New Spaces for the Arts, #2 – 2021

The east wing at the Festspielhaus is brought back to life 

By Michael Ernst

Hellerau is the future. After all, that is how the garden city was once designed: A harmonious living space for the healthy development of people in harmony with nature. An important centre of this was and is the Festspielhaus by Heinrich Tessenow, built in 1911. Here, education and culture came together, creative development was promoted and for a time downright celebrated. A European centre of the arts emerged from this haven of the Lebensreform, a meeting place for renowned representatives of the avant-garde of the time. Until – yes, until – the ensemble was desecrated and virtually abused for decades. First as a police school for the German Nazis, then as barracks for the Soviet army. What followed is well known. A Sleeping Beauty slumber that was ended in good time by wide-awake enthusiasts in order not to let the potential of this area go to waste. But it took until well into the 1990s before the Festspielhaus, which is on the UNESCO list of buildings worthy of protection, could be renovated in a manner befitting a listed building. In the meantime, the public has become accustomed to the imposing sight as they stream across the large forecourt towards the European Centre for the Arts HELLERAU, founded in 2004. A classical gable and open doors in the centre, on the left the pretty visitor centre and on the right – a ruin. An eyesore, but its ramshackle masonry conceals a treasure that is now finally to be unearthed. Carena Schlewitt, the artistic director of HELLERAU, is therefore already looking forward to 8 October: „Then we will celebrate a kind of laying of the foundation stone and the reconstruction of the east wing will finally begin.“ 

Dreams of the future 

The east wing. Until now, the former officers‘ mess has been used as a storage room, for performances for a short time and as a design space for street art. In the future, a studio stage and a rehearsal studio are to be built here, and there are also plans for an expanded restaurant (which will benefit the audience as well as employees and participants) and for residential flats for guests working at the Festspielhaus. The state capital Dresden and the Free State of Saxony have reached a long-term agreement to restore the original view of the entire ensemble in a transformed form. Jens Krauße, whose company Heinle, Wischer und Partner Freie Architekten has already designed the campus of the 84th primary school in Hellerau in an exemplary manner, is dealing with the implementation of the project. „Back then, we were already thoroughly involved with the history of Hellerau. After that, this tender naturally appealed to us in particular.“ The Dresden architect was immediately hooked on the project. „Originally, these were two individual buildings. The fact that they are now to serve culture again is most welcome to us.“ The architect’s office won the tender and absolutely wanted to restore the spatial breakthrough of the east wing, but without turning back history, Jens Krauße explains the planning design. Once there were two separate buildings on this site, with access to the festival grounds‘ courtyard in between. „The current building with its two floors was only built in the 1930s,“ says Krauße, „if we now create a new entrance in it with a large public foyer, we are picking up on the earlier ideas.“ A roof-high space is planned in the middle of the elongated building, which will serve both as an additional entrance to the European Centre and as a connecting path from Gartenstadt to the Festspielhaus area. The view all the way under the gable is significant: „We really wanted to make the listed Kroher trusses visible, so we even hired a lighting designer to set the scene for this special roof construction,“ says Jens Krauße, describing the future views in and out. This preserves geometrically and graphically imposing design features of the house that were once developed by Ludwig Kroher in times of wood shortage. Such board trusses hardly exist nowadays, but are absolutely worth preserving and should therefore remain visible in the future. 

„We build until the house is usable“. 

In the course of the roof renovation, this impressive construction was refurbished; only parts that were no longer structurally sound were repaired. The fact that the east wing is to be divided into two almost identical halves on the left and right is based on an idea by Heinle, Wischer und Partner, explains Jens Krauße. „The existing rooms seemed too small to us, so we developed the proposal to cut the foyer free, so to speak.“ A transparent bridge is to connect the two parts of the structure and continue the central corridor on the upper floor. Krauße found a lot of approval for this design and praises the intensive cooperation with the various contact persons. „It was all very cooperative, I’m sure we’ll get the best solution for the available financial resources. Particularly when it comes to cooperation with the monument preservation authorities, a lot of coordination is needed, because we are possibly talking about a future world heritage site.“ This is one of the reasons why the decision was made to apply a one-to-one scale sample on site long before construction began, in order to present the future impression of the façade to the responsible committees. „When you have the chance to work in Hellerau as a Dresden office, it’s a stroke of luck,“ Jens Krauße is pleased to say. „We’re building until the house is usable, which is exhausting, but a lot of fun, because everyone is euphoric about this project – and with the Intendant there’s a wind in it that opens up the whole centre to Europe. You can feel that they have a vision! We owe them a work.“ Again and again, the architect marvels at the modernity of Hellerau and at the historically significant paths that were taken at the time. „These were well thought-out designs at the time, one can only marvel at that. What was built in just one year at that time is something we can’t do today with all our 3D designs and prefabrications. That was already very pragmatic, you can only learn from that.“ 

Restoring the old architectural axis 

Of course, the advanced project could not be realised without thorough coordination with the future users as well as with various offices. The Office for Structural Engineering and Real Estate Management of the state capital of Dresden acts as a kind of liaison, whose tasks Romy Eichler outlines as follows: „We deal with all the public buildings in the city, approach the task to be worked out strategically and look at the objects in their entirety as far as possible. This can sometimes be an entire area, as here in Hellerau. When the user notifies us of his or her needs, we determine the structural and financial feasibility. The East Wing, as the last unused and not yet renovated building in the Festspielhaus area, is of course an outstanding and complex project.“ It is true that not every public building is a listed building, but if that is the case, the institutions have to coordinate intensively with the preservation of historical monuments at the municipal and state level. The basis for awarding the building contract for the east wing was a so-called VgV procedure. There were several bids for this public award procedure. The contract was awarded to the Dresden office of the architects Heinle, Wischer und Partner. As the client’s representative, she wanted to understand the idea behind the proposals. The basis for the planners is a spatial programme for which concrete solutions have to be worked out, which then have to be substantiated in terms of costs. „So there is always the question of whether it is realistic. With this outstanding building, the premise was clear that the old architectural axis should be restored. But then we also wanted to tease out the planner’s creativity and see how he will deal with the future studio stage, for example.“ „More than ever, we want to be a house for the artists and for the audience.“ 

Start of construction as a milestone 

In the meantime, the project has received final support from the Dresden City Council. So the first step has been taken, a big step, at the end of which there will be a fully usable studio stage, a rehearsal studio, a foyer, residence flats and a restaurant. „Everything that doesn’t need to be retrofitted structurally will then be ready,“ Romy Eichler assures us, „including the residency rooms, but not yet their furnishings, seating and stage technology.“ There is currently no budget available for these subsequent steps or for the redesign of the forecourt – landscape architects are already indulging in Tessenow’s thoughts and thinking of the former fountain in front of the building. The value of the site, however, is reflected in the five million euros The value of the site, however, is evident in the approved five million euros from the federal-state programme for the protection of historic buildings and monuments, plus another two million euros from the so-called PMO assets (of parties and mass organisations of the GDR), says Romy Eichler, for whom the start of construction on 4 October is already considered a „milestone date“. The Dresden Office for Culture and Monument Protection does not see it differently, and the head of the office, Dr. David Klein, welcomes the renovation of the east wing: „On the one hand, it restores the entire building ensemble in its heterogeneous history and makes it experienceable again, and on the other hand, it significantly improves the working conditions of the European Centre of the Arts HELLERAU. More than 15 years after the reopening of the Festspielhaus, this is another milestone for this outstanding cultural monument. For Dresden’s culture and especially for the performing arts, the planned residence centre will increase the opportunities to experience international positions in Dresden, to engage with artists from all over the world and to work together.“ David Klein sees this as an essential contribution to the goals of Dresden’s cultural development plan: „To act internationally, to promote excellence and experimentation, and to live out contemporaneity in the arts.“ Markus Franke, Head of the Arts Department at the Saxon State Ministry of Science, Culture and Tourism, also sees great prospects in the building: „The measures are a commitment by the state capital to the influential cultural site and to the preservation of this unique building ensemble, which is a progressive idea in stone.“ As a member of the board of the Cultural Foundation, Markus Franke is convinced that „the construction work in the neighbourhood of our Cultural Foundation is a good sign for the vitality of Hellerau, which is also the venue of the Dresden Frankfurt Dance Company, which we as the Free State of Saxony help to support.“ The redesign of the east wing will create more space for what Hellerau is all about and what enriched Saxony more than 100 years ago: „Thinking outside the box, reflecting on social issues and social developments locally and globally with artistic means and networking with the world outside Saxony. This requires an infrastructure that is now being developed in Hellerau, giving the European Centre for the Arts, which is as effective as it is successful, a further, important impulse and scope for development. This is just as profitable for the cultural city of Dresden as it strengthens an important landmark in the profile of Saxony as a cultural state.“ Artistic Director Carena Schlewitt is pleased to be coming much closer to the idea of HELLERAU as a lively production house and to be able to give new structures to the theatre operations in the Festspielhaus and the Studio Stage: „More than ever, we want to be a house for the artists and for the audience. HELLERAU has a lot of potential for the future.