‘The old city is still alive’

By William Boston

Published: June 23 2006 10:35 | Last updated: June 23 2006 10:35

Rudolf Eichner supports himself on the railing of his eighth-floor balcony with his good arm and points feebly with his mangled left at the vista in front of him.

Some 40km to the south-east, a misty line of hills marks the German-Czech border. On the edge of the expansive park below this Communist-era white "Plattenbau" apartment building, the silver floodlight posts of the local football stadium rise like lonely sentinels out of the green. Eichner, 82, with robin's-egg blue eyes, grey hair and a 10-inch white scar on the inside of his arm - a reminder of his time on the eastern front during the second world war - makes a limp sweeping gesture at a bucolic clearing below dotted with mature linden trees.

"Those trees were all houses. And there, see? That's the old road," he says, pointing to a cobblestone driveway leading up to the Robotron office centre parking lot. "For me, the old city is still as alive as it was 60 years ago."

He is speaking of Dresden, the 800-year-old baroque city affectionately called "Florence on the Elbe" that was all but destroyed by Allied bombs on February 13, 1945 near the end of the second world war.

The attacks seared a hole in the landscape and in the souls of residents. Ever since, the city has struggled with decisions about new building, debating whether it's better to restore the past or move on and start over. Six decades on, it's still trying to find the right balance.

Since German unification in 1990, Dresden's historic centre has been restored. The panorama rising above the Neumarkt, once again dominated by the yellow dome of the baroque protestant cathedral - the Frauenkirche - is one of the most famous scenes in Europe, immortalised by the Italian painter Canaletto. The skyline above Neumarkt, for years criss-crossed by construction cranes, is gradually regaining its ensemble of baroque and rococo architecture, attracting tourists from around the world and restoring pride to city residents.

"At first I thought it would be better to leave the Frauenkirche as a ruin, a memorial against war like the Gedaechtniskirche in Berlin," says Karin Schröder, an office worker, while sipping a coffee at Dresden's main train station. "But now it makes me feel proud. It documents a part of our history and closes a wound."

That any of Dresden's historic buildings still stand is something of a miracle. At the end of the second world war, only 55,000 of the city's 228,000 buildings were left undamaged. Most of the rest were destroyed or severely damaged and uninhabitable. And what Allied bombs failed to destroy, East Germany's ideologues finished off to make room for a new socialist metropolis.

According to Matthias Lerm, an architect and city planner in the mayor's office and author of Farewell to Old Dresden, many historic buildings were torn down by the Communist government in the years following the war and they continued to be after unification. In 1945, empty space took up some 8.4 sq km of the city; that has since expanded to 15.5 sq km.

For the postwar leaders, old Dresden was synonymous with the conservative society out of which the Nazis emerged. So, in the 1950s, armed with slogans such as "A New City for New People", they set out to erase the old and build anew. "They just wanted to get rid of the old world because for them it represented the bourgeois society that was defeated in the war," Lerm explains.

A decisive clash over the emerging policy took place in October 1958, when a Communist party planning commission voted to leave the Frauenkirche as a ruin and paved the way to tear down the Renaissance-era Sophienkirche a few years later. Only Leopold Wiel, an architect and professor who built the Dresden Kulturpalast - a modern building adorned with a socialist-era relief of workers waving red flags - voted against the plan. Instead, he advocated creating a synthesis of old Dresden with new modern architecture.

"I did my best to preserve what I could," says Wiel, who's now 90. "After the war, no one believed the city would ever be rebuilt. It fills me with great joy to see how [it] is being reconstructed."

Initially, Dresden was to become a monumental city based on the neo-classicist architecture that emerged in Moscow under Stalin. But the idea fell out of style when Stalin died in 1953 and East German leaders realised their plans were too expensive. They gave up their ambitious projects and focused on building the drab prefabricated apartment buildings that became common throughout eastern Europe. Sprawling Plattenbau settlements were built outside the city centre in the Prohlis and Gorbitz districts.

Parts of what is called Neustadt (new city), the section of the city located on the north shore across from the Altstadt (old city), as well as outlying neighbourhoods to the east such as Loschwitz, Blasewitz, Striesen and Weisser Hirsch were relatively undamaged by the bombing. But the stately homes, villas and mansions did not fit into the new socialist society. So the Communists let these neighbourhoods decay, refusing to repair the buildings or infrastructure until people got fed up and moved into the settlements.

"When the roof leaked, you just moved down a floor," Eichner says. "When the water started coming through the ceiling you moved a floor lower until you couldn't move down any more. Then you moved to Gorbitz."

The decaying neighbourhoods in the Neustadt became bohemian islands of squatters, artists and non-conformists who found relative freedom in parts of the city abandoned by the Communists. Neustadt today is Dresden's party district. Streets such as Alaun Strasse sport nightclubs with names like Purple Haze and Hard and Heavy.

Ironically, the "old world" villas abandoned by the Communists have become the preferred housing for Dresden's new middle class. Walking across the Blaue Wunder (Blue Miracle), the city's easternmost bridge crossing the Elbe, you can see the restored mustard-coloured villas with their red-tile roofs lining the hillside from the river shore up to Loschwitz and Weisser Hirsch on the eastern shore and in Blasewitz and Striesen to the west.

After the Berlin Wall fell there was a short-term property bubble created by investors who figured they could buy properties in the east and flip them quickly for an an easy profit. "If you bought a house in 1992 or 1993 you've lost from 30 per cent to 50 per cent," says Klaus Kepler, builder and owner of Hausbau Kepler in Dresden. "But now prices are beginning to rise again," he says. "New homes start at €2,000 per sq metre and go up from there. That's very affordable compared to cities like Munich, which is three times as expensive."

Although Dresden went through the same massive restructuring and skyrocketing unemployment as the rest of the former East Germany after unification, it now has one of the fasting growing economies in the country and is home to chipmakers Infineon and AMD, a top-class university and a growing biotechnology industry.

Dresden's low rent compared to other German cities and recreational opportunities such as cycling on country roads, hiking or rock climbing in the nearby Sächsische Schweiz (Saxon Alps) also make it attractive to foreign buyers, seen as key to the city's economy. And, thanks to the inflow of new blood, Dresden is quickly becoming one of Germany's most cosmopolitan cities.

British-born Tony Hyman, 44, one of the five directors of the city's Max Planck Institute of Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics, came to Dresden nearly six years ago to launch a new biotech research centre and a spin-off Cenix Bioscience. He rents a 250 sq metre flat in an old seven-room villa on the river in Blasewitz for considerably less than he would pay for the same digs back in Heidelberg, where he lived before.

"The quality of life here is just great," he says. "You can afford a place to live that you wouldn't even dream of in a city like Cologne or Munich."

Hyman's wife is also a scientist and both benefit from Germany's parent-friendly policies, which allows them to keep their children in day care until 5pm. "Working mother isn't a dirty word the way it is in west Germany," he says.

Though things have turned out differently than the city's socialist planners once imagined, Dresden has become a new city while still managing to retain some of its old glory.