Thursday, December 31, 2009

Culture Wars

Following up on my posts about architecture, I note that the changes in Metz's architecture, particularly in the early 20th Century, represented a sort of culture war, in which people with control of the "look" of the city expressed either German or French values. Metz, officially part of France since 1766, was part of Germany from 1870 to 1918. The border ran just south of Metz, so its neighbor and rival Nancy remained French.The Kaiser, particularly from about 1900 on, gave special attention to solidifying a German identity for Metz, while also increasing military readiness. For example, a key motivation for the new central train station in 1909 was that it would be capable of transporting 20,000 troops in 24 hours. Similarly, the Guide Michelin reports that the removal of the cathedral's neoclassical facade in 1903 was undertaken by Germans. I interpret this as meaning that, rather than being concerned with the facade's incongruity, they were trying to remove Frenchness.

After 1918, new buildings abandoned the Rhenish Romanesque. By the 1930s, buildings took on art deco and moderne styles, such as this building from 1933.

With its wild profusion of styles, Metz manages to integrate all of them in a way that all now look in place, especially in contrast to the huge metal-and-glass blocks of construction after World War II, plunked down like alien invaders, which drive the visitor away from their unwelcoming bulk toward the more human scale of the older streets and buildings. Metz's melange of Germanic and Latin traces reminds me of Trieste, which also changed identities as it passed back and forth between the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Italy.

Metz has always been changing. For example, until the the end of the 19th Century the central city was still encircled by fortified walls and moats. But, like Toulouse and many other European cities, these were removed to make way for the grand boulevards that now define the cities' core. Metz retains few remnants of its old city walls. One now marooned part of the walls, the Tour Camoufle, was built in the 15th Century. The city's southern gate, the Porte Serpenoise, stands abandoned by the walls through which it once provided entry. This street was a Roman road. The present gate was built in 1852, originally more a tunnel through the fortifications, and reworked in 1903 to shorten the gate into its current form of a triumphal arch.

La Tour Camoufle, Metz

La Porte Serpenoise, Metz

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