Since last year’s German unification, the future of the ruin of the Frauenkirche in Dresden is being discussed again: is the ruin to be left as it is—a slowly decaying war memorial— or should the church be rebuilt to its baroque splendour? The dispute highlights some of the crucial questions and dilemmas faced by conservationists.
The monumental domed building of the Frauenkirche (a Protestant church to the Virgin), erected from 1726 to 1743 by Georg Baehr, was one of Dresden’s most beautiful landmarks until the almost total destruction of the city by bombing in 1945. Since then it has been an impressive ruin with parts of the choir and one corner of the nave pointing skywards from a hill formed by the rubble and debris of the collapsed church. Like the Gedächtniskirche in Berlin, the ruin was left standing as a war memorial.
In Dresden, a civic action group for the re-erection of the church was formed some time ago. Support comes from local architects as well as increasingly from Western Germany. The weekly, Die Zeit has become the forum for debate over the controversy. Manfred Sack, a well known Hamburg critic and writer on architecture, kicked off with a polemic against reconstruction at any price and for the “natural death” of this and other historically important ruins. Curt Siegel, Professor of Architecture in Stuttgart, answered him with his arguments for the reconstruction of the original church.
Manfred Sack denounces the idea of a reconstruction as “madness” and sees the risk of a creating a historical lie. His main argument is that the ruin is a most valuable historical document, more valuable and honest than a copy of the lost unique original could be. Respect for history demands avoiding reconstruction at any price, and coming to terms with ruins which can be—and in the case of the Frauenkirche, are—often more moving and more instructive. Who would dare to suggest the rebuilding of the Colosseum? He concedes that the older citizens of Dresden feel understandable nostalgia for their beautiful church, but suspects that the underlying motive of the “reconstructionists” is at least as much to do with the wish to release Dresden from the eyesore of a monument that is such a potent reminder of war and destruction.
Curt Siegel argues against this that the rebuilding aims at much more than mere imitation: detailed plans of the original building have survived, as well as sixty per cent of the original building materials. Plans were drawn during restoration works on the church in 1936-43 and the individual stones measured, inventoried, and stored in 1946-49. According to him, a true “archaeological reconstruction” is possible with the help of only a very little concrete and other modern additions. In addition, the replacing of the baroque dome should be seen as yet another testimony to the determination of Dresden’s citizens to overcome the past rather than forget it, as demonstrated in the rebuilding of their baroque palace and palace church.
Siegel agrees with Sack on the principle of the significance of the ruin, yet argues that it is literally shrinking: not only has it been visually diminished by a new, architecturally insignificant but obtrusive hotel next to it, but the hill of rubble from which the ruin emerges has shrunk by four meters, and weather and overgrowth make it “technically impossible to preserve the ruin in its beauty”. The professor accuses his opponent of insisting on the paradox of wanting to conserve a process of decay.
Fundraising for the reconstruction has started in Dresden. State funding is not seen as an option because the consensus is that government money should go first and foremost into solving the housing problem in the former DDR. But the controversy, “To die and let die” (M. Sack) versus the vision of the “resurrected dome” (C. Siegel), is certain to continue.