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In East Prussia, Old Towns Reinvented

Whether in Elbląg, Olsztyn or Kaliningrad, city centers throughout East Prussia are being reinvented with modern interpretations of historical architecture.

central Olsztyn

By 1980, even as post-modernism was just taking root, German architects had already declared it dead. German architectural historian Heinrich Klotz's "The Belling Stags of Architecture: Kitsch in Modern Building Art" and his English colleague Charles Jencks' "The Language of Postmodern Architecture" had sparked lively debate in the late seventies about the new post-modernism in buildings and urban planning, but the German architectural establishment was already bringing the conversation to a close.

Architectural postmodernism never gained a true foothold in Germany. After a brief run in the eighties, the movement's energy fizzled quickly. In neighboring countries to the East, however, it continues to thrive - much to the surprise of German architects, who encounter these styles only when they travel abroad on summer educational trips. In the East, however, the movement that was laid to rest by German architects in the 1980s has shaped the architectural landscapes of entire cities and regions.

In Poland, post-modernism flirts with the typology of old cities. This is most clearly visible in the 700-year old city of Elbląg. The former capital of West Prussia has been a part of East Prussia since 1920, and is home to 126,000 inhabitants. Well into the post-war period, the city played a special role in Polish reconstruction. "In Elbląg there was nothing: no conservation movement, no available funds, not even a decision to rebuild the old city," says the conservationist Maria Lubocka-Hoffmann.

She developed the reconstruction strategy for Elbląg in the spirit of postmodernism, an approach which has few parallels in Western Europe. In the 1980s, the headstrong Polish professor created a revolutionary proposal for the reconstruction of the old towns of Gdansk, Wroclaw, Warsaw and Poznan. She has become the patron of old city-postmodernism throughout Poland.

Rebuilding Elbląg would be a different challenge, however, because of the city's unique history. After the war, with most buildings reduced to rubble, the bricks of the city were taken away to help rebuild historic Warsaw. Until 1980, 98 percent of the old city of Elbląg remained destroyed, and the community had no clear center – and the newly established Polish population lacked any concrete attachment to its new home.

A reconstruction of the pre-war German city of Elbing was not an option. Professor Lubocka-Hoffmann undertook a three-year archaeological excavation to expose the roots of the old Germanic town. The project revealed a complete stone map of what was then a medieval German trading city. Architects used this 700 year-old grid, rather than images of the old facades, to design the new town center.

It was on this basis that the reconstruction project was launched. A team of archaeologists, historians, art historians, and architectural historians was gathered to create an archive of all old towns that existed between the mid-14th and mid-19th centuries. In addition, an archive was created of all former homeowners, including their professions and socio-economic statuses. According to Lubocka-Hoffmann, this research yielded the most comprehensive archive of old city centers in the whole of Northern Europe.

When the research was completed in 1983, she created a building program for up to 600 new town houses. First, a "stylistic canon" was established to guide the architects. The goal was to produce harmony between contemporary architecture and the historical environment, which consisted of only a few reconstructed monumental buildings such as the Gothic Church of St. Nicholas.

The project has risked being derailed several times, but in nearly 30 years of reconstruction, some 300 new buildings have been constructed in the vicinity of St. Nicholas, to widespread local and critical approval. Under Lubocka-Hoffmann's disciplined guidance, the "new town" has taken on a very harmonious physiognomy.

All of the new buildings have been built on the historic ground plan, many of them on the old foundations. Street names and even the house numbers used in previous centuries have been brought back. Elbląg's newly invented "old town," developed under the influence of postmodernism, puts the historical and the poetic back in town planning.

In this respect, Elbląg is not unique. From Szczecin to Olsztyn, new neighborhoods are being developed through an imaginative reinterpretation of historical architecture. Even in the Russian city of Kaliningrad, there are plans to revitalize neighborhoods using old styles. The "new old town" is a neo-bourgeois city that celebrates individualism and the public space. This stylistic pluralism may be seen as eclectic, but as such, serves all the more in the protection of individual sovereignty that characterizes the post-modern eclecticism of civil society.

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