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Preserving History Under Dictators

A study of urban renewal in Europe suggests "history was cultivated in dictatorships to a much greater extent than elsewhere."

The Power of Past Greatness: Urban Renewal of Historic Centers in European Dictatorshipsedited by Harald Bodenschatz and Max Welch Guerra (DOM Publishers: 2022), 192 pages.

Urban redevelopment, all too easy in democratic societies, is obviously even simpler in dictatorships, where there simply aren’t any curbs to whatever grand vision a ruler wishes to see realized.

The Power of Greatness: Urban Renewal of Historic Centers in European Dictatorships, an essay collection edited by Harald Bodenschatz and Max Welch Guerra out this week, is an excellent overview of exactly these undertakings in the underexamined interwar period. Some of these cases have been the subject of thorough English language study, such as Borden Painter’s Mussolini’s Rome: Rebuilding the Eternal City, or multiple items on Nazi Berlin and Soviet Moscow. But others have not, and placing them in broader context is an insightful undertaking.

The most intriguing cases here aren’t just about tearing things down for new buildings, but tearing things down to expose old buildings. As the introduction explains, “The redevelopment of historic centers did not always mean the complete obliteration of the old towns, however. The aim in many cases was preservation and often the cultic presentation of historical testimonials to past greatness.”

It’s a sort of preservation, but one requiring all sorts of destruction, with states determining “which historical layers were regarded of as worthy of preservation and which were not.”

Rome is one of the most fascinating examples, a city that underwent tremendous amounts of destruction during Mussolini’s rule, and yet not all that much building. Bodenschatz writes, “For the Fascist dictatorship Rome was an inexhaustible reservoir of past greatness, an incentive and model for the future capitol of the fascist Empire.” The problem is the past greatness, mainly Roman, occasionally Papal, was submerged beneath a largely medieval cityscape that the regime regarded as anywhere from inconsequential to embarrassing.

Programs to free Roman ruins leveled whole neighborhoods, including the Capitoline Hill, the Forum of Augustus, and Trajan’s Markets. It’s easy to forget today, in any case of ruins, that the past impulse was not to leave them alone but often to simply build onto them, often incorporating portions of ancient structures into new ones. Neighborhoods that were hundreds of years old were cleared to expose ruins that were thousands of years old. If many urban planning battles today are between older residents and younger newcomers, these were arguments between current residents and the long-dead, in which the latter won. “Archaeology claimed for itself that it had become urban development, and that urban development had become excavation; the archaeologists became inadequate urban planners and the urban planners became inadequate archaeologists.”

This wasn’t all just Howard Carter-in-black-Fez work. Another fascist imperative was room for the automobile, and the creation of grand avenues to link Rome’s monument. The iconic view of St. Peter’s from the Tiber along the Via della Conciliazione is one such project, which removed 729 homes and 4,992 residents, one third of those in the quarter.

The postcard vistas of the Via dei Fori Imperiali (Via dell’Impero then) and numerous others around the city were the work of Il Duce, and Rome is not exactly eager to remind visitors of that fact. These required the bulldozer. Construction of that road required the destruction of 608 homes and the removal of nearly 2000 residents. There are tragicomic sequences required for road-building.

The Caesar Forums, which had been excavated at great expense, were also largely forced to disappear again; 76,000 sq. m. of a total of more than 80,000 sq. m. had been excavated, of which 64,000 sq. m. were buried again for the construction of the boulevard. Ninety-seven percent of the Trajan Forum disappeared under the earth again, 54 percent of the Augustus Forum, 60 percent of the Caesar Forum and 100 percent of the Vespasian Forum.

The Castel Sant’Angelo was pruned of hundreds of years of growth to expose a more pristine historical example. The pattern was “[v]ery ruthless and not exactly careful.”

The Soviets were ashamed of Moscow, where 86 percent of the buildings in the city center were two to three stories high in 1931. Lazar Kaganovich, Stalin henchman with the Holodomor and Great Purge on his credits list, also oversaw much of the obliteration of central Moscow, writing, “When you walk through the alleys and byways of Moscow you get the impression that they were laid out by a drunken man.” The Palace of the Soviets was the most dramatic effort to alter the course of the city, and even though unbuilt the land was cleared. Christ the Savior Cathedral and much of the center of the city was leveled for the new Soviet one. A few buildings were moved. Removing the poor was an imperative here, just as it was for any Bourgeois state.

Some cities were relatively spared by the determination of states to sidestep them as in Berlin where new building efforts focused on locations near and not in the historic center. “Entschandelung” (the removal of disfigurement) was a watchword. A 1932 report cited “vermin, damp, the smell of rot, decay, of well-worn, dark stairways, crumbling plasterwork, so that one is gripped by horror.” German architect and Nazi minister Albert Speer’s megalomaniac plans were thankfully not realized (if some of the destruction was) but fragments remain: the Federal Ministry of Finance on Wilhelmstrasse and Senate Department for Urban Development and the Environment on Württembergische Strasse.

Portugal offers a somewhat more comic case, where castle clearance was a foremost Salazar priority. The ramparts and outer works of St. George’s castle in Lisbon were sheared of the buildings that had sprung up on them for centuries. Other castles throughout Portugal were similarly trimmed of later settlement. The Estado Novo was not all that interested in new buildings, but Mouraria in Lisbon, a lower town neighborhood that had survived the Lisbon Earthquake of 1755, was subject to a number of demolitions under the credo of modernization and slum clearance.

Madrid saw a number of building efforts around the Plaza de Espana, Puerta del Sol, and Plaza de Oriente, which left an obvious stamp today, if the historic center remained largely intact, thanks in a fair part to the Franco regime being short on money in earlier decades. Urban interventions were rarer but did happen elsewhere, such as an effort to create a new city center around the Zaragoza cathedral. The Alcazar of Toledo was also a focus of scenographic culling.

The Barcelona Gothic Quarter was a historical fabrication, which actually used fragments found during road excavation. There was another neo-Gothic quarter in Bologna. A number of reconstruction efforts were dedicated 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 renewal, the conclusion notes, “the remembrance of an allegedly heroic and splendid national history was cultivated in dictatorships to a much greater extent than elsewhere.” This was again hardly consistent, and went hand in hand with demolition for other causes, which inevitably involved clearing out poorer residents and erecting the standard structures of the “modern” city—civic and office buildings, department stores and theaters, hotels and residences for the elites, whether in Madrid or Moscow, and of course new roads.

It all makes for a fascinating read, one which reveals multiple similarities and differences. Many of these projects were hardly unique to dictatorships, some taking up prior plans from democratic eras. The character of fascist and communist plans often weren’t so different, but the authoritarian tendency (at least in this era) does reveal some distinctive characteristics.

The volume’s conclusion seems a perfectly measured one; you’re not left with the charge that your photos of the Colosseum are a fascist tribute, but the origins of that scenography are good to know. “The question poses itself repeatedly, and today in an especially pointed way: What is an appropriate way of dealing with the structural testimonials of the dictatorships in our historic centers? Preserve them, reflect upon them, seize the opportunity, and re-interpret them!”

Anthony Paletta 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 place.