There is an incredible article in the February 1 issue of The New Yorker, “Embers” by George Packer. In the article, Packer travels to Dresden, Germany to explore how the city has addressed the memory of its participation in World War II, its devastating bombing by the Allies, an its legacy as an East German emblem of victimization by the West. This language of memory is implicit in seemingly inocuous decisions: restoring a church spire to its former glory, the presence and absence of small commemorations of Jewish residents throughout the town streets. Packer describes a city that is so committed to forgetting the immediate trauma of its role and devastation in World War II, it has single mindedly pursued the restoration of the city to its pre-War appearance. By embracing its Baroque beauty, its cultural heritage, Dresden has shed not only the stigma of its place as a center of Nazi power but also the painful memory of the complete destruction of the city.
Into this environment comes architect Daniel Liebeskind’s design for a new Military Museum in the city, which will be constructed in a dramatic contemporary intervention into a historic arsenal building that has held German munitions for generations. The presence of this arsenal belies the wilful amnesia of Dresden’s romantic reconstruction, and Liebeskind’s design is a powerful statement to the power of architecture to be about more than just design. The intervention is violent and accusatory, and the experience of its interior is designed to be off-balance and unsettling. It will be open in 2011, and the construction images look just incredible. It’s pretty amazing that the governments of Germany and Dresden have been so willing to embrace such a difficult design.
I am writing about this article because it demostrates to me the importance of the city for collective memory, and for thoughtful consideration of preservation techniques and their implications for residents and visitors. I think that the instinct to restore the physical landscape to its aesthetic fullness is less useful than a decision to create buildings that preserve traces of destruction and pain. Interventions like Liebeskinds are essential for creating a thoughtful cityscape that doesn’t just remember its history but engages it. History is not a vehicle for beauty or prettiness, it is a tool for creating identity, for informing progress, for encouraging healing and confrontation. Another great German example of this practice is the Reichstag building, resurrected by Foster + Partners to retain its historic character and meaning and also project the forward motion of the German Republic. I hope to see more projects like this in cities throughout the world, encouraging residents and visitors to consider history and how it lives today in our buildings and memories.