The Story Behind Frankfurt's New Old Town and how the Community Revived its Medieval Identity

The Story Behind Frankfurt's New Old Town and how the Community Revived its Medieval Identity

The architectural identity and urban fabric of the old city of Frankfurt has grown organically over centuries. Shops, bars, and craftsmen's workshops have always attracted a lot of visitors to the area between the Cathedral, or "Dom" in German, and the Römer, the main square in the center of Frankfurt. Historically, the area included buildings of many different styles, such as Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque and Classical architecture, which most locals only knew about from black and white photographs, the town’s famous miniature model in the historic museum, or stories passed down through generations.

However, the quarter’s picturesque buildings and alleyways, were almost entirely destroyed during the Second World War, but the collaborative work of the community and local authorities have made it seem as though time before the war stood still. The entire quarter was reconstructed exactly as its original plans, bringing Frankfurt’s medieval history back to life and creating what is now known as the Neue Alstadt, a project considered by some to be controversial.

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In 2004, The City Council commissioned the municipal authorities to announce a town planning competition for the Technical Town Hall, as it was in need of a major renovation. A year later, the jury selected a winning design by architecture firm KSP Engel & Zimmermann, but a public debate was brewing on the sidelines as the reconstruction of historical old town houses was being demanded. Many locals saw a unique opportunity to tear down the dull administrative building and its concrete walls, and restore some of the original character of the historic city center, along with 7,000 sqm of the old alleyways and squares that were destroyed during the War.

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Old Frankfurt before its total destruction in World War II, Germany, dated 1937. Image © National Library of Australia

Local authorities saw potential in what the citizens were demanding so a couple of years later, a Europe-wide competition for the Stadthaus am Markt was launched, and DomRömer GmbH was formed in order to develop the area. Later that year, DomRömer GmbH launched the architectural competition for the redevelopment of the DomRömer area where more than 170 firms of architects from all over Europe applied. Eventually, the team appointed the consortium of Meurer Architekten Stadtplaner Ingenieure together with cba architectes from Frankfurt am Main / Luxembourg to take over the further planning of the Stadthaus am Markt.

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Centre of the Dom-Römer area: the Chicken Market, 1903. Image © Carl Friedrich Fay

Before the initiation of its reconstruction plans, the area was mostly used as a parking lot to reach the Bürgeramt and other governmental facilities, and was considered quite unsafe by locals due to the fact that it witnessed several drug use incidents. After historical documents were examined and a planning workshop was set up with the collaboration of 60 local residents, work began on the 35 old houses in November 2014, and was completed in 2017. 

New but not too modern. Inspired by history, but not old-fashioned. Cozy, high quality, individual and yet homogeneous in their entirety. Typical Frankfurt, typical old town, typical DomRömer Quarter.

These were some of the design principles that defined the design concept of the renovation project. The architectural blend of the new quarter illustrated the history of Frankfurt in a contemporary context. 35 houses were reworked with a particular attention to detail; 15 existing buildings were reconstructed and 20 new ones were introduced, but incorporated the typical style elements of the old town. When defining the architectural designs, particular attention was paid to making sure they mimicked the historical structures, in order to blend harmoniously into the development as a whole even if looking at the new houses at a first glance, the architecture is recognizably from the 21st century. To do so, some incorporated features from the historical buildings such as the red and yellow River Main sandstone ground floor façades.

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© #visitfrankfurt, Holger Ullmann
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Frankfurt am Main, Germany. / June 13 2019 : Frankfurt Old town square romerberg. Image © silverfox999 via Shutterstock

Towards the south of the site lies one of the main features of the quarter; the Stadthaus am Markt, which borders the southernmost row of houses called Markt or Krönungsweg with the two prominent reconstructions: Goldene Waage and Rotes Haus. Built over the Archeological Garden, in typical Frankfurt manner of new buildings being built over old ones, the structure provides not only protection for the landscape, but also a large and accessible exhibition area of historical remains, which were not discovered until the 1950’s. During excavations and preparations for the construction of the Stadthaus, evidence of Frankfurt's earliest settlements was revealed, unveiling three cultural layers in the Archaeological Garden: the Roman period, the Carolingian period and the High Middle Ages. Now, the Stadthaus am Markt now serves as an event venue and meeting point for all residents.

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© #visitfrankfurt, Holger Ullmann

Staying loyal to the original urban layout of the city, the architects even kept the location of each shop. For instance, the district’s current butcher shop is located exactly where the original butcher was located. As for housing, the residential units today cater to 200 people, while the ground level units house little shops, restaurants, premises for local craftsmen, and public squares. 

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© #visitfrankfurt, Holger Ullmann
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© #visitfrankfurt, Holger Ullmann

Nowadays, Frankfurt's old town is a popular destination for locals and visitors alike, where they get to visit commercial and cultural facilities in a time-honored old town that’s nestled in the heart of an international metropolis. Although the local community was slightly against the project once it was proposed because it was too different, they had an instant change of heart once it was inaugurated. Citizens were fascinated by the project’s bright-colored pipes and how the houses displayed an old/new vibe simultaneously. In 2019, the district was awarded with the international MIPIM Award in Cannes. 

This feature is part of an ArchDaily series titled AD narratives where we share the story behind a selected project, diving into its particularities. Every month, we explore new constructions from around the world, highlighting their story and how they came to be. We also talk to the architect, builders, and community seeking to underline their personal experience. As always, at ArchDaily, we highly appreciate the input of our readers. If you think we should feature a certain project, please submit your suggestions.

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Cite: Dima Stouhi. "The Story Behind Frankfurt's New Old Town and how the Community Revived its Medieval Identity" 26 Aug 2022. ArchDaily. Accessed . <https://www.archdaily.com/987963/the-story-behind-frankfurts-new-old-town-and-how-the-community-revived-its-medieval-identity> ISSN 0719-8884

Old town square romerberg with Justitia statue in Frankfurt, Germany. Image © Travelpixs via Shutterstock

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