Dresden on course to recapture splendour: A city still scarred by Allied bombing hopes for rebirth, writes John Eisenhammer

ONE OF the first things you notice, walking about the centre of Dresden, are the vast, empty spaces. Nearly 50 years on, they are still there, those gaping wounds from the Allied aerial onslaught of 13 February 1945.

They no longer ache, those wounds, for grass has softened their barrenness. But they give the city, not so long ago one of the most bewitching in Europe, an abnormal air. They are also a constant, awkward reminder for the hard- pressed planners trying to recapture Dresden's splendour, of the mammoth task they face.

'I know of no other city which faces such huge problems, and all at once. Where decades after such devastation, so much has been left undone,' laments Jorn Walter, head of the city planning department. 'The centre of Dresden used to be densely populated. Just to recapture this we need to build 2,000 flats and houses.' The city calculates it needs another 40,000 by 2005.

Like all eastern German cities, Dresden is struggling to survive while it plans for future glories. Unemployment is at around 35 per cent. 'It is all very well talking about what things will look like in 2010, but people need jobs tomorrow,' says Mr Walter. 'Somehow, this city has to create 4 million sq m of office space from thin air.'

Traffic in the city increased by 30 per cent between 1990 and 1991, and will double again before average west European levels are reached. Underneath the warped pavements and rutted roads, the entire system of services - water, electricity, sewage, gas and telephones - needs to be brought into the second half of the 20th century, never mind the 21st.

From the Augustus bridge, as the evening sun hovers over the Zwinger and Semper Opera, the view spreads across one of the most beautiful baroque waterfront spectacles in Europe. Beneath the curvaceous Bruhl terrace, on which tourists swarm like ants, the paddle steamers of Dresden's famous 'White Fleet' rest on the shallow waters of the Elbe. Gaunt cranes jostle for space in this narrow bit of skyline above the old city - evidence of the massive rebuilding task under way.

The Allied bombing was meticulously targeted, wiping out this heart of the city. The Communist administration went to great lengths to repair and rebuild some of the finest historic buildings. But the open spaces, and especially the shattered, black skeleton of Augustus the Strong's magnificent palace, stood as the most embarrassing monument in all of East Germany to the Honecker regime's lack of money.

Today, frenzied activity has taken over. The palace, large parts of which are still tree- and weed-covered piles of stones, is to be completed by 2006. The grand, golden-spired Canaletto view will be restored.

The city has even decided to rebuild the Frauenkirche. There is virtually nothing left of the old cathedral, its few stones standing in the heart of the city left as a stark reminder of the tragedy of Fascism and war. It is a controversial decision, one that Friedbert Winkler, in charge of housing in the eastern sector of the city, understands but cannot accept.

For the cost of rebuilding the cathedral - anything from 300m ( pounds 104m) upwards - Mr Winkler thinks he could do badly needed improvements on about 8,000 flats. 'With the city's desperate shortage of funds, the decision to rebuild the cathedral is quite mad,' he says. 'But then, it has nothing to do with need, and everything to do with psychology. By resurrecting the Frauenkirche, the very symbol of the city's destruction, Dresdeners are saying, we are back.'

Not far behind the Frauenkirche, across another one of those large grassy scars, are the symbols of Communist Dresden. Rows of pre-cast blocks of flats stand like squat railway trucks on some forgotten siding, waiting for an engine to shunt them away. 'They had nothing to do with architecture, just brutal functionalism,' says Mr Walter. 'We would like nothing better than to smash them all down. But of course we cannot. These buildings account for nearly half of all the housing in central Dresden. There is nowhere else for the people to go.'

The 'unique beauty' of the city, as Mr Walter likes to describe it, is going to be resculpted within the contours of its current deformities. An unenviable task, but one made all the harder by the fact that Dresden suffers desperately from that plague sweeping every eastern German city - of disputed claims on properties expropriated by the Communists. Until claims are settled, no work can start. The cranes had moved quickly after unification into Prague Street, once one of the most chic shopping strips in Germany, but now a soulless concrete desert. And then, just as suddenly, they stopped. People claiming to be the old owners were back, fighting over what bit belongs to whom.

In the New City, the traditionally grand suburb on the north bank of the river, 70 per cent of houses are the subject of disputed ownership claims. Thomas Pieper, who works in the local planning office, looks miserably at the large drawings on the wall of what things could be like, if only . . . 'People are desperate for places to live, and yet 20 per cent of houses here are empty, blocked by unresolved claims. So much needs to be done, and yet buildings are falling down in front of our eyes, because work cannot begin,' he says. It takes a city official, working quickly, one week to process a claim. In the city centre, new claims arrive at the rate of 200 a month. The planners go on planning, but their hands are tied.

To break free, Mr Walter dreams of the future. 'The task is so huge, it will take generations. But Dresden is not just a mythology, it is special, a unique city, whose beauty is waiting to be recast. We shall have a city that will be super-modern, but fits into the scale and feelings of the old one.'

(Photograph omitted)