Dresden rises like phoenix from the ashes

ON the night of February 13, 1945, Dresden was drenched in bombs by the Royal Air Force. Raids by the Americans followed on the 14th and 15th.

The city, which had no military significance and contributed little to the German war effort, was swollen with refugees. Estimates of the numbers who died in the raids vary.

The British and Americans admit at least 36,000 were killed. Russian sources, inflating the figures for propaganda purposes, claimed 145,000 had died. About 75% of the city was destroyed. The magnificent Baroque buildings of ‘the German Florence’ were reduced to rubble. Churchill must have authorised the attacks but, afterwards, he distanced himself from them, scapegoating Arthur ‘Bomber’ Harris, the only British commander who would not be awarded a knighthood.

I visited Dresden in 1963, in the heyday of the DDR when Walter Ulbricht, a graduate of the Lenin School in Moscow, was running the show. His picture, like those of the Sacred Heart at home, adorned the walls of shops and offices everywhere. It was a condition of my DDR visa that I visit Dresden. I could get no reply to visa requests from Ireland, but I managed, eventually, to get a Czech one. While in Prague, I called at the East German embassy in the off-chance of being allowed to visit what was then the most advanced Eastern Block state.

You needed an excuse to enter the DDR, so I claimed to be an art student, wanting to see Raphael’s Sistine Madonna in Dresden. To my surprise I was admitted, on condition that I report to ‘the Stasi’ every day and stick to a pre-set itinerary.

The centre of Dresden was still largely a bombsite. There were ruined buildings everywhere. The atmosphere was tense; the people paranoid. Nobody would talk to a westerner if they could be seen or overheard. I asked a teacher, who was a Catholic, if she went to Mass. “No”, she said, “that would give bad example to the children”.

I returned to Dresden last week. The beautiful Madonna, flanked by Pope Sixtus and St. Barbara, gazes down on the visitor just as she did 43 years ago. Her expression is still one of slightly anxious vulnerability but, outside, a phoenix has risen from the ashes. The magnificent buildings have now been restored. Nor is Dresden, architecturally, locked in the past.

A striking glass and steel building adorns the Great Garden, Dresden’s equivalent of the Phoenix Park, just southeast of the old town. The profusion of geometrical forms recalls the Guggenheim Gallery in Bilbao, but this is not a museum. The Gläserne Manufaktur, which the cognoscenti will know means ‘transparent factory’, is in fact a car assembly plant. It was designed by the Munich architect, Günter Hern. Completed in 2001, it’s a fitting 21st Century addition to a city of iconic buildings.

The building’s core is a 40 metre high glass cylinder in which completed cars are stored. Wings of various geometrical forms radiate outwards. A moat, in which the water is purified by reed beds, surrounds the site.

The Volkswagen, the ‘peoples car’, first appeared in 1938. The company’s prestige car is known as ‘the Phaeton’ and it is this vehicle which is built in the Gläserne Manufaktur. Phaetons feature in the novels of Jane Austen. I had never heard of the modern motorised one, but I am not into cars. Apparently, there are only three phaetons in Ireland.

Industrial plants tend to be noisy untidy places. I had visited the Skoda works in Pilsen in the heyday of Communism. It was a grim and depressing experience. Automotive engineer, Alexander Skibbe, showed me the Dresden plant. The contrast with the Skoda eyesore could not have been more striking. The interior is open and spacious, light flowing in through great expanses of glass. In a large atrium inside the entrance, expressionist paintings from the city’s New Masters Gallery are on display. This is a multiple-use building; operas have been staged and scientific conferences are held there from time to time. The assembly line moves slowly on a spotless wood-block floor, while technicians in gleaming white overalls, operate power-tools from consoles. Not a pin is out of place, nor is there any of the annoying junk-music which permeates so many public spaces nowadays.

Then a windowless Luas arrived. The tram, with its train of wagons full of parts for cars, rolled quietly up to the plant. These goods vehicles use the public rail network and are interleaved with the municipal trams. No noisy trucks, threatening to crush cyclists or spewing out petro-chemical filth, visit this factory. Building and park harmonise. Ironically, the only creatures unhappy with the fusion of man and nature, are the birds.

The great windows mirror the surrounding trees. The poor birds are fooled by the reflections and keep colliding with the glass. Putting up silhouettes of hawks and plastic owls is not a practical proposition. Sitting in the outdoor terrace cafe, I was intrigued to hear strange bird sounds. Alexander explained that they came from hidden microphones placed at strategic locations around the site. They warned the birds to keep clear of the building. Normally, the raucous distress calls of starlings and thrushes are used, but here the songs of alien species seem to feature. Surely such recitals are ineffective, I suggested, but Alexander claims that they work.

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