In recent years we seem to have developed a semi-conscious affinity with cities razed by war. We have been in Hiroshima and Dresden. We based a war memorial tour in Ieper/Ypres, obliterated by three years of siege as a “salient” on the Western Front. We were also in Oradour-sur-Glane, the village wiped out by the German army because of a misunderstanding about names. For that matter we live close to Coventry and I once made a television programme about the re-planning of the city. My “co-star” was Terry Hall of the Specials which was a bit of a giveaway of the content because their 1981 number one hit had been Ghost Town. Although the song was taken to be about the British “inner city” in general it was also assumed to be about Coventry in particular. These are the extreme cases: if you take any random selection of European cities there will be a majority which suffered relatively little damage, such as Paris, Prague and Strasbourg, but a substantial minority where the damage was massive such as Berlin, Le Havre and Wroclaw/Breslau. Sometimes it depended on the whim of an individual army commander.
When your city is razed there are three basic options: you can abandon it, replicate it or rebuild it in contemporary style. Naturally, a great deal depends on whether “you”, by which I mean the inhabitants, make the decision or whether it is made for you by a higher elite and/or at a broader territorial level. Provided that the city’s economic function can still be said to exist (unlike that of those real “ghost towns” which are usually former mining towns) abandonment is normally used as a memorial. Oradour is the purest example of this I know and it happened at the insistence of General De Gaulle; there is a new village of Oradour close by. But, of course, all three strategies can be combined: the ruins of the medieval cathedral in Coventry stand as a memorial as does the shell of what is now called the Genbaku Dome in Hiroshima. Naturally, a city can be part replicated, part modernised, though the planning requires a degree of intelligence and sensitivity if it is not to leave the replication feeling like a museum or the modernisation seeming cheap and nasty.
The issues that arise in the razed city combine art and politics in a complex way and the debate necessarily invokes concepts of creativity, progress and tradition. The Japanese dimension is substantially irrelevant: because of earthquakes and the nature of traditional materials the Japanese assumption has always been that buildings do not last forever. (The dome in Hiroshima is a rare, European-designed, steel frame building.) Buildings in Japan are not the icons of landscape that they are in Europe; that role is played by gardens and mountains. The memorial dimension of the whole debate is also something of a sideshow rousing only minimal disagreements. The real issues have always been between replicators and modernists.
I come to these issues with a reinforced prejudice. As a conservative I am an instinctive replicator in most instances and the reinforcement came from my involvement in both planning and architectural awards in the 1980s. The planning question was about the conservation area of central Leamington Spa and the issue was whether to replicate “Regency” buildings which were crumbling to destruction. It was often the case that, in dealing with these elegant but Gerry-built structures, “renovation” soon turned into replication as hardy breeze block had to be put behind facades. The architectural awards were on a broader scale for the Civic Trust in the Midlands. I was the “lay member” and it was my job to report public opinion about buildings – the hired populist in other words. This brought me into even more direct conflict with architects. When I reported that a building which replicated a “Regency” style in general or even accurately duplicated a previous building was well liked they would sneer and fume. In their irritation the same words and phrases recurred: “fake”, “pastiche”, “wasted opportunity”, “not architecture”. I liked to point out that in Piazza San Marco in Venice two sides of the square were replicated on Napoleon’s orders and that in 1911 the Campanile fell down (the only casualty being a cat according to local lore) and was exactly replaced and nobody cares. And nobody cares, either, that Leamington has huge numbers of buildings where there are iron balconies from modern factories and chimneys where there could not possibly be a chimney stack. Architects would say that “anyone” could spot the fake and shudder where “anyone” turns out to be about 0.1% of the population. The undeniable perception now is that Leamington still has a “Regency” character which is liked by both visitors and residents. Vive la pastiche!
The comparison between Dresden and Coventry must start with the idea that Dresden went for replication and Coventry for modernisation. This would lead on to a narrative in which Dresden played the long game and won. When I was taken to Coventry as a child in the 1950s it was to see the new precinct and the unfinished cathedral, together a new wonder of the land representing post-war revival. My father took many “slides” to show to his friends back in Lancashire. Even when I arrived as a lecturer at the University of Warwick (which is on the outskirts of Coventry) in 1969 the city still had a vibrant confidence and the precinct was somewhere you would instinctively go to at night for a drink and a meal. The photographs of Dresden at that time show it as still predominantly derelict, though some buildings were being slowly renovated and others were protected from the weather with a view to future renovation. Then the precipitous industrial decline came to Coventry in the 1970s and within ten years of Ghost Town German unification occurred and the painstaking replication and renovation of Dresden became a national project.
So now the general perception is that Dresden is something of a triumph, Coventry something of a disaster. The physical perception of Coventry is necessarily tied up with its cultural and economic status; morale is low, symbolized for many by its football and rugby teams which have plummeted down the ranks. That raises the questions of what went wrong and was it avoidable. If the vision belonged to a single man it was to Sir Donald Gibson (as he became), the city engineer. It is fair to say that he envisaged some of the post-war world accurately including the importance of the motor car. He didn’t envisage industrial decline or the predominance of out-of-town shopping let alone how a ring road could become a kind of inverse city wall, forbidding people to enter on pain of crime and vandalism – in their own minds at least. The extent to which one can blame him and his contemporaries seems to me contestable and difficult.
The comparison between the two cities has to acknowledge huge differences of context. In England Coventry is a rather odd city because although it is both large and old – it has just under 350,000 people and the original cathedral was built almost as quickly as the current one, between 1095 and 1102 – it is neither the county town (which is Warwick) nor the big city in the area (which is Birmingham). It isn’t the fashionable place to live in the county (which is Leamington). Dresden, on the other hand, was the capital of Saxony. Coventry’s buildings before the raid of November 1st 1940 were from an organic mixture of periods with quite a few medieval buildings. The core of Old Dresden was the massive prestige project of Augustus the Strong, Elector of Saxony 1694-1733 who was also king of Poland from 1709. After World War Two Dresden was under Communist rule. By comparison Coventry faced enormous commercial and financial pressures; everybody I ever talked to who was involved in the city after the war has stressed the overwhelming need to get the show back on the road, which they did, for a generation and more while Dresden lay derelict waiting for its benefactors.
Dresden is far from being a fabulous city, but it certainly contains fabulous parts. The fully renovated Semperoper, home territory for the city’s famous Staatskapelle orchestra, is one of the most lavish music venues I have ever been in. Sitting in one of it’s elegant, lavishly decorated concourses sipping a drink and looking out of the window at the other grand buildings of the Altstadt it is impossible to avoid the comparison suggested by the orchestra’s visits to Coventry. They play at the Butterworth Hall at the University of Warwick, essentially a large shack which is usually less than half full. And sitting in the Frauenkirche listening to a Bach organ recital offers a distinct thrill of replication because it is a new eighteenth century church, seen much as Bach’s near-contemporaries would have seen it. But much of Dresden is grim or grotty or both in much the same proportions as Coventry. This is not just true of the areas constructed under the DDR. I found the Neustadt, which was relatively untouched by the bombing to be thoroughly dislikeable. It consists of the kind of undistinguished five storey buildings common in continental European cities; the broader streets are killed off by traffic and the narrower ones are covered in graffiti, posters and litter, smell of kebabs and are dangerously patrolled by those Teutonic Knights of the eco-system, German cyclists: sanz bells, sanz smiles, sanz manners. The three guidebooks I consulted all described the area as “lively” and the obvious reflection is that there are good and bad ways of being lively. I note in passing that Dresden is one of the few places ever to have its “World Heritage Site” status withdrawn. This happened in 2009 because of the environmental damage attributed to the Waldschlössen bridge; it is not surprising to report that the city was against the bridge, though the Land was in favour.
As it happens we came to Dresden via two formerly German, now Polish, cities: Poznan/Posner and Wroclaw/Breslau. Both were heavily damaged in the war, Wroclaw especially because of the fanatical intransigence of its Wehrmacht commander. In both cases the city centres are beautifully renovated and replicated, implementing the idea of a city centre as a “total work of art”, to use Rennie Mackintosh’s phrase, much more impressively, in my view, than is the case in Dresden. In these cities it is not just about the grand buildings, but the whole urban environment. The artistic politics of this is interesting. Marxism-Leninism in approaching these problems showed the same kind of division and ambivalence that occurred in the west. Among major cities in the former USSR St. Petersburg was put back, but Tashkent (after the 1966 earthquake) was modernised. East Berlin was modernised, Dresden (eventually) replicated. In Poland there was less of an indigenous Communist Party than in any of the other Warsaw Pact countries so in creating one there had to be allowance for more populist and nationalist elements of policy. In Warsaw, Poznan and Wroclaw the renovation of the city as an expression of Polishness was part of this and began almost immediately. The results are impressive, though if you could visit only one it should be Wroclaw.
But edging ahead of even the Polish cities for the replication prize in my view is the small Belgium city of Ieper/Ypres which was levelled between 1914 and 1917. Winston Churchill and others wanted it left as a memorial and the architects (of course) wanted to build an entirely new Ypres. But the populist conservatives of the local area won: they weren’t the ones who had knocked their city down and they wanted it put back. They wanted the city evolved by their own history, not the design of the trained minds of their times. It took approximately half a century, but there it stands, the most completely successful of the Phoenix cities.
(This was published by The Critic in February 2020 to mark the 75th anniversary of the Dresden bombing.)