BY Oliver Elser in Opinion | 10 AUG 18
Featured in
Issue 197

Does the Spate of Architectural Reconstructions in Germany Betray a Right-Wing Agenda?

Disputes about city architecture and historical revisionism are raging, but political lines are not always so clear

BY Oliver Elser in Opinion | 10 AUG 18

Frankfurt was long seen as West Germany’s cold financial centre. In 1968, its high-rise bank towers became targets for student protests. A selling point for the city was the ease of exit afforded by its international airport. At the end of the 1970s, the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party won local elections for the first time. They quickly launched a still-unparalleled campaign to give the city a facelift through culture and architecture. In a span of 13 years, 15 museums were re-opened or significantly expanded, many in buildings designed by future international star architects such as Hans Hollein and Richard Meier. Frankfurt became a mecca of postmodernist architecture.

In 2018, disputes about city architecture are once again raging, not only on a local level but in broadsheets and opinion pages across Germany. Some of these focus on Frankfurt’s Neue Altstadt (New Old Town), a EUR€200-million, publicly funded development opening this month. The project aims to painstakingly rebuild the town centre – razed by Allied bombing in 1944 – based on its original layout. Fifteen buildings will be reconstructed after historical drawings and photographs, while 20 new ones will be built using traditional architectural styles. What has taken root: historical nostalgia and an anti-modern programme, as some have claimed, or something else entirely?

The discussion has erupted alongside other controversies around high-profile historical reconstructions that are planned or ongoing in Germany. The rebuilt Berlin Palace, site of the Humboldt Forum, which will house the collection of the city’s ethnological museums, is set to open its doors next year. Soon, too, will Potsdam’s Garrison Church. Destroyed by the German Democratic Republic in 1968, the church is imbricated in a history of militarism: Adolf Hitler was introduced as chancellor there by President Paul von Hindenburg in 1933, legitimizing the Nazi’s rise to power (historicized in Nazi propaganda as the Day of Potsdam). Despite the protests prompted by this shameful legacy, the first part of its reconstruction will open its doors in 2020.

‘It is misleading to place architectural historicism on the same level as those who close off borders and dismantle the liberal order.’

In April this year, the pot was stirred by architectural theorist Stephan Trüby, who has previously written about the architectural agenda of Germany’s new right-wing. In the Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung, he charged that the reconstruction of Frankfurt’s old town was first tabled in the city parliament by a known, right-wing extremist. The initially rejected bid was later adopted by the city’s ruling CDU-Green Party coalition – much to the delight of Germany’s right-wing political bloc, which could boast of having imposed a project on Frankfurt’s left-leaning, middle-class majority. The New Old Town, Trüby continued, is not an isolated case. The historicist agendas of other reconstruction projects in recent years – including Dresden’s Church of Our Lady and those in Potsdam and Berlin – were cheered on and, in some cases, actively promoted by the right. With the Alternative for Germany (AfD), Germany now has a relatively young right-wing party in the Bundestag and several regional parliaments. Though it is far from wielding executive power, there are justified concerns that a populist, right-wing bloc could grow as strong in Germany as it has elsewhere.

Although few agreed completely with Trüby’s linking of the New Old Town with Germany’s emerging right, his argument incited considerable response. Some criticized the Frankfurt plan on other grounds: they pointed out, for instance, the gross disproportion of subsidizing the 200 inhabitants of the New Old Town to the tune of €1 million Euros per head. In light of Frankfurt’s overstretched housing market (with the second highest prices in Germany), why focus on a football pitch-sized area of the centre that is primarily of interest to tourists rather than on one of the city’s loveless modern neighbourhoods?

For many architects, the return of retrograde architecture spells a vote of no confidence in the field’s future. Many architects, artists and art historians view the prop-like timber frames of Frankfurt’s New Old Town as an expression of a politically dubious nostalgia. There are fears of a populist breakthrough that will block bids for forward-looking contemporary architecture. Not least, this historical idyll is seen to mask the reality that the town was destroyed by a world war which Germany started. The charge of historical revisionism is so strong that the representatives of the New Old Town have been quick to point out the two Stolpersteine (stumbling stones) placed in the pavement: brass cobblestones commemorating former Jewish inhabitants of the neighbourhood who were sent to concentration camps.

Last year, the Chicago Architecture Biennial opened under the motto ‘Make New History’, with its curators, Sharon Johnston and Mark Lee, evidently revelling in the current revival of postmodernism. Critics such as Nicholas Korody and Léa-Catherine Szacka, however, voiced objections: to reference ‘history’, they claimed, is to reinforce exclusive canonical formations. Yet, the current political climate can too easily lead to false parallels: it is risky to put architectural historicism on the same level as those who, today, campaign to close borders and dismantle the liberal order based on the rule of law.

Reconstruction site of the Berlin Palace, 2017. Photograph: Schöning/ullstein bild/Getty

It’s helpful to look back to the 1980s, which saw the first wave of reconstruction and Frankfurt’s new postmodern cultural buildings. At the time, these projects were considered anachronistic, right-wing emblems of bourgeois culture against the city’s local grassroots-democratic, left-wing and migrant milieus. Looking back now, the era of Helmut Kohl, Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher appears as a low point in recent history. But was that really materialized in the architecture of the period? From today’s perspective, far from being right wing, as was claimed at the time, 1980s architecture playfully broke out of dogma and rigidity. Postmodernism had its left-wing roots in pop and an anti-bourgeois scepticism towards so-called modernist progress. Architecture has its own timeframe and its own debates. Though we tend to link architecture directly to politics, the connection between the two is far more complicated than a branding of certain buildings and reconstructions as right wing.

Unlikely though it may seem, there is even such a thing as left-wing traditionalism. The reshaping of Berlin in the 1990s revealed gross misunderstandings (the so-called Berlin architecture dispute) due to the fact that the advocates of strict design guidelines derived their architectural arguments from left-wing sources, even referring to Friedrich Engels’s The Housing Question (1872). At the time, powerful social democratic planners like Hans Stimmann were branded by supposed avant-gardists as authoritarian foes of experimentation. The tragic thing is that, with regards to an anti-capitalist position, the opponents stood on the same side but never recognized their common goals.

Meanwhile, a small and populist – if not quite right-leaning – group in Frankfurt is hatching new plans: they have their eyes on the Schauspielhaus theatre, built in 1902, which is still partially concealed behind a glass facade dating from 1963. And St Paul’s Church, where Germany’s first parliament sat in 1848, is also seen as a candidate for reconstruction because the interior of the post-World War II rebuild attempted to preserve the atmosphere of a burned-out ruin. Some say this is too sober and didactic.

Although there are those who speak of a missed opportunity, the New Old Town has surprised many with its quality, incorporation of original fragments and pleasant proportions. Perhaps the best testament to the fact that the New Old Town experiment can inspire novel ideas, rather than merely insipid replicas of bygone times, is a fully slate-clad house that recalls a stealth bomber (by architects Johannes Götz and Guido Lohmann). Contrary to the claims of detractors, granting legitimacy to every decade, including the retro-loving 2000s, is not opportunistic or revisionist. It can be a genuinely liberal stance of acceptance: being in tune with one’s time. 

Translated by Nicholas Grindell

Published in frieze issue 197, September 2018, with the title Arch Enemies.

Main image: Haus zur Goldenen Waage (House of the Golden Scales), Frankfurt, 2017. Courtesy and photograph: Uwe Dettmar

Oliver Elser is a curator at the Deutsches Architekturmuseum. He lives in Frankfurt am Main.