Architecture

Germany's Old Landmarks Rise Again

Since Bertelsmann recreated a 19-century Prussian mansion, reconstructing historic prewar buildings has been a hot topic

When media giant Bertelsmann set out to build a presence close to German political leaders in Berlin, it didn't need to pay architect Friedrich Wilhelm Titel for his work on the job. Titel had completed his design 200 years earlier. Bertelsmann rebuilt the Prussian mansion Titel designed at Unter den Linden 1, at the entrance to the storied boulevard that defines Germany's government quarter. As it turned out, Bertelsmann also helped lend momentum to an architectural trend.

The project, completed in late 2003, wasn't a restoration -- what little remained of Titel's original structure after World War II was demolished. After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the city wanted to restore some of its old grandeur and sold the land to Bertelsmann with the stipulation that it rebuild the original structure, an 18th-century former Prussian military headquarters known as the Kommandantur.

Now, other old landmarks could rise again. In Berlin a movement is under way to tear down the Palace of the Republic, seat of East Germany's Communist government, and replace it with a replica of the Berliner Schloss, the palace that was the home of Germany's former royal family and once stood on a site not far from Bertelsmann's new headquarters. In Frankfurt, the financial capital whose modern postwar skyscrapers are a conscious repudiation of the past, a push is also on to rebuild the city's old town.

Curiously, the impetus in Frankfurt comes not from the older generation, which remembers the old town as a claustrophobic warren, but from younger people anxious to recapture a prewar cultural heritage they never knew. "The old people remember that there was a negative side," says Anke W¸nschmann, an architect at KSP Engel and Zimmerman in Frankfurt.

KSP, commissioned by Frankfurt to design a new master plan for the site of the former old town, argued in favor of replacing ugly postwar office buildings with airy pedestrian walkways and well-lit public spaces. New structures on the site should echo but not replicate the ancient half-timbered structures. But the plan set off a huge debate that's still raging.

Controversy is inevitable whenever anyone stirs up German history. Any nostalgia for the country's prewar past risks looking like an attempt to return to a day when the nation was unstained by Nazi crimes. Then again, many of these old buildings are beautiful -- notably the Frauenkirche in Dresden, which was reduced to little more than a pile of blackened stone by Allied firebombing in the closing months of World War II. The historic church repopened last year, thanks to a project financed mostly by private donations.

Proponents of rebuilding argue that so much German architecture was lost in World War II that the old monuments are needed to provide a reference point for modern work. "In Berlin so much was destroyed in war that the historical identity, the city's historical face, is no longer recognizable. You have to rebuild," says York Stuhlemmer, of Berlin's Stuhlemmer & Stuhlemmer, which supervised the Bertelsmann project and is also involved in rebuilding the Berliner Schloss.

Does Germany's past have a future? The following pictures should help you decide.

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