Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Loss of Identity

Lately, we have been studying the origin of the German’s settlement in Berlin along with the devastation their urban landscape has suffered from the WWII and the Cold War. It has been interesting to visit buildings that have been damaged or destroyed by fires, bombs, and bullets over the battles fought in the heart of the city; and seeing how the Germans have restored themselves from being left with nothing more than fragments of rubble and stone. Having a tactile experience of the city and observing the absence of their authentic historic structures definitely evokes more emotions than reading about it in a history book. Although they have replaced many of their lost structures by replications, Berlin will never be the same.

How does a city begin to rebuild from of fragments and footprints of their cathedrals, plazas, palaces, and symphonies? The German’s decided to remove their ruins and reconstructed the previous buildings that existed, which are no longer of their time. They didn’t want to preserve many of their ruins because the damage and destruction of these structures would remind them of their defeat and horror of the Nazi party. They are more or less trying to forget their past and restore themselves but yet they have recreated a pseudo representation of what the city once was to ‘appear historic’. They want to remember the positive aspects and attractions of their city that symbolized a powerful nation which was shown through elaborate cathedrals, plazas, palaces, and other valued landmarks from the 17th and 18th century.

Very few of the damaged buildings illustrated their post-war condition. Among the classical buildings we visited, I enjoyed the ones that preserved parts of the battle scars of either fires or bombs. There was much more of an authentic experience of these buildings than the replications. Of course the damaged structures required repairs and additions to complete the structures, but there was still some of the original structure present in either the interior or exterior. I could feel an absence of life in the replications because they lacked the beauty of age. There were no imperfections, no cracked mortar or stone, no weathering, no water marks, no peeling or faded paint, or no sense of ancient smells. All of these aspects help tell the story of a building’s history and you begin to feel a part of it through your experience. Most of them were reconstructed after WWII, meaning they were only 50 years old or less. It is unfortunate for Berlin that the damage is permanent and their historic structures dating back from the 17th and 18th century can never be truly replaced. You can hardly recreate an instant history or build its value based upon an illusion.

In some cases, at least in the interior, there was no clarity from what the original was and what had been replaced because the repairs made them blend together. But the condition of the exterior was easier to decipher the old from the new. Here are some of the buildings we visited to justify my discussion along with a brief description of their present condition:
Nikolakirche [1230]
The stone along the base of the church is the original and the rest was an addition. Notice the charred top of the original stone where it meet the addition.
Babelsberg Palace [1833]
This castle had both original components and additional restorations. The majority was a replication. There were some original paintings that were preserved in the interior, but we weren't allowed to take pictures.
Guest House in Sanssouci Park of
Fredrick William II [1745]
The guest house has been through several restorations. Some of the original columns were charred from a fire in WWII.
Sanssouci Palace [1745]
Fredrick William II Summer Palace
The palace has been through renovations, but some of the original columns and small sculptures remained charred from a fire in WWII.
Nicholakirche [1837]
The church was destroyed and rebuilt. Notice the fresh new look, it is still under construction.
Concert Hall [1821]
This building was rebuilt.
St.Hedwig's Cathedral [1773]
The church was rebuilt, but still remains the largest Catholic Cathedral in Berlin.
Friedrichswerdersche Kirche [1824]
The church was bombed in WWII and there was very little that was able to be restored. Most of the church was rebuilt. Although one may find these cathedrals, palaces, and symphonies quite fascinating; I felt an absence of history as I experienced them. Don't get me wrong, I do appreciate the intricate detailing and skilled hand craft behind the carved sculptures, columns, and capitals; but looking through the critical lense of an architecture student I was not inspired by buildings that were created to be an illusion. I cannot say, as an individual, that I would know the right 'solution' or plan to rebuild an entire city. I think it would be very difficult, as a German, to loose everything that I identified myself from. I think today, they recognize these reconstructions as a structural shell that replaced their monumental landmark. They are no longer used by the royal families or have the same symbolic nature. These buildings just simply denote that Germany is a historic city and without these structures, there would be no visual evidence of a powerful nation in the urban landscape. I think it is an interesting predicament in how a country rebuilds an entire city. What are their motives, intentions, and desires? Their decsions speak a lot about their culture and what they value as a nation. There are no right or wrong answers; therefore there are many solutions. That is the reasoning behind my observation.

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