German Reconstructionism


Dresden, the capital of Saxony in Germany’s far east, was long known as “Florence on the Elbe” for its flowery Baroque architecture and picturesque bridges.

Today the comparison seems apt in another, less obvious way: Like Florence, Dresden today is a tourist magnet for its lovingly preserved, car-free center, which can feel more like an open-air historical museum than a modern city.

The adjective “ersatz,” meaning “substituted” and connoting artifice, is borrowed from German, and it kept coming to mind as I contemplated one ornate, grayish façade after another. As many people know, Dresden was largely destroyed by World War II bombs. So why does it look so studiously vintage — down to the smudges of timeworn soot around the curlicues?

The answer, I learned, is that Dresden was carefully reassembled, in many cases stone by salvaged stone, restoring an eerily retro version of this city beloved by generations of artists and music lovers. In plaza after plaza, not a cobblestone is out of place.

Lavish arches and statues of wartime heroes greet patrons at the famous Semperoper, just as they did back in the 1840s, when the opera house that premiered works by Carl Maria Von Weber and Richard Strauss first opened. But the green marble columns and gilded interior are reconstructions. The structure remains a memorable setting to hear the Dresden State Opera Chorus, which is celebrating its 200th season in 2017-18, or to see ballet from Marius Petipa to Hofesh Shechter, who will premiere a work for the Semperoper Ballett in June 2018.

Similar marvels of reconstruction include the nearby Zwinger Palace, a grand structure that, like most of Dresden’s historic sites, is just south of the Elbe River. Ancient fortress walls once enclosed the site where the castle was completed in 1719 for King Augustus.

But there was a blip in that cozy historical legacy. With war on the horizon during the Nazi era, galleries full of Augustus’ priceless art — masterworks by Rubens, Van Dyck, Titian, Raphael, Vermeer, among others — were evacuated to safety. The palace itself was bombed, and when it was rebuilt after the war, many of the paintings returned to form the present-day Gemaldegalerie Alte Meister, Dresden’s premier art museum.

On another central square, the soaring Baroque dome of Dresden’s Fraukirche is perhaps the most-celebrated symbol of the city’s rebirth. The thousand-year-old church — once Catholic, now Lutheran — was destroyed in the war, and its rebuilding, which incorporated original stones, was considered a metaphor for German renewal when it was completed in 2005.

One prewar structure that was not meticulously reconstructed is the Dresden New Synagogue, which stands just across a park from the reconstructed Albertinum (a modern art museum) on the site of the 19th-century Semper Synagogue. If that name sounds familiar, yes, the Moorish Revival landmark was designed by the same Gottfried Semper whose legacy is immortalized in the city’s opera house.

Sadly, Semper’s Jewish oeuvre was destroyed during Kristallnacht. But a salvaged Star of David was incorporated into the rebuilt 2001 temple, whose radical modernism — an off-kilter, sand-colored cube — is a jarring contrast to Baroque Dresden.

Like the shul itself, Dresden’s Jewish community has been reborn with a different complexion, and not for the first time. After a centuries-long ban on residency, Jews resettled in the Saxon capital in the 19th century; the pre-Holocaust community numbered in the thousands, a heyday sorrowfully preserved in the city’s Old Jewish Cemetery.

Only a few dozen Jews were living in Dresden when the Berlin Wall fell. Since then, an influx of former Soviet (and more recently, Israeli) Jews has regrown the community to about 700 people.

They live in neighborhoods well beyond the tourist center — grittier but livelier neighborhoods full of students, immigrants and workaday life. Most tourists never see Dresden’s vast tracts of postwar socialist housing, architecturally uninspired structures that nonetheless boast the flowerboxes and meticulous landscaping that are German hallmarks.

Unlike the city’s historic core, these neighborhoods also boast cars. Indeed, one of the more delightfully unexpected (albeit complicated) Dresden experiences is a visit to the Volkswagen Transparent Manufactory, an all-glass building on the edge of the city’s Great Park. This onetime auto factory is now a laboratory, startup hub and exhibition space devoted to “electromobility” — basically, eco-conscious future transport.

All of which prompted me to reconsider the car-free preciousness of central Dresden. Wheeled vehicles have been part of the urban thrum for millennia; restoring historic centers to a mythic, pre-automobile past has the same ersatz quality as a rebuilt Baroque palace.

Through a squint, it’s a reasonable facsimile. But the context is different. Something ineffable has changed.

Dynamic city centers are animated not only by tourists, students, bicyclists  and the young and able-bodied, but also by older (and less mobile) people, delivery trucks, taxis, buses and the businesses they support. And that is why Dresden, despite its essential Germanness, remains more a Florence than a Berlin.