The Reconstruction of the Frauenkirche

Dresden is a beautiful Baroque city located in the heart of former East Germany. It has been the capital of Saxony since the rule of King Augustus the Strong, when the city was at its pinacle. Architecturally, Dresden is a city of the Baroque style produced by builders under the great aspiration of King Augustus I, the famous king of Poland. This style, known today as the Dresdener Baroque, is named after the city and its unique balance of sculpture, art and architecture. Dresden was an elegant city in its architecture and planning before the Second World War. Though small in scale compared to other cities developed at the same time, Dresden is a good blend of density with ambience and quality. Today, the local government driven by the love of its citizens for their city, has led to the redevelopment of the city and an effort to recreate Dresden and its magnificent beauty.

Architects often debate the reconstruction (or restoration) of historical monuments due to the high cost. There are many diverse opinions on this topic. Furthermore, there is a discussion about whether to reconstruct an exact replication of the original monument or to build a classical building relating more to the functional demands of today’s time.

Dome, The Frauenkirche, Dresden, Germany. Photo courtesy Prof. Wolfram Jaeger.

The Frauenkirche or The Church of Our Lady was constructed between 1726 and 1743. In 1722 George Baehr, municipal building contractor and architect of the city, started on plans for a new building to replace the small Gothic church, the oldest parish church in the city. The new Protestant church kept the orginal name “Frauenkirche”.

In 1726, the actual planning of the Frauenkirche began. The church was to provide a clear and dominating centerpiece for the extensively planned historical city. Baehr envisioned the church with a cubical base rising high above the houses surrounding it. The massive base was largely kept without ornamentation, forming an elegant and elaborate dome heightened by a slim obelisk, creating a slender but grand view of the church. The obelisk was replaced by a pavilion-like lantern after George Baehr’s death.

The unusual shape of the dome has always aroused fascination and admiration; it has neither predecessors nor successors. It is a genuine invention of the architect George Baehr. It was his intention to place the sandstone structure into the city like a giant sculpture. The homogeneity of the masonry work – grayish –yellow Elbe river sandstone that soon acquired a dark patina – lent the body of the building an impression of massivity and weight, adding all the more emphasis to the dynamic, soaring cupola.

Along with the domes of the Florence cathedral and St. Peter’s in Rome, this is one of the rare domes built completely in stone. Most of the best known dome constructions are either done in stone or iron. Since dome construction was a new engineering feat at this time, designers from the surrounding areas went to Rome to study St. Peter’s construction. Architecturally, the design of the dome gave the architects and builders new scope for designing internal spaces of great height with skylights to help give a new dimension to the interior of the building.

There were many doubts regarding the stability of this 12,200 ton heavy stone dome. However, even when the Prussian King bombarded Dresden in 1760, the structure survived and remained stable. The understanding of structures was limited at that time, and hence the dome was designed based on pyramidal transfer of forces. Today, this has been recalculated with the help of computers to rebuild a much more stable dome for the Frauenkirche.

Both shells of the dome had been penetrated by eight openings for windows. These openings, necessary for natural light to enter the church, detrimentally influence the otherwise perfect load transfer of the dome. George Baehr had intuitively recognized the load transfer problem and had planned to mount ring beams inside the stone base of the dome.

The church has a very simple but beautiful plan on the inside. This Protestant church was designed for preaching sermons with a central seating area oriented towards the altar. The inner cupola was lit by large windows which brought filtered light into the interior. The seating area was surrounded by tall arcades supported by slender piers on all sides. The inner cupola rested on these wide arcades. Corner staircases lead to seating areas in wooden balconies above.

The restrained décor of the interior culminates in the truly Baroque splendor of the altar and organ. A special atmosphere was created by the music from the organ, designed with great care by Gottfried Silbermann. In December 1736, Johann Sebastian Bach played for the first time on the church’s organ and filled the listeners with joy and admiration. Documentation in the form of audio tapes can still be found with original pieces of music from this organ. This helped a lot in the reconstruction process of the organ and the church bells executed by a special team of experts.

Ruins of the church following World War II

On February 13th 1945, 200 hundred years after the church was constructed, Dresden was bombed and completely destroyed, and along with it the magnificent Frauenkirche. The whole city became a grave of rubble and dirt. Although the church was not bombed, it succumbed to the city-wide fires that soon spread to the church causing the iron ring built to hold the dome to melt, which led to the dome to collapsing and the church subsequently collapsing under its own weight.

Soon after the war, the city of Dresden along with the whole of East Germany came under communist rule. Serious attempts were made in the following year to clear the rubble of the church, but were then stopped due to a lack of funding and resources. The preservation committee in Dresden placed the site under historic protection in 1966. The reconstruction of monuments all over Dresden began, but the Frauenkirche remained in its rubble state for 48 more years.

Finally, after the Berlin wall came down in 1989, the citizens of Dresden started intense discussions on the reconstruction of the Frauenkirche. Around 1990, the first plans for redeveloping the church started to appear under the name “Call for Dresden”. In 1993, work to clear the rubble began. The citizens of Dresden took the initiative and with the support of private funds started a 13 year long reconstruction and restoration process.

The rubble clearing process was done by the University of Dresden, Department of Structural Design, under the guidance of Prof. Wolfram Jaeger. The team worked extensively recording each and every detail of stone or material found on site. The preliminary research included analyzing the existing data. Plans recovered from archives documenting the building before it collapsed were of great benefit. The measured plans done by Kiesling from 1949 – 1959 were particularly useful in forming a good base of documentation for the reconstruction phases. The initial work also included site studies and surveys where the rubble site was photographically documented meter by meter. A 3D graphic model was made to analyze the movement of the collapse of the stones and their present place in the rubble. This helped in identifying the tentative locations of various stones. The archaeological stocktaking method was elaborate and the latest technology was also used for assistance. The rubble clearance study and documentation was carried out precisely with a digital photogrammetric evaluation system called Phidias MS.

Once the rubble was cleared, active interest came in from all sides. Artists, Architects, Engineers, Historians, Scientific Researchers, Socialists, and Conservationists all started taking an active part in the discussion and decision making process for the reconstruction of the Frauenkirche. Efforts and proposals were brought in by professionals world wide.

In February 2001, the Foundation Board for the Frauenkirche decided to install a new organ which would reflect the original technical and sound structure of the Silbermann organ of the Frauenkirche and embed it in an overall concept characterized by the personal style of the organ builder. The five bells hanging in the church were reconstructed giving special consideration to the harmonic tone of each bell, taking into close consideration the sound the bells made before 1945, as documented in audio tapes.

The masonry of the structure was required to protect from the elements and prevent moisture from penetrating the inside of the building during a long, low-maintenance life time. The choice of stone and mortars was a complex and extensive process, which could only be completed with the aid of specialists. Various experiments were carried out by the Institute of Geotechnik and the Department of Structural Design at the Technical University Dresden.

One of the main features of the reconstruction was the re-designing of the dome. Based on detailed calculations, there was a need to reinforce the stone dome with post-tension anchors for the dome to support itself and survive any kind of sudden change in forces. The post-tensioning technique had to be done in such a manner as to ensure that the two anchor ends be clamped into position, post-tensioned and kept from slipping out of place. The tension applied by each of these members can be monitored with computer software and administered time and again. This is a very new method and a step forward for technology in the process of reconstruction.

Interior following the reconstruction. Photo: Smithsonian Magazine.

In the process of the reconstruction of the Frauenkirche, many architects, engineers and artists gathered a lifetime of experience. The scale of the project was so vast that it was initially thought to be an impossible task. With the help of the citizens of Dresden, donors throughout the world and technical experts, the dream of a reconstructed Frauenkirche was realized on October 31st 2005 with the reopening of the Frauenkirche to the public.

Dresden is a city which tries to absorb the variety of flavors from the world influencing it. Still maintaining its Baroque style but respecting change, the Frauenkirche, though a reconstruction, combines the best technology of today with the beauty of the past, thus giving us the pleasure of enjoying a historical structure and the advantages of both eras.

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