Eugene Weekly : Architecture : 2.14.08

No Return to Form
Re: memory in Dresden
BY Suzi Steffen

Barely more than 63 years ago, the world of Germany’s most beautiful city changed forever. But the questions about permanence, human monuments and the past remain as Dresden undergoes more reconstruction today.

That was the message of Kenneth Calhoon, a UO professor who delivered the sixth lecture in the UO Department of Architecture’s Savage lecture series Tuesday, Feb. 12. Before his talk, German and English floated through the air in 177 Lawrence, where more than 100 students, architecture professionals and community members filled the auditorium.

Calhoon (who has served as the chair of the German, Comp Lit and Creative Writing departments at the UO) brought the architecture series full circle in a return to Germany after WWII. The first lecture this term, a presentation on the history of Berlin’s reconstruction, focused on the ideological splits between the West Berlin and East Berlin rebuilding as the U.S. and U.S.S.R. hardened positions in the Cold War. Dresden, where tens of thousands died in three days of incendiary hell after British and American pilots began dropping bombs Feb. 13 and 14, 1945, followed a different path.

As series organizer and UO architecture professor Howard Davis explained, Dresden lies about as far from Berlin as Eugene from Portland, and Calhoon said that in contemporary times, the “black hole” of Berlin’s arts scene pulls artistic energy to the capital city instead of the smaller city that was once called “Elbflorenz,” or Florence on the Elbe River, for its Baroque beauty. Dresden lay inside East Germany and so was part of the Soviet-influenced socialist block architecture which also marked East Berlin, but the restoration of the Baroque buildings began more heavily once Germany reunified in 1991.

Calhoon focused on the symbolic meanings of the restoration of Dresden after German reunification, but he also spent time making sure the audience understood that restoration isn’t a stable, accurate way of describing what happens in post-disaster rebuilding. From the very first slide, a photo which Calhoon said “confronts us with the terrible beauty of Dresden in the wake of its destruction,” the lecturer discussed the impermanence of buildings and the ways photography and other arts have been used to create memories.
Indeed, he mixed poetry, music, theory and a variety of art historical references into a discussion that clearly puzzled some in the audience. Though Calhoon began the lecture saying, “I’m not an architect,” one architecture student greeted friends after the lecture with an incredulous, “You liked that? I didn’t even understand it!”

But an early reference to Percy Bysshe Shelley’s famous poem “Ozymandias” wasn’t simply a way for Calhoon to bring in his knowledge of the Romantic poet. Calhoon quoted a few lines but told the narrative, one in which a traveler comes across only the feet and head of a statue of an Egyptian pharaoh with the boastful inscription, “Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair.” At the end of the lecture, Calhoon showed a photo of a church in Dresden destroyed in the bombing, with a statue of Martin Luther also broken, only its feet and head left.

Calhoon also played portions of the Adagio in G Minor, a piece written by Remo Giazotto from a fragment of the Baroque composer Tomaso Albinoni’s composition found after the bombing of Dresden. The piece, which begins with a Baroque flourish, continues with a clearly later style, and Calhoon held it up as a kind of example of the way the fragments of the past can be incorporated into reconstructions without denying that there are “historical gaps” in the record.

On the other hand, he offered the reconstruction of Dresden’s Frauenkirche, or Church of the Lady, as an example of a certain kind of ahistoricizing rebuilding. Former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, Calhoon said, stood in front of the remnants of the old Frauenkirche and called for its restoration as a symbol of Germany’s reunified status — as a symbol “of cultural unity and healing the scars of WWII,” Calhoon said. But some Germans saw, and still see, the restoration of the building as a denial of German history, “part of the desire simply to make the experience go away, as much the experience of a divided Germany as of WWII.”

Calhoon offered some references to the Internet as well: Tour Dresden (, a blog, written in German but sporting many photos of the restoration attempts; and the Frauenkirche’s website (, which plays a true Baroque piece while panning over the rebuilt church’s exterior and interior.

As a counter to the slavish rebuilding of the Frauenkirche, he showed photos of the new Jewish synagogue. The old one, built in the 1840s, “didn’t have to wait for the firebombing to be destroyed,” he noted dryly, explaining that it met its end on Kristallnacht, the night in 1938 when Nazis coordinated attacks on Jewish businesses, houses and places of worship across the country. The new one, on a similar footprint, isn’t a rebuilding of the neo-Romanesque old synagogue; rather, it’s two cubes, one for the temple and one for the library and archives. “Some people felt they should reconstruct the temple as it was,” Calhoon said, “but others said this contradicted the notion that one cannot return to the past.”