Paul Hyett , 21 August 2019
Perceptions of place are about history and events
Le Mans, the first stopover on a tour of some 12 European countries during a welcome summer break, well illustrates just how dominant a single – or repeating – event can contribute to our perception of a city.
Venue for the 24-hour motor race that has run from 1923, the city is associated with heroic struggles of Bentleys against Alfa Romeos, Ferraris and Audis against Jaguars and Aston Martins and, latterly, the dominant Porsches against the refreshed Bentleys and newly arrived Toyotas.
Not many people realise that the city is also home to one of Europe’s most structurally ambitious cathedrals, its beautiful stained-glass fenestration adorning the tallest of naves, and its bifurcating flying buttresses propping the most recent expansion to its east side.
We next visited Vichy, originally famous as a spa town where the thermal baths have been popular since Roman times. But this name is now mainly associated with the brief period during which General Petain’s government descended on the city and operated from the its Concert Hall. It was from the main auditorium that members of the Vichy Parliament voted to end the Third Republic and replace the nation’s motto of ‘Liberty, Equality and Fraternity’ with ‘Work, Family and Fatherland’. Shameful stuff, resulting in a much tarnished reputation and an unwelcome association of the Vichy name with betrayal.
Onwards over the French, Swiss and Italian Alps, our journey took us to Verona, surely now best known in the popular imagination for the holding of the 1994 Three Tenors Concert in its wonderful amphitheatre. Where else can you sit to watch Aida in seats that have been continuously used for some 2000 years, and from which audiences once cheered as noble gladiators and the hapless Bestiarii fought in lethal combat with each other and, during extravagantly staged Venationes, with a range of dangerous animals captured and brought from afar.
Today’s audiences are less tolerant of variable weather and promoters don’t like the risks associated with staging major events which may be ‘rained off’ so, happily, our friends at Schlaich Bergermann have recently won a competition to install a beautiful opening fanned roof over that fantastic space.
On again we travelled, via the stunning Timmelsjoch Pass over the Austrian Alps, to three places that will forever surely be associated with, respectively, the evil spoils, the ultimate cruelty and the dreadful punishment of war.
First to Obersalzberg above the town of Berchtesgaden, where Martin Bormann oversaw the building of Hitler’s Berghof mountain home, as well as the construction of a series of residences for other top-ranking Nazis and all the necessary infra-structure and accommodation for their SS guards.
Most of the buildings were either destroyed at the end of World War II, or demolished shortly after, albeit Albert Speer’s house and design studio still stand on a lower part of the hill, as does the Eagle’s Nest – the extraordinary folly built on top of Kehlstein Mountain – which is now used as a restaurant. That single structure, together with its 6.5 kilometre access road, was built at a cost in today’s prices of 180 million Euros. It was only visited by Hitler on 14 occasions.
Seven hours down the road, in occupied Poland, Rudolf Hoess was applying meticulous care in the planning, construction and operation of the largest concentration and extermination camp of all time: Auschwitz-Birkenau, which provided a continuous labour pool of some 25,000 people for the nearby Faben chemical works, together with extermination chambers in which more than a million were murdered. The scale of the crimes committed in that place is beyond comprehension. To visit today is a chilling reminder of the depths of evil to which humankind can stoop.
Finally, we made our way some 300 miles west back into Germany to Dresden, another name whose overwhelming association is with a single event: the relentless allied bombing that took place over three days in February 1945 close to the end of the war. Forever a subject of controversy in terms of the extent of damage and death caused in relation to the resultant military gain, one glimpses today only a fragment of that city’s former glory.
Dresden’s architecture, largely baroque, was of seemingly unparalleled beauty and its destruction – it was literally flattened and the damage has oft been compared to that of Hiroshima – was beyond repair.
Nevertheless brave efforts have been made, most notably during the Soviet era with the reconstruction of the Concert Hall and, since re-unification, the meticulous reconstruction of the Frauenkirche. Where else can you see a Baroque cathedral in all its glory that is only 20 years old? But as with Cologne, the last of our calls, where the cathedral was mercifully spared destruction, Dresden’s richness and architectural vitality cannot easily be recovered.
Meticulous reconstruction, however well carried out, is always an artificial representation of a past glory. It inevitably lacks a certain conviction. And the ‘grain’ of the city – all those other buildings quickly cobbled together in the desperate post- war reconstruction that make up the lesser celebrated fabric – inevitably lack the rich detailing and craft of their predecessors. Later post-modern insertions do little to help retain any underlying architectural integrity.
The medieval street patterns, if retained, offer some richness, but the boldness of a convincing and ambitious architecture that is ‘of its time’ is missing. Those original cathedrals were contemporary engineering triumphs. That said, it is pleasing to report that examples of bold new architecture are emerging with increasing frequency to replace the immediate post-war construction that was so often unworthy of the heritage of many German cities.
That is why, controversial as it may be, I applaud Verona’s intention to upgrade the amphitheatre with a retractable roof. We have to move on and buildings must earn their keep. Carlo Scarpa knew that better than most, and he also knew how to achieve it. Castelvecchio remains a triumph.