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View of the Frankfurter Dom from across the Main River.

Re-densifying Frankfurt

In 1997, after my fourth grade year, I went with my family on a trip to Europe. We flew in and out of Frankfurt, and spent a couple of weeks visiting Germany, the Czech Republic, Austria, itty-bitty Liechtenstein, and Switzerland. Frankfurt did not make a big impression on me, as we didn’t spend much time there and the city does not have much character anyway. (I was most impressed by Berlin, the city abuilding, where we spent the better part of a week.) One thing I do remember from Frankfurt in 1997 is the historic city center next to the Main River. In particular, I remember visiting a cathedral made of red stone that stood in front of a plaza.

In 2015, on one of my trips out to India, Lufthansa gave me a nice long layover in Frankfurt, and I used some of the time to make an excursion from the airport to the city center by train. (For further observations from the same visit, please see my post “From fortress to Boulevard.”) The red-brick cathedral, the Frankfurter Dom, was there just as I remembered it from eighteen years earlier. But to my surprise, the plaza in front of the cathedral was gone!

In its place was a construction site. A sign at the site explained that the area was being built up to restore its pre-World War II urban density. The plaza had only existed since the war, when much of Frankfurt was destroyed by Allied bombs.

Glimpse of the Frankfurter Dom between newer buildings, as seen in 2015.

Glimpse of the Frankfurter Dom between newer buildings, as seen in 2015.

Tower of the Frankfurter Dom.

Tower of the Frankfurter Dom.

I suppose the redevelopment of the former plaza in front of the cathedral is done by now. Lately, I have been thinking about how this project makes use of previously wasted urban space, opened up by the world’s worst war. In my own country, the United States, our cities have have their own share of wasted space, created not by bombs but by overzealous mid-century urban planners working in the name of urban renewal. I wonder if it is time to redevelop some of the big empty plazas in this country as well.

View of the Frankfurter Dom from a bridge over the Main River.

View of the Frankfurter Dom from a bridge over the Main River.

View of Vienna from Stephansdom.

From fortress to boulevard

The most picturesque part of Vienna, a city known for its beauty, is Ringstrasse, the Ring Road that encircles the oldest part of the city. The broad, attractive road wraps around three sides of the historic city center, with the Danube River closing the loop to the north. Many of the city’s most important cultural and civic buildings line Ringstrasse, including the opera house, Rathaus (town hall), the Austrian parliament, and an assortment of museums and libraries.

Monuments on Ringstrasse in Vienna: 1) Staatsoper (1869); 2) Hofburg (1881-1913); 3) Maria-Theresien-Platz (1889); 4) Naturhistorisches Museum (1889); 5) Parlement (1883); 6) Rathaus (1883).

Monuments on Ringstrasse in Vienna: 1) Staatsoper (1869); 2) Hofburg (1881-1913); 3) Maria-Theresien-Platz (1889); 4) Naturhistorisches Museum (1889); 5) Parlement (1883); 6) Rathaus (1883).

Ringstrasse is a legacy of the Austrian Empire, when Vienna was the capital of a multi-ethnic, polyglot empire eight times the size of Austria today. Emperor Franz Josef, who reigned from 1848 to 1916, spearheaded the development and beautification of his capital city early in his reign. In 1857, he authorized the most dramatic change to the city: demolishing the old defensive works to make room for Ringstrasse and the buildings alongside it.

But what were these defensive works that made way for Ringstrasse? When I first learned about Ringstrasse on a wonderful but brief visit to Vienna eleven years ago, I had the impression that they were medieval walls, made of stone. This didn’t really make sense to me, though, because medieval walls, such as those that still stand in Rothenburg, do not take up much space—not nearly as much as Ringstrasse and the neighboring buildings. In fact, Vienna had been defended by early-modern fortifications. The city’s medieval walls had been torn down and rebuilt in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries to defend against the Ottoman Turks. A large open area in front of the defensive works, known as the glacis, was kept clear to offer a clear field of fire. The buildings of Ringstrasse were constructed on the land that had been kept open for the glacis.

Early-modern defensive works had a low profile and a large footprint. Consisting mostly of large earthen berms, the fortifications were designed to defend against the offensive weapon of the age: the smooth-bore cannon. The earthworks absorbed the impact of cannonballs, which could easily shatter stone defenses. These early-modern defenses were in vogue until the introduction of rifled-bore artillery, which made its debut in the American Civil War.

Kastellet, an early-modern star fort in Copenhagen.

Kastellet, an early-modern star fort in Copenhagen.

Many (but not all) early modern-fortifications had triangular projections at regular intervals along the berms or walls—the origin of the nickname “star fort.” The projections allowed soldiers standing on them to shoot at attackers from either side, trapping them in enfilading fire. An 1858 map of Vienna, drawn before the old defenses were demolished, shows triangular projections at regular intervals along the wall.

Another city that once had early-modern fortifications, but does no longer, is Frankfurt. The German city’s approach to using the land freed up by the demolition of the defenses was different from Vienna’s. The land once occupied by Frankfurt’s defenses is now taken up by a park that wraps around the historic city center. Even some of the triangular star-fort projections have been converted into parkland. They are visible on modern maps of the city—a telltale sign that this park was once an early-modern fortification.

Gallusanlage, part of the greenway on the site of the former fortifications of Frankfurt am Main.

Gallusanlage, part of the greenway on the site of the former fortifications of Frankfurt am Main.

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