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While the architectural reflection that took place on the history of German cities since the late 1970s was necessary, the associated wave of reconstruction has produced a strand of ideology that is problematic and is becoming increasingly radicalised. The uncompromising, precise reconstruction of lost buildings based on their outward appearances as recorded in photographs pursues a dubious agenda for the politics of history. Using supposedly innocuous terms such as “authenticity,” “beauty,” or “repairing the city,” a nationalist-conservative identity is being created while adopting techniques of historical revisionism. Accordingly, buildings prior to 1918, and therefore the monarchy, are uncritically and universally idealized; modern buildings after 1919, mostly from phases of a democratic polity, are universally defamed.The architecture of National Socialism is as a rule exempted from criticism and sometimes even rehabilitated. The statements of Léon Krier are examples this. For the German discourse, see Oswalt, “Der Mythos von der Berlinischen Architektur.” The architecture of the GDR was predominately modern, but it was the result of a dictatorial body politic. Contemporary architects are accused of the “déformation professionnelle,” of an obsessive will to renew that allegedly ignores the public’s longing for tradition, cultural heritage, and beauty.

In public discourse, this inaccurate accusation has effectively concealed the orthodoxy of today’s reconstruction advocates. Yet reconstruction and modern architecture were never contradictory; the postwar era’s obsession with the future was a conflicted consensus on society as a whole that found its visible expression in architecture. The struggle of architects to find adequate forms of reconstruction—visible in Hans Döllgast for the Alte Pinakothek in Munich (1946–1957), Rudolf Schwarz for the Paulskirche in Frankfurt am Main (1947–1948); Kuehn Malvezzi in their design for the Berliner Schloss/Humboldtforum (2008), and Bruno Fioretti Marquez’s plans for the Masters’ Houses of the Bauhaus Dessau (2011–2014), to name just a few examples—does not just demonstrate architects’ interest in and talent for dedicating themselves to issues of reconstruction. It also reveals innovative ways that society can use architecture to appropriate and implement an architectural heritage that has been lost in a critical and constructive way. Today’s advocates of reconstruction in Germany, however, are not interested in a critical and reflective relationship with history, but rather in an uninterrupted connection to the period prior to 1918. In controversial cases, buildings from the period after 1919 are uncompromisingly eliminated, regardless of their architectural quality and historical relevance. In the name of history, history is erased.

In liberal societies, there are competing ideas on issues of architecture and urban planning that differ in each individual case and also change over time. The demolition of the Palast der Republik and the associated reconstruction of the castle was rejected by a clear majority of Berliners in the early years of the new millennium.Ulrich Paul, “Demontage zur falschen Zeit,” Berliner Zeitung, February 10, 2006. After the start of the palace’s demolition was postponed, opinion polls indicated a shift, with the majority favoring the planned redesign, according to Thomas Wülling,, May 4, 2008. The municipal politicians of Potsdamer used dubious means in 2014 to prevent a referendum on the Garnisonkirche in Potsdam because the project risked defeat. In the only referendum to be held on a reconstruction project—of the Ulrichskirche (St. Ulrich’s Church) in Magdeburg in 2011— 76% voted against reconstruction. That only made it even more important for politicians to create the appearance of strong citizen participation, with the exception of the Frauenkirche (Church of Our Lady) in Dresden, however, whose participation was more simulatory than real. In Dresden approximately €115 million, over 60% of the total cost of reconstruction, was financed by donations. Thousands of volunteers engaged in various organizations supported the project.

Recently, a statement by an older CDU politician who has been active in Frankfurt am Main for more than 20 years clearly summed up all the problems of these developments in just a few words. The former city councilman and dean of schools regards the city’s modern theater building from 1963 as an “architectural contribution to the reeducation of our people,” which he perceives as an imposition and a burden. The reconstructions realized in Frankfurt since the 1980s are, by contrast, “balsam on the flayed soul of the city,” even though they are “attacked by ideologues of reeducation” today. Developments in architecture that have oscillated between nationalist conservatives and right-wing populism are not a unique to Germany but are a global phenomenon.Bernhard Mihm, “Architektonischer Beitrag zur Umerziehung,” letter to the editor, Rhein-Main-Zeitung der Frankfurter Allgemeinen Zeitung, June 8, 2020, 32. I am grateful to Alfons Maria Arns for calling this letter to my attention. Against the backdrop of Germany’s specific history, however, they have a particular volatility for the politics of history and memory that emerges ever more clearly.

Philipp Oswalt

Philipp Oswalt is an architect and writer. Since 2006, he has been professor of architecture theory and design at Kassel University.

Delany Boutkan, Marten Kuijpers, Klaas Kuitenbrouwer, Setareh Noorani
Alex Walker