Concrete crossing threatens Dresden heritage status

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The Independent Online

Dresden – the east German city sometimes known as "Florence on the Elbe"– is facing the prospect of losing its Unesco World Heritage status after a court approved a bridge that would change a skyline painted by Canaletto.

The capital of the state of Saxony won the coveted United Nations cultural award only three years ago after millions were spent on reconstructing many of the city's 18th-century buildings. Almost all had been reduced to rubble by a British bombing raid towards the end of the Second World War in February 1945.

Unesco was won over by the restored panorama through the Elbe valley of Dresden's 18th-century skyline which includes the recently rebuilt Frauenkirche, a masterwork of the baroque designed by George Bähr. The church was reopened and re-consecrated two years ago to coincide with the 60th anniversary of the Dresden raid. The Elbe panorama, with the dome of the Frauenkirche featuring prominently, inspired Canaletto to devote a number of major works to the scene.

Yesterday, however, a Saxon court approved hotly disputed plans for the construction of a 635 metre, four-lane concrete road bridge, known as the Waldschlösschenbrücke, over the Elbe. If built, it would cut right across Canaletto's panorama and almost certainly strip Dresden of its world heritage status.

Brigitta Ringbeck, of Unesco's German committee, has called the bridge a "national disgrace" and warned that it would cause irreparable damage to a unique cultural landscape. The organisation has said it will remove Dresden from its world heritage list if the project goes ahead. "This would be a first. No German city with world heritage status has ever been struck off the list," Ms Ringbeck said.

But the Saxony state government has argued in favour of the bridge for more than three years, insisting that it is badly needed to relieve worsening traffic congestion in the Elbe valley. A plebiscite conducted in Dresden in 2005 resulted in a two-thirds majority in favour of the bridge.

Albrecht Buttulo, Saxony's Interior Minister, welcomed the court ruling yesterday: "Now at last we can discuss what shape the bridge should assume and get on with building it as quickly as possible," he said. "Dresden's citizens have decided in favour of the bridge and they have a right to see it built."

Saxony's conservative Prime Minister, Georg Milbradt, has also argued firmly in favour of the bridge. He has described Unesco's outright opposition to the project as a "dictate". An opinion poll conducted in Dresden in September this year also resulted in a majority in favour of the bridge.

However, more than 20,000 Dresden residents, including artists and cultural officials, have campaigned vigorously against the project. Martin Roth, director of Dresden's internationally renowned art museum, has described the scheme as "like deciding to build an airport at Versailles". The opponents argue that the plebiscite only involved 50 per cent of Dresden's population and was therefore not representative.

Organisers of Dresden's Keep World Heritage campaign, described the court's ruling yesterday as a "pyrrhic victory" for Saxony's state government. "This will not prevent us from using every means to continue our campaign," a spokesman said. The group said it planned to stage a major demonstration against the bridge this weekend.

A spokesman for Unesco's German committee said that, in the light of the court's decision, an extraordinary meeting which would make a quick decision about Dresden's world heritage status could no longer be ruled out.