Frankfurt – a new old town

It’s a fun place to visit, it’s fantastic and magical. Those were some of the compliments for a big wooden tower in the southern part of Frankfurt, close to where we live. The iconic tower was named after the writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe since it was dedicated to the public in 1931 – shortly before the centenary of Goethe’s death. Unfortunately the tower burned down a few weeks ago and we had not visited it beforehand. The firemen had no choice but let it burn. The cause for the fire was probably arson.

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Goethe Tower – it burned down in October 2017

And now the good news: The Goethe Tower will be rebuilt and it will be made out of wood again. I could not believe this when I heard this recently. Why on earth would somebody want to rebuild a wooden tower exactly the way it was and make it again so easily flammable? But that’s what according to a survey 78 percent of the people in Frankfurt want. And that’s what the politicians in Frankfurt approve of as well.

It follows a familiar pattern: People living in Frankfurt obviously like replicas of historic buildings, they do not want the city to be too modern. Big parts of the old town which most Frankfurt residents only know from black and white photographs or from a model of the old town in the city’s Historic Museum has been partially rebuilt in the last few years. Most of the houses are more or less completed.

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Frankfurt once had one of Germany’s most beautiful Gothic centres. But large parts were destroyed in Allied bombing raids in World War II. In the 70ies an ugly concrete office building was erected where you could once find a lot of flair.

When this building needed a major overhaul more than ten years ago, many people in Frankfurt saw the opportunity to tear it down and replace it with something that would restore some of the original character of the old city centre.

The old flair is back by now– as well as historic narrow streets and alleyways. 35 houses were constructed with a lot of attention to detail, almost half of them are replicas of old buildings. The project was implemented as an attempt to appease residents who did not want a city centre which looked too soulless and functional.

There were critics of course, people saying the replicas looks like dog kennels or provincial savings banks, saying they are absurd and peculiar. Like leftovers from a Christmas market, like Disneyland. I would not go this far but I do feel strange when walking past those replicas.

Historic buildings trigger a certain nostalgia, they remind you of a different era and make you feel what you see is true, authentic and quite valuable because it survived a long time. Do buildings which are exact copies of historic buildings deserve the same feelings?

The longer I think about it the more I tend to say: No, they don’t. And no, recreating as many historic buildings as Frankfurt has done goes a bit too far. I can understand when certain landmark buildings such as the Frauenkirche in Dresden are being rebuild. I would not condemn this as much as a copy of a Vincent van Gogh masterpiece. But reconstructing an entire quarter with dozen of houses, with squares and alleyways – that’s too much. I think it diminishes the actual historic buildings which survived.

When talking about the Goethe Tower which is supposed to be rebuilt like the original one I would like to add another aspect: Why does the city not erect an observatory tower with a few modern elements to make it less easily destroyable? Because that’s what architecture and development is about. It’s not about being lazy and opportunistic and doing things they way they were done ages ago. It’s rather a reflection of today’s world, the current technology and the current culture.

One Reply to “Frankfurt – a new old town”

  1. While a lot can be said about the current wave of building on-site copies of former structures, I think using the same kind of material again makes sense. Wooden designs require little maintenance, are long lasting and can deal well with dynamic loads (wind, visitors). They aren’t inherently worse than metal ones. Destroying them isn’t easy, and with the amount of premeditation required to cause serious damage to it, one could cause serious damage to a metal construction as well. But above all, a wooden tower can be more user friendly: metal stairs and floors need to be done as gratings, making them essentially transparent – you can see through the entire staircase right down to ground level, making climbing it challening for many. In contrast, wooden stairs and floors can be made from solid planks, giving the impression of a closed space when climbing and descending.

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