soot. So the result is a strange salt-and-pepper effect, which is a little off-putting at first, but after a while kind of grows on you. Ultimately the distinction between old and new seems fitting.

But inside the church, and elsewhere in the Neumarkt, all of this emphasis on building things back exactly as they were has a striking ersatz feel, like Disney’s imagining of what Dresden must have been like before the war. For obvious financial reasons, the builders of the new Frauenkirche had to use plaster and synthetic materials to recreate the original pink marble columns and gilded puttis. And the difference is obvious. Surrounding the Frauenkirche are a dozen new-old high-rises, where the lack of the appropriate patina is even more noticeable. Their smooth stucco facades and generic Baroque detailing makes you feel as if you’re being tricked, as if you’re walking through a Hollywood back lot instead of a real city.

I hate to be a critic of such a noble endeavors. After all, I understand the impulse all too well. When Little Rock was struck by a tornado several years ago and much of my historic neighborhood destroyed, my immediate reaction was to want it all put back exactly the way it was. I feel very much the same way about New Orleans, even though it’s not really my town. But I hope than when New Orleanians do start to rebuild, they won’t do as Dresden has done. There must be a way to recapture a sense of what was lost without attempting recreate it stone for stone. I’d rather walk through a slightly less beautiful city than through a fake one.

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