Spotlight On Dresden

Rebuilding the Frauenkirche

Interview with architect for new construction

By Patricia Keegan

If one believes that a special energy beats at the heart of every city, surely the Frauenkirche Church of Our Lady, for over 200 years, was the heart of Dresden. This baroque architectural masterpiece was consecrated in 1743, and immediately captured the imagination of every Dresdener with its soaring, bell shaped dome and almost fairy tale interior design. It was the centerpiece of 18th-century paintings of Dresden by renowned artist Bernardo Bellotto (Canaletto), who found Dresden and Venice equally intriguing as subjects for his incredibly detailed canvasses.

 Its architect, George Bahr (1666-1738), moved boldly away from the conventional 'long ship' cathedral design that seemed to thrust churchgoers to the rear. Instead, he designed and built a vertically oriented, airy temple with an elevated central pulpit surrounded by a circle of tall, slender pillars supporting a massive dome. The rounded interior reached toward heaven in a series of domes whose peaks opened to smaller domes above. Steep, curved tiers of balconies rose in four layers around the walls. Bahr wanted a new design for a relatively new Protestant religion, a church where all worshippers felt equidistant from the central focus of the altar.

As allied fire bombs fell on Dresden on February 13-14, 1945, the Frauenkirche seemed doomed to the same fate as the other monumental baroque buildings in this romantic, historic city — the seat of Saxon kings who christened it with so much wealth, culture and whimsical fancy.

Miraculously, the Frauenkirche still stood as the fires subsided, surrounded by blackened rubble, ash and death. But meager hope for its survival was dashed two days later as Dresden’s few shocked survivors saw the Frauenkirche give one immense shudder, then slowly cave in on itself. Even its massive, solid stone construction was no match for the ferocity of 3,000-degree heat that destroyed its structural integrity.

For 44 years the rubble remained just as it fell, a cruel reminder of the devastation of war. While many historical buildings were rebuilt all around it, the huge pile of stones, punctuated by two slender surviving walls, became overgrown with roses and small trees.

Slowly, in the years after the war, the Dresden skyline again took on the makings of a beautiful smile — but with a missing front tooth.

The Frauenkirche’s war memorial status had not been without controversy. Some called for its immediate rebuilding, but others voiced misgivings. The devastating psychological aftermath of war, along with East Germany’s Soviet domination, contributed to a strong belief that the re-erection of such historic buildings could not be justified — culturally, economically, or socially. To this day, the argument is still controversial throughout Germany, and until recently, the Frauenkirche was a victim of this thinking.

With the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989 and subsequent reunification of Germany, those concerned citizens of Dresden, who were determined to rebuild this architectural gem, saw their opportunity and organized a bold plan for its restoration. Dr. Guenter Voigt, a passionate supporter, initiated the reconstruction idea, and Rev. Dr. Karl Ludwig Hooch brought people together in his living room to carry forward the plan. After much discussion, The Frauenkirche Foundation and The Society for the Promotion of the Reconstruction of the Frauenkirche, were founded.

Dresden trumpet virtuoso, Ludwig Guettler, assumed chairmanship of the latter group and embarked on a series of benefit concerts. The cost of rebuilding, they had decided, would be borne primarily by private donations.

The call from Dresden went out to the world. It was heard in New York by Nobel Prize winner Dr. Guenter Blobel, whose keen interest would lead to his founding 'Friends of Dresden' and the donation of his $1 million prize money to the rebuilding. In England, Dr. Alan Russell responded by initiating the Dresden Trust and by partnering Coventry with Dresden as sister cities, bonded by the infamy of mutual wartime destruction and the healing power of forgiveness.

Today, wrapped in scaffolding, the Frauenkirche is rising again, and the centerpiece of Dresden is attracting enormous attention. Visitors from throughout the world gather around the perimeter, looking up at the building and reading the words of a huge banner draped across the scaffolding: Brucken Bauen — Versohnung Leben, (Building Bridges — Living Reconciliation). Under the banner, at the foot of the scaffolding, is a gilded globe and cross, a recast of the Frauenkirche original, to be mounted atop the dome of the completed church. This gift from Coventry, presented in a ceremony by Dr. Russell and Britain’s Duke of Kent, is a symbolic confirmation of the banner’s message of hope.

An imposing statue of Martin Luther stands again before the church. In photos taken after the bombing, it lay face down in the ashes. In a block-long fenced area one sees huge chunks of reclaimed sandstone arranged on steel racks, each tagged with its place in the new structure.

The giant jigsaw puzzle of rubble was carefully sorted by the people of Dresden. Later, with the help of IBM technology, each was identified and marked for re-integration into its original place in the building.

On a recent visit to Dresden, I met with the chief architect of the reconstruction, Eberhard Burger, and later, wearing a helmet, I had a guided tour of this extraordinary structure, half way toward completion.

These days, Burger is considered one of the most prized citizens of Dresden. Rebuilding the Frauenkirche to the exact, original architectural plan is a daunting task by any standard. A tall, capable looking man with a serious demeanor, one senses his total immersion in the project. We are sitting in his office next to his source of inspiration, a scale model of the Frauenkirche. He recalls his first sight of the Frauenkirche as a 10-year old in 1955, ten years after the bombing. He describes a poignant, snapshot image.

 I can remember exactly how everything looked. I saw mountains of baroque ruins with animals grazing in the grass that had grown around them. I recall seeing a shepherd. People were living in these ruins, there were clotheslines everywhere. There was no running water and no electricity, nothing. There was a feeling of desolation in an intensely sad atmosphere.

With laser-like concentration on the task confronting him, and its accompanying burden of responsibilities, Burger, nevertheless, is thrilled by the opportunity to master plan the reconstruction.

Searching for his most joyful moment up to this point, he says there were so many that brought him happiness. But last Christmas, when Dresdeners saw the altar for the first time, was especially meaningful. He recalls the event with a touch of emotion. “It was December 23rd, a freezing cold evening, but people, old and young alike, waited outside for three or four hours to see the altar. The altar had, for the most part, remained miraculously undamaged. Now the rubble was cleared, and for the first time they could see it. I was very touched to see 15 to 20,000 people waiting on that cold night. The altar was presented against a background of music. Every year we have a Christmas celebration with prayers, a choir, and music by our star trumpeter, Dr. Guettler.”

Although the frescoes and nearly all the statues were destroyed, the altar had been partially protected by a wall. Thanks to the skill and artistry of stone restorers and sculptors, some 2,000 stone fragments were refitted in the process of reconstructing the delicate statuary that surrounded and soared above the altar.

Burger unfurls a poster of how the altar will look when completely restored. It is the most breathtakingly beautiful altar I have ever seen. One can also see the Silbermann organ where Bach and Wagner played. The organ is being rebuilt to match the original, looking to the day when the Frauenkirche will again resound with the rich tones of baroque music.

The reconstruction, to be completed in 2004, incorporates many stones salvaged in the rubble. Walking through the structure, I could see the differences in color between old and new stones, demonstrating the enormous effort of restorers in making the Frauenkirche a reminder of the terrible destruction of Dresden. The sight of the old stones may also provide a thread of continuity to Dresden families whose ancestors were a living part of the Frauenkirche. Burger expressed special appreciation to the 'Women of the Ruins,' a group of women who dedicated their time to carefully picking up the sculpted stones and cleaning them.

Burger’s daunting commission is to rebuild the Frauenkirche authentically, without using modern techniques. What is very helpful, he says, is that the Frauenkirche is well documented in paintings and drawings from the 18th and 19th centuries, and by photographs up through the 1943 restoration. 

Reverend Volker Kress, leader of the Lutheran Church in Saxony, was born in Dresden. Despite his impressive title, he is a gracious, humble man who, at times, looks as though he has Dresden’s sad history etched in his face. Highly regarded by the people of Dresden, he lived through those terrible days of the bombing. Today, we talk only about the future and his vision for the Frauenkirche.

“I would like the Frauenkirche to serve the people in their search to find meaning in modern life. I am hoping it will bring spiritual significance into their lives. This will be a place where international visitors will be welcomed to attend services and concerts, or to just sit and meditate, pray to God, and become calm.”

Dr. Kress speaks of the importance of Dresden’s history as a center of great composers. “Music is a language without words; it can heal the soul. When we hear church music, it inspires us with images of perfection — heaven.”

In speaking about the process of healing, Dr. Kress says that long after war is over, the wounds remain and must be administered to. Though still in the fledgling stage, ideas abound about the Frauenkirche’s potential. One idea is to hold peace conferences and invite Nobel Peace laureates to speak here. 

“I have confidence that Reverend Fritz [Dr. Kress’ assistant] and his team will promote a vision of the Frauenkirche as a place inviting dialogue surrounding its message — one of peace, hope, and living together with love. The same message comes from the Coventry Cathedral in England and many other parts of Europe. As it lay in ruins, the Frauenkirche held the memory of the wounds people have inflicted on each other. Now its rebuilding reflects new life, people coming together, watching this great cathedral coming back to life again I see as a time for healing.”

The Frauenkirche’s inspirational light, beaming throughout the world and down through the generations, is a reflection of the light in the hearts of those who have been committed to this enormous undertaking from the very beginning. It holds great promise for Dresdeners, as well as visitors, who look up at the banner of healing and reconciliation and find great meaning there, and for all those who send donations to help each stone to find its niche again.