Frauenkirche—Church of Our Lady

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The phrase Viewed in the context of the times is often used to excuse prior behavior. It’s like saying you had to be there, or even walk a mile in someone else’s shoes. This phrase will play an important part in the story of a church in Dresden, Germany that was destroyed during World War II.

In 1996, I had the opportunity to attend my first Intergeo trade fair in Dresden, Germany. Intergeo has arguably become the most important global geospatial show. Last year its 17,000 attendees came from more than 90 countries, and the latest innovations from 549 companies from 30 different countries were on display. Shortly before my departure for Dresden, a Leica Reporter arrived and its cover story was an article about the reconstruction of a church in Dresden that had been destroyed during the Allied bombing in February, 1945.

I quickly made arrangements to meet with the surveyors who were working on the project. When Intergeo was in Berlin in 2000, we drove to Dresden to check on the progress, and when Intergeo was held again in Berlin in 2014, we visited the completed restoration.

Designed by a carpenter named George Bähr, the 300-foot-tall church was built between 1726 and 1743. Bähr did not live to see the completion of his project. On more than one occasion, Johann Sebastian Bach played the original massive pipe organ. In hindsight, critics have questioned the qualifications of a carpenter to design such a structure, but viewed in the context of the times, and because the profession of architect had not yet been invented, it was quite common for a skilled journeyman to rise to the position of designer.

Builders and stonemasons had learned their lessons quite well from the construction of massive cathedrals throughout Europe: after a few collapses, they intuitively understood the need for sturdier support. Accordingly, Bähr included massive interior columns in the church to lessen the load on the exterior walls. Some say he made a critical error, however, in the design of the base of the 9,000-ton "Stone Bell" dome.

Fast forward two centuries to World War II and the bombing of Dresden. The bombings represented a change in the Allied approach, which for the first time included incendiary bombs that were designed to create firestorms. The British–who led the Allied bombing raid–sought retaliation and revenge after the terror bombing of London by the Germans. Conversely, others believed that Dresden had little military importance, and therefore shouldn’t have been bombed. Viewed in the context of the times, the Allies were trying to convince the Germans to surrender. The same logic applied to the atomic bombing of Japan. History, some of it perhaps revisionist, presents ample evidence for both viewpoints.

The bombs had the desired effect. During three waves of attacks, more than 1,300 bombers dropped 3,300 tons of bombs, many of them incendiaries. The result was 40 square miles of destruction. The incendiaries created a firestorm that resulted in temperatures as high as 1,800 degrees, and sucked the oxygen from the air. Many of the victims suffocated before being incinerated. Survivors described the sound as a mighty tornado. Many Americans know of the bombing from Kurt Vonnegut’s book, Slaughterhouse-Five.

Although the church was not directly hit, it was surrounded by the burning city, and because of the way the building’s weight was distributed, two days later it collapsed. Some say that Bähr’s dome design played a part in the collapse. Prior to the bombing, restoration work in the 19th and 20th centuries had been performed on the building and even Bähr had called for the installation of giant three to six meter steel links in an attempt to "corral" the base of the dome during the original construction.

According to the official Frauenkirche reconstruction website, a tension ring of steel was integrated with special anchors at the base of the inner dome and the number of ties (also steel rings) which help keep the dome together was increased. The galleries are no longer borne by timber beams but steel girders instead (as had already been installed during the restoration in the 1930s). Furthermore, the connection between the gallery girders and the masonry was improved. This PDF is in German, but you can see from the diagrams and photos the complex solution structural engineers came up with to rectify Bähr’s so-called design flaw:

From 1945 to the beginning of reconstruction in 1993, the church ruins stood as a memorial to the bombing and were used annually as a propaganda tool by the Communists. With the fall of East Germany and the subsequent reunification of East and West Germany, a drive was mounted to rebuild the church. The reconstruction cost more than $200 million, and was completed in 2005, in time for Dresden’s 800th anniversary in 2006.

When I first wrote about the church in 1996, the surveyors had, in addition to performing topographic surveys, used a state-of-theart digital camera–1524×1012 pixels–and captured closerange photogrammetry of each of the stones removed from the ruins as they were numbered and cataloged. The plan was to use IBM’s CATIA software to create a model and use the model to place the stones in their original positions during reconstruction. As it turned out, this was not feasible and the stonemasons placed most of the existing rectangular stones randomly. Blackened from age and the fire, their presence in contrast to the newer stones is a moving, visual testament to the convergence of history.
Marc Cheves is editor of the magazine.

A 5.374Mb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE