Frankfurt Looks to the Past in Order to Build Anew

Walking down the cobbled streets of Frankfurt’s DomRömer Quarter, or “new old town,” feels like taking a stroll through the set of a medieval village or even the set of the wizardly world of Harry Potter‘s Hogsmeade. The difference here is that people actually live in the center of what is being described as a “Disneyland for tourists” by some—and a grand urban experiment in architecture by others. Calling for the construction of 35 buildings all in unison in the city’s historic center, the rebuilding of the historic quarter is a masterwork of urban planning. The project proposed the reconstruction—or “return to glory” as official literature puts it—of what was once Germany’s largest Gothic, timber-framed city center, which had been destroyed during an air raid in 1944. (Of the estimated 1,500 wooden buildings in the city, only 11 survived the bombing of the war.) Proposed in 2005, construction began in 2012, and the area was finally opened to the public just this past September. Since then, it has seen a steady stream of tourists from around Germany.

A narrow thoroughfare through Frankfurt’s reconstructed DomRömer Quarter, or “new old town,” highlights the diversity of the building styles of the project.

Photo: Paul Biasco

Stylistically, the project turns back time to the medieval period while providing modern living quarters for local residents and storefronts for local businesses. The project consists of 35 buildings, 15 of which are exact replicas reconstructed from original blueprints, while the remainder are new designs and construction. Some of those 20 were built to specs of the original shape and size with a modern façade or other tweak, while a few are of completely modern design. The footprint is identical to that of 14th-century Frankfurt. “Everything kind of looks like a movie studio right now, but give it some time,” says Hannes Pfügner, a German historian and guide in Frankfurt, while examining the bright, perfectly colored buildings that line each narrow street. “Come back in two, three, ten years.”

The Haus zur Goldenen Waage, or the “house of the golden scales,” was rebuilt as a replica of the 1618 original and is thought to be the most important building rebuilt during the project.

Photo: Paul Biasco

The most intricate and elaborate part of the project was the reconstruction of the Haus zur Goldenen Waage, or “house of the golden scales,” a replica of the home of a Dutch confectioner and spice trader who had settled in Frankfurt with his family. The replica looks as if it is dripping in gold.

The intricate façade of the replica of the Haus zur Goldenen Waage, or the “house of the golden scales,” which was originally built in 1618.

Photo: Paul Biasco

The original house was built for 1618 for Abraham von Hamel, the Dutchman, and was considered one of the finest half-timbered house in the city and a showcase of classic Renaissance style. The house was especially known for its roof gardens, called the Belvederche, or “Little Belvedere.” The Golden Scales was perhaps the finest of the half-timbered houses in the city, and was a famous tourist attraction for centuries.

A replica of the golden scales which hang off the corner of the Haus zur Goldenen Waage.

Photo: Paul Biasco

While it was hoped that the project would help draw contemporary tourists to the country’s fifth largest city, that was not the only goal. City planners also wanted to create a living city center for the citizens of Frankfurt. The €200 million (approximately $228.7 million) project was financed by a company owned and operated by the city, which maintains control over what types of businesses fill its storefronts, including a reconstructed chicken market, pharmacy, butcher’s shop, a tavern, and several cafes and boutiques. The city also implemented price controls on the sale of the 80 apartments located above street level in the 35 buildings. The sale of the apartments was via a public lottery, and the maximum price was set at €8,000 (approximately $9,000) per square meter for the apartments. Three hundred people entered the lottery, and the apartments sold out four years in advance of the grand housewarming.

A courtyard of multiple buildings reconstructed in the original style that now house local residents who purchased the apartments through a lottery four years ago.

Photo: Paul Biasco

Striking the right balance between a tourist destination and living city has been tricky, notes Pfügner. On a September afternoon a few weeks after the barriers were lifted, allowing the general public to get its first view, dozens of tourists stood in the middle of a courtyard, gawking upward into the homes of the new residents. One woman peered over a balcony at the group for a few seconds before returning inside.

A tour group visits a courtyard area in Frankfurt’s reconstructed DomRömer Quarter, where local residents live in newly finished homes. There have been clashes between tourists and residents of these homes, who have asked tour guides to keep their groups quiet.

Photo: Paul Biasco

On the brick walkway leading to a courtyard someone had written a polite request to the day’s tourists in chalk: Wir bitte um ruhe danke (“We ask for silence”). “A colleague of mine was giving a tour and a woman who lived there complained that he should shut up because a child was sleeping,” Pfügner says. “Well, that’s the situation. It’s difficult. You would think people who want to live here know what they are getting into.”

The city of Frankfurt brought in more than 200 specialists from all over the country to work on the project, as many of the buildings are constructed using skills in masonry and woodworking—and feature intricate details—that have largely been lost to time. “These works were given especially to craftsmen from all over Germany, the specialists,” Pfügner says.

At street level, the narrow red building in Frankfurt’s new old town is constructed of large stones, a material common in medieval times.

Photo: Paul Biasco

One of the biggest hurdles in constructing a new old center in the heart of a thriving city (whose founding dates back to the first century) was constructing in an archaic style while adhering to modern building codes. The tightly packed buildings of hundreds of years ago with narrow alleys and gangways goes against much of contemporary urban design, but planners finessed their way to reproducing those effects by treating the project as one building spread over nearly 80,000 square feet rather than 35 individual buildings. There is a communal parking garage that connects them all underneath the streets. “This new old town is a very hybrid building,” says Peter Cachola Schmal, longtime director of the Deutsches Architekturmuseum (DAM) in Frankfurt. “It was practically impossible to get it through the normal laws, which would prevent anyone from building that close together like medieval towns because of fires and light exposure in the apartments.”

Frankfurt isn’t the only German city that is rebuilding portions of a city center that was bombed out during World War II; instead, experts say this project and others in cities that include Dresden and Berlin may be examples of a turn toward a conservative style of architecture and yet at the same time bold urban design. Frankfurt’s example of rebuilding a dense city center with a focus on public spaces and livable streets has experts like Schmal rethinking what is possible in other parts of the city, and also the country at large. “We see qualities there we would love to have in new parts of town, and we also see that maybe ours laws and regulations are not helping us to create public spaces,” he says. “That is, of course, interesting to the whole architecture community.”

The reconstructed district features a number of public squares formed naturally by the density and proximity of the buildings. This density would not have been allowed under the city’s building code, but because the project was conceived as one building, the “buildings” appear to be built extremely close to each other.

Photo: Paul Biasco

Some of the biggest architecture firms in Germany are taking note of Frankfurt’s success and have begun bringing teams of 50-plus architects to tour and study the project, according to Schmal. During the first weeks the new old town was open, Michael Bergmann drove two hours to take a stroll around the brick-paved streets. “It is a very good idea,” Bergmann says. “In cities around Germany, you don’t see this [style of architecture] too much. Only in a city like Munich. The style after the war isn’t good.”

Frankfurt has been one of the only German cities that has allowed architects to build modern skyscrapers. In fact, of the top ten tallest buildings in Germany, all are in Frankfurt. This long-standing embrace of modern architecture stands in stark contrast to the seeming nostalgia of the revitalized quarter. Indeed, the return to conservative architecture here and in other German cities has been a tough pill to swallow for much of the architecture community, says Schmal, but that doesn’t mean the projects haven’t been successful. “The public, in general, is very happy,” he notes. “And most architects admit that from the spatial point of view it is a very successful project. So, the architectural profession has a challenge to explain why they have a problem with it. We have something like the architecture profession versus the general public.”

Because of such success, Schmal fears Germany will begin looking at the conservative architectural approach as an example of legitimacy for the rest of the country. He pointed to the rebuilding of the ornate façcde of the Stadtschloss, or Schloss, in Berlin, which was once the palace of the Kings of Prussia and German emperors. The mostly Baroque building, parts of which dated to the 15th century, stood in the center of Berlin on the Museum Island. It suffered severe damage during WWII and was dismantled by the East German socialist government in the 1950s.

A row of four newly constructed façades in the new old town showcase the district’s mixture of architectural styles.

Photo: Paul Biasco

The rebuilding of both the Berlin Schloss, which is set to be completed in 2019, and the Frankfurt’s DomRömer Quarter, have been argued against by those who claim that such reconstruction is just a way to paper over the darkest period of the country’s past. However, other German cities have completed similar projects, including the Dresden Frauenkirche in 2005 and the Munich Residenz palace in 2003. “I think all over the country there’s a tendency, because of the Schloss that’s being built in Berlin at the moment, to believe the reconstruction side is having a lot of successes,” Schmal says. “The call for contemporary, brave new architecture is more on the defensive side now.”

Schmal believes one of the biggest reasons for a return to conservative architecture is the current zeitgeist in Germany, and in the region as a whole. The country is moving away from experimental architecture. “People are saying we must brace ourselves. Things are good now, but we must brace ourselves for tougher times,” Schmal says. “All over Europe, the politics are getting into shaky territory. People are worried about the future. And this kind of architecture is a response to this, a kind of asking for security.”

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