Air of Unreality: William Cook Finds That Today's Town Planners Have Restored Dresden's Historic Buildings, but Not Its Spirit

By Cook, William | New Statesman (1996), February 5, 2007 | Go to article overview

Air of Unreality: William Cook Finds That Today's Town Planners Have Restored Dresden's Historic Buildings, but Not Its Spirit


Cook, William, New Statesman (1996)


The man in the Dynamo Dresden shop was fed up. It was a busy weekday morning and the streets were full of shoppers, but I was his only customer. Yes, last summer's World Cup had been a big success, he said, but almost all the matches had been played in western Germany. A few foreign football fans had found their way here from Leipzig, the only World Cup stadium in the east, but otherwise the Weltmeisterschaft had completely passed him by. Dynamo Dresden used to be the DDR's top football club, and after the Wall came down there had been plans to build a big new stadium--big enough for World Cup games. The local council, however, was more interested in restoring buildings that had been flattened by the RAF in 1945.

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Wandering around Dresden that afternoon, I could see what he meant. After my previous visit, a few years ago, I thought I knew Dresden pretty well. Now I felt like a newcomer in this newly antiquated city. Far from slowing down, as I'd assumed it would, Dresden's frantic renovation seemed to be accelerating. The flamboyant Schloss, a burnt-out shell throughout the cold war, had been restored to its former glory. The Protestant cathedral, the Frauenkirche, had been rebuilt. For the first time in 60 years, you could trace the skyline that Canaletto painted. And yet there was something missing, although it took me a while to work out what.

My father was born in Dresden during the Second World War and survived its destruction as a child. When I first came here, ten years ago, his birthplace was part curiosity shop, part car park--a few baroque relics, stranded in a sea of cement. These iconic ruins have since been patched up, and the windswept spaces between them are being colonised by department stores and office blocks. I'd always longed to see the city my grandmother saw when she arrived here in 1942 with my father in her belly, but now that this postcard vista was complete, I realised it isn't churches and palaces that make a city. It's the humdrum places where people used to live, places the firestorm devoured.

The historic Altstadt was the creation of Augustus the Strong of Saxony--a particularly unpleasant monarch, even compared with his absolutist peers. He built the city's Catholic cathedral to claim the crown of Poland, and the Taschenberg-palais beside it as a playpen for his favourite mistress. It's a five-star hotel nowadays, if you fancy a right royal dirty weekend. Yet it wasn't these pompous follies that made Dresden live and breathe, but the ancient tenements between them. That's why it burned so well.

The new apartment blocks that are rising up here today are designed for couples rather than extended families. The shops below them are earmarked for chain stores, rather than family-run cafes. This is happening everywhere, of course, but nowhere else is there so little history left to build on. This is one thing local people never mention when they talk about the bombing--how it swept away their past, leaving them like foreigners in their own land.

Dresden's architectural meisterwerke add to the air of unreality. The Altstadt looks splendid, but it's like a theme park or a film set.

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Air of Unreality: William Cook Finds That Today's Town Planners Have Restored Dresden's Historic Buildings, but Not Its Spirit
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