Dresden, that phonetic allusion to human catastrophe (dread, dredge, dead…somehow grey and hopeless), symbol of the eye for an eye posturing that left the whole of the Europe blinded by hatred and violence in the Second World War, has raised the stakes in an architectural game that is leaving a questionable mark on western culture. The city’s baroque cathedral, the Frauenkirche, has been reconstituted, rematerialized from the void into which it disappeared into on the night of February 13th 1945 when British bombers reduced Dresden to smouldering ruins. A large photo story published in The Guardian on Monday was clear in its celebration of this act of time travel by the German people. The former and future Chancellors were present at the opening of the new – old? – Church at the weekend, along with leading clergy and the people of Dresden whose collective will apparently fashioned the building into existence. At a time of fundamental change and uncertainty in Germany, when its economic and political structures that served it so well in the post-1945 world are under pressure to an unprecedented degree, when the country does not even have an official leader due to the fiercely fought yet inconclusive general election, this ceremonial act was held by Germany’s constitutional President to be a harbinger of hope for the German nation, a moment for unity in which the problems of the present could be subsumed into a collective pride in national achievement. It took the physical mass of a building to provide the German state with something to rally around, a mascot, if you will, to cheer both the political class and the masses by creating a mood that there was something to be grateful for.
What a thoroughly disconcerting idea. Mascots, being imbued with a sentiment that recalls an important moment, a message or an idea that provides comfort and inspiration during challenging times, can be useful things. We are all, to a greater or lesser extent, reliant on these keepsakes, physical icons of our past that we look upon with fondness and draw pleasurable memories from. Times have to get pretty bad for us to look towards objects rather than people to help us through tough challenges, but sometimes mascots are the best and only option, like during exams when we are on our own. Soft toys, football scarves and the like are all harmless enough on an individual basis, but just look at what happens when cultural anxiety and a sense of crisis is multiplied exponentially to the level of a nation. The talisman has to become larger than life if it is to paper over the chasm-like cracks of trauma, so that in Dresden’s case it is felt necessary to build from scratch an incredibly ornate cathedral to an original 18th Century design.
Let me count the ways that this is oh so very wrong. Most importantly, the cathedral is a big fake. Who wants a fake mascot? There was nothing left of the original building after the RAF had done its worst, save for two stumps of walls that were retained by the Communist authorities in East Germany as a testament to the brutality of war. It’s crucial to appreciate that this was no restoration job, a simple retouching of frescos singed by a firebomb or sourcing sandstone to replace the west wall that collapsed. There was no cathedral before 1990 when work started on construction, just a tasteful monument to the old building. What the pictures show us is a completely new piece of architecture that happens to have used old photographs and plans in its construction in order to create the illusion that the old cathedral has been rebuilt. It really hasn’t; this is just a twisted facsimile that amounts to a collective self-duping on the part of those that conceived the building. I could dress up as my grandmother, do her voice and say the phrases that make her memorable, but it sure as hell doesn’t make her any less dead. There is another level of wish fulfilment in action here that makes the overarching fakery even more sinister. There is an implicit sense in this project that 18th Century trends such as rococo/baroque architecture and the socially unifying effects of organised religion are still – or at least jolly well should be – cultural aspirations for any civilised society. It’s all too depressingly conservative. ‘Let us’ you can hear the Project Committee say to themselves ‘make a statement of faith in the art, culture and religious fervour of the past, so that this rebuilt cathedral stands as a symbol of reconciliation and defiance against the horrors of violence.’ It all sounds so reasonable when you read it back to yourself. But think about it a little longer; go on. Think harder. Are you there yet? Yes, that’s right, the whole project is an exercise in the most reactionary piece of nonsense you could possibly imagine.
Architecturally, the authorities of Dresden have betrayed all hope in the possibilities of contemporary design by falling back into the sureties of the past like a pensioner diving underneath a wartime eiderdown topped with an embroidered woollen blanket on a nip January night. It’s a cosy image, and undoubtedly this is a beautiful cathedral in its own, richly layered way. This is an irresistible wedding cake of a building that announces its purpose as cultural and tourist icon from whichever angle you view its betwizzled dome. It certainly passes the silhouette test, the successful passage through which means a building can be readily recognised at dawn or dusk and, henceforth, is photographed and published ad nauseum, using those very conditions in order to add to its allure. Perhaps the fine architecture achieved in the Frauenkirche is enough to redeem it, and perhaps my views are doomed to stand alone amongst those of the thronging well-wishers who can see nothing but a beautiful edifice and a victory of creativity over destruction. Perhaps, perhaps, but my disquiet will not budge.
In a broader cultural sense, the new church acts to deny the 60 years that have elapsed since its destruction. What better denial of all the things which disturb Germany today than to imagine that no mistake is irreversible, no past inaccessible to the determined coward. For we can mend the broken toy, make it good as new by spending vast sums of money, but we can’t erase the memory of the brutishness that trampled the item, of the pain and grief that follows the end of something dear. By replacing its toy, has Dresden really dealt with its pain, or its past? Have wartime destruction and 50 years of communist rule been forgotten now, an embarrassing legacy requiring an elaborate makeover to make the city feel more like the rest of Germany? Where, in all of this, is a belief in the present and the future? President Köhler saw the fundraising efforts across Europe that produced the 180 million Euros required for the ‘rebuilding’ as akin to the generosity of the “18th Century visionaries” who helped build the cathedral originally. I concur that the past is indeed a rich source of cultural and intellectual inspiration, but not at the expense of the present becoming a slavish pageant with little meaning of its own. I do not see a building at ease with or celebrating the past, but one profoundly disturbed by it. There is no reconciliation here; how can there be when there is nothing to be reconciled with? The cathedral is no longer lost, it is there just as it was before 1945, and so all the difficult tasks of grieving, of coping with the reality of the world, are made moot. It’s an easy way out, a childish escape from the challenge of dealing with trauma head on. A true act of reconciliation would have been braver, with none of the overt sentimentality implicit in this building. I really do hope this church stands for centuries and becomes all the people of Dresden wish it to be, but the underlying truth of the building will nevertheless remain. I fear, however, that the potency of collective amnesia will be enough to mask that truth.