The Power of Past Greatness: Urban Renewal of Historic Centers in European Dictatorships, edited by Harald Bodenschatz and Max Welch Guerra (DOM Publishers: 2022), 192 pages.
Urban regeneration, all too easy in democratic societies, is of course even easier in dictatorships, where there are simply no limits to whatever grand vision a ruler wishes to realize.
The Power of Size: Urban Renewal of Historic Centers in European Dictatorships, a collection of essays edited by Harald Bodenschatz and Max Welch Guerra, out this week, provides an excellent overview of precisely these endeavors in the little-noticed interwar period. Some of these cases have been the subject of thorough English-language studies, such as B. the von Borden Painter Mussolini’s Rome: Rebuilding the Eternal City, or several articles about Nazi Berlin and Soviet Moscow. But others haven’t, and putting them in a broader context is an instructive endeavor.
In the most intriguing cases, this isn’t just about demolishing things for new buildings, but demolishing things to reveal old buildings. As the introduction states: “However, the redevelopment of historic centers did not always mean the complete obliteration of old towns. In many cases, the goal was the preservation and often also the cult presentation of historical evidence of past greatness.”
It’s a form of preservation, but one that requires all manner of destruction, with states determining “which historical strata were considered worthy of preservation and which were not.”
Rome is one of the most intriguing examples, a city that suffered enormous damage during Mussolini’s reign, yet not much was built. Bodenschatz writes: “Rome was an inexhaustible reservoir of past greatness for the fascist dictatorship, spur and model for the future capital of the fascist empire.” The problem is that past greatness, mainly Roman, occasionally papal, was sunk beneath a largely medieval cityscape , which the regime regarded as irrelevant to embarrassing.
Programs to liberate Roman ruins leveled entire neighborhoods, including Capitoline Hill, the Forum of Augustus, and Trajan’s Markets. When it comes to ruins, it’s easy to forget today that the earlier impulse was not to leave them standing, but often simply to build upon them, often incorporating bits of old structures into new ones. Neighborhoods hundreds of years old were cleared to reveal ruins thousands of years old. If today many urban conflicts are fought between older residents and younger newcomers, these were conflicts between current residents and those long dead, in which the latter won. “Archaeology has claimed that it has become urban development and that urban development has become excavation; the archaeologists became inadequate town planners and the town planners became inadequate archaeologists.”
It wasn’t all just Howard Carter in Black Fez work. Another fascist imperative was making room for the car and creating grand avenues to connect Rome’s monuments. The iconic view of St. Peter’s from the Tiber along Via della Conciliazione is one such project that has removed 729 apartments and 4,992 residents, a third of the neighborhood’s residents.
The postcard views of the Via dei Fori Imperiali (then Via dell’Impero) and numerous others around the city were the work of Il Duce, and Rome makes no effort to remind visitors of that fact. These required the bulldozer. The construction of this road required the demolition of 608 houses and the relocation of nearly 2000 residents. Road construction requires tragi-comic sequences.
The elaborately excavated Caesar forums also had to largely disappear again; 76,000 sqm of a total of more than 80,000 sqm. been excavated, of which 64,000 square meters. were reburied for the construction of the boulevard. 97 percent of Trajan’s forum disappeared underground again, 54 percent of Augustus’ forum, 60 percent of Caesar’s forum and 100 percent of Vespasian’s forum.
Castel Sant’Angelo has been pruned from centuries of growth to reveal a more pristine historical example. The pattern was “[v]very inconsiderate and not exactly careful.”
The Soviets were ashamed of Moscow, where in 1931 86 percent of downtown buildings were two to three stories high. Lazar Kaganovich, Stalin’s henchman with the Holodomor and the Great Purge on his credit list, also oversaw much of the obliteration of central Moscow, writes: “Walking the alleys and back streets of Moscow gives you the impression that you are being run by a drunk Man were laid out.” The Palace of the Soviets was the most dramatic attempt to change the course of the city, and although undeveloped, the land was cleared. The Cathedral of Christ the Savior and much of the city center were leveled for the new Soviet cathedral. Some buildings have been moved. The elimination of the poor was imperative here, as in any bourgeois state.
Some cities have been relatively spared by states’ determination to bypass them, as in Berlin, where new construction efforts have focused on sites nearby rather than in the historic center. “Disgrace” was a catchphrase. A 1932 report quoted “bugs, dampness, the smell of rot, decay, worn, dark stairwells, crumbling plaster, so terrifying.” Luckily, the megalomaniacal plans of German architect and Nazi minister Albert Speer did not come to fruition realized (although something was destroyed), but fragments remain: the Federal Ministry of Finance on Wilhelmstrasse and the Senate Department for Urban Development and the Environment on Württembergische Strasse.
Portugal offers a slightly more comical case where clearing the castle was one of Salazar’s top priorities. The ramparts and grounds of St. George’s Castle in Lisbon have been sheared from the buildings that have sprung up on them over the centuries. Other castles throughout Portugal were similarly trimmed by later settlements. The Estado Novo wasn’t particularly interested in new construction, but Lisbon’s Mouraria, a lower-town neighborhood that survived the 1755 Lisbon earthquake, underwent several demolitions amid a credo of modernization and slum clearance.
Madrid saw a series of building projects around the Plaza de Espana, the Puerta del Sol and the Plaza de Oriente that have left a clear mark today, if the historic center remained largely intact, due in good part to the Franco regime’s tight budgets can be traced back to earlier decades. Urban interventions were less frequent but took place elsewhere, such as efforts to create a new city center around Zaragoza Cathedral. The Alcazar of Toledo was also a focus of the scenographic cull.
The Gothic Quarter of Barcelona was a historic construction that actually used fragments found during street excavations. There was another neo-Gothic neighborhood in Bologna. A number of rebuilding efforts have been devoted to smaller and tourism-oriented towns across Europe, such as in Evora and Obidos in Portugal and Santillana del Mar in Spain.
In contrast to most urban renewals, the conclusion says, “in dictatorships, the memory of an allegedly heroic and glorious national history was cultivated much more than elsewhere.” poorer residents and the erection of the standard structures of the “modern” city – civic and office buildings, department stores and theatres, hotels and apartment buildings – brought with them the elite, whether in Madrid or Moscow, and of course new streets.
It all makes for a fascinating read that reveals numerous similarities and differences. Many of these projects were hardly limited to dictatorships, some picked up on earlier plans from democratic eras. The character of fascist and communist plans was often not all that different, but the authoritarian tendency (at least at that time) has some peculiarities.
The ending of the volume appears to be a perfectly measured one; You don’t stand by the accusation that your photos of the Colosseum are a fascist tribute, but the origins of this scenography are good to know. “The question comes up again and again and is particularly poignant today: How do we deal appropriately with the structural evidence of the dictatorships in our historical centers? Preserve it, reflect it, seize the opportunity and reinterpret it!”
Antony Palette lives in Brooklyn. This New Urbanism series is supported by the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation. Follow new urbs on Twitter for a feed dedicated to TAC’s coverage of cities, urbanism and places.