Every city has a story. Throughout history, many natural and man-made changes have altered the way cities were originally laid out. For some, the urban form developed as a result of political disputes, religious separations, or class divides. For others, a more mixed approach has allowed for uniquely mixed cultural atmospheres. And while development of cities is typically slow, occasionally cities experience dramatic and immediate changes to the urban fabric - the results of natural disaster, military conflict, or industrial catastrophe.
What happens next - if anything - can reveal a great deal about not just the city itself, but the local culture. Do cities rebuild exactly as they were? Or do they use disaster as an opportunity to reinvent themselves? The following is a roundup of cities that have moved past catastrophe to be reborn from the ashes.
Germany has taken part and endured several wars along the years, making it one of the most notable participants in both World Wars. During the Second World War, the American Air Force bombarded the German city and destroyed more than half of its buildings. Berlin’s distinguished Reichstag Building fell victim to the war and was left in ruins, with a Soviet flag waving on its roof. Right after the war ended, prompt renovations were underway, and has been ongoing since then. Berlin is now one of Germany’s most visited cities, housing numerous mega enterprises and structures. The Reichstag Building, which is the German house of parliament, was renovated by Sir Norman Foster, preserving the original building’s architecture style, but with a contemporary intervention of a large glass dome on its roof.
Another German veteran in the Second World War is the city of Dresden, which was once known as one of Germany’s cultural centers for years, with Baroque-style architecture, gardens, and Elbe River. During the war, the American Forces blasted the city, destroying everything in the area. Every historic, cultural, and social building was dispersed to the ground. After the conclusion of WW2, the city underwent repairment but the buildings were preserved in terms of architectural style. Iconic buildings in the area such as the Opera House and Zwingler Palace, were designed to look just as they were before the war took place. Some buildings, such as the Military History Museum by Studio Libeskind, were designed to show the fusion of historic and contemporary architecture.
Also a participant in the Second World War, the Polish city fell victim to Germany’s assaults. As the battle was ongoing between both countries, Germany launched an attack that left nothing standing in the city. Right after they bombed the area, German troops invaded Warsaw by land, and burned anything that was left untouched, demolishing every piece of history, culture, religion, and monarchy that the city had owned. Planning the reconstructing of the city took more than 5 years to be completed, referring to 17th and 18th century street-maps since every document had been destroyed. All the notable buildings in the city, including the Royal Castle, Palaces, and city walls, were reconstructed. The city’s Old Town is currently named a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.
Unlike the majority of European cities, Lisbon was not destroyed due to an ongoing war, but due to a very unfortunate relationship [or luck?] with mother nature. In the middle of the 18th century, a huge earthquake hit the city followed by a tsunami. During the following five days, large fires spread across the city, burning houses, libraries, palaces, and churches, killing thousands of people. Soon after, the city was reborn under the patronage of the Portuguese Prime Minister. The buildings, which were implemented in a grid-like arrangement, had infrastructures designed to endure future earthquakes, while the structures themselves possessed a classical architecture style. A huge triumphal arch was built on the Praca do Comercial to embody the city’s rebirth.
Perhaps one of the most unfortunate victims of the war, the Japanese city was infamously hit with a atomic bombs in 1945, which instantly killed more than 60,000 citizens and demolished almost every structure in the city. Anything that did remain, however, was then destroyed by a cyclone which hit towards the end of that year. The city was gradually resurrected and people began going back to Hiroshima, building houses, schools, and public spaces. Many buildings were transformed into museums and memorials, documenting the history of Hiroshima and Japan in the Second World War. Contrary to what was assumed, trees and greenery quickly found their way to flourish in a land that was believed to live without a single green grass for at least seventy years.
The Lebanese capital is one of the oldest cities in the world, and has been destroyed multiple times by historic monarchies and natural disasters since 140 B.C. However, the city always found its way to be born again, earning the “Spirit of the Phoenix” title. Towards the end of the 20th century, Beirut suffered from a detrimental civil war that lasted for fifteen years. The city, which was once considered the “Paris of the Middle East” was bombed and punctured, leaving nothing habitable. After the 1990’s, Beirut saw the light of resurrection again, and was rebuilt into a modern, livable city, housing several iconic landmarks. However, due to the lack of political stability and the unavailability of a unanimously-approved agenda, the reworking of proper infrastructures and transportation systems was halted. Trains were left to rust, and metro systems were never proposed, leaving the Lebanese citizens with limited services, up until today.
In 1666, Medieval London was entirely consumed by flames, demolishing every standing building and bridge in the city. Several architects saw the Great Fire as an opportunity to redesign London and transform it into wide boulevards and vast public spaces, rivaling other European cities. Although none of the master-plans suggested were followed through, five of the post-fire proposals were exhibited at the Royal Institute of British Architects, presenting what would have been the city of London. Well-established architects such as Christopher Wren, Captain Valentine Knight, and Richard Newcourt drew plans that shifted away from the original medieval street patterns, proposing grid-like arrangements and grand civic spaces. Citizens resisted the complete change and remained loyal to the city’s original urban style. Modern-day London sees a layering of historic and contemporary architecture, displaying every architecture style that has resided in the city.
After a great earthquake, known as the Great Kanto Earthquake, hit the Japanese city in 1923, every structure in the area was totally destroyed. The earthquake caused many wooden buildings to catch fire, melting nearby roads as well. Water was inaccessible due to the damages caused by the earthquake and so putting the fire off was almost impossible. Tokyo’s rebirth proposals were a lot bigger than the budget available, so the progress was rather slower and simpler than expected. However, the city’s resurrection is perhaps one of the most impressive, as it is currently one of the most visited cities in the world for its architecture, economy, and lifestyle.
Back in 1871, one very unlucky barn unintentionally initiated the Great Chicago Fire. The fire was carried into the central district from that barn by the heavy winds that were taking place during that day, burning almost 17,000 building and displacing more than 70,000 residents. After that fire, Chicago underwent a period known as “Great Rebuilding”, and in less than twenty years, regardless of all the economic and social obstacles, the city became a reputable economic district, housing the world’s first ever skyscraper (at that time, the Home Insurance Building, a 10-storey building was considered a skyscraper).
The Bosnia and Herzegovina Sarajevo City Hall (built in 1896) was, and still is, a significant representation of what Moorish architecture looks like. In 1992, a war took place in the city, causing grave damage to the city hall. During the renovation phase, the architects made sure to preserve the building’s distinguished style and used the same material used originally (stone, brick, and wood) with new steel structures for support. The facade’s design was reworked identically to the original design, making it seem as though the building was never damaged in the first place.
Taking place in a more modern timeline, the deadly and destructive Hurricane Katrina struck the United State’s Gulf Coast, causing colossal damage from Florida to eastern Texas. The eye of the hurricane rested in New Orleans, and caused implausible damage to the buildings, infrastructure (worth billions of US dollars), landscape, and human beings, killing and displacing thousands. Several governments and NGOs have offered their support into reconstructing New Orleans, providing health aid and constructing residential and commercial projects. In 2009, GTECH Strategies, a Pittsburgh-based NGO has planned on transforming abandoned plots in the area into sunflower gardens. The sustainable development will not only increase the green spaces in the damaged city, but will add an atmosphere of positivity and hope to the New Orleans.