Authenticity in European cities

Authenticity in European cities. Creating, visualizing, and contesting urban and built heritage

Achim Saupe, Potsdam; Anja Tack, Potsdam; Christoph Bernhardt, Erkner; Daniel Hadwiger, Erkner
ZZF – Leibniz Centre for Contemporary History
Fand statt
In Präsenz
Vom - Bis
16.03.2023 - 17.03.2023
Anna-Maria Weber, Universiteit van Amsterdam

Spaces, architectures, and practices can be typical, original, but also alien in their contexts. They are attributed or denied being authentic, as being or being not genuine because of their material heritage or genuine for societal identities: “Public spaces and buildings in our locality offer the possibility to articulate of what is our ‘own’, what is relevant in history and over the course of time, and what we want to preserve”, said Achim Saupe in his introductory words. The location of the conference was exemplary for how claims of authenticity shape urban discourses and spaces: the old Prussian cityscape of Potsdam has been rediscovered after the German reunification in 1990 and became the blueprint for the future of urban development. Saupe even called Potsdam “the German capital of historical reconstruction in the 21st century”. A current central urban debate is on the reconstruction of the Prussian Garrison church, demolished in 1968, and preservation of the Rechenzentrum (data center) from GDR times. This case[1] illustrates the spatial configurations and manifestations of the ongoing debate about urban authenticity in Potsdam: What is more authentic, a reconstructed church with a militaristic tradition and representative of the historical Prussian Potsdam, or a preserved Rechenzentrum, representative of urban planning under the regime of the SED which nowadays is a renowned cultural center for Potsdam’s artists and creative scene?

Following the terminological trajectories, central references for the definition of authenticity were (1) the UNESCO world heritage program from 1972 that based the nomination of world heritage sites according to the originality of the material substances and origins of artefacts and (2) the NARA Declaration from 1994 that established a post-modern and post-colonial understanding of authenticity by also including immaterial heritage such as traditions, techniques, and spirituality. The latter states that authenticity “must [be] considered and judged within the cultural contexts to which they belong”.[2] Hence, authenticity becomes a social practice embedded in local cultural discourses. Achim Saupe proposed a working definition of urban authenticity as “the assumed ‘uniqueness’ of a city, the societal image of the city but also images that are re-produced through pictures and in tourism”. That definition raised the question: How are attributions of authenticity created, visualized, and mediatized not only by so-called experts but through societal discourses with diverse actors? The outline of the conference reflected this conceptualization: The opening panel dealt with notions of historical authenticity for reconstructions after World War II, this was followed by panels discussing the role of citizens, identities and emotions for attributing authenticity, and the concluding panel touched on authenticity as a productive, creative practice for present and future urban spaces.

TANJA VAHTIKARI (Tampere), MAŁGORZATA POPIOŁEK-ROßKAMP (Erkner) and DOVILĖ BATAITYTĖ (Warschau) presented how authenticity was attributed to reconstructions after World War II. Vahtikari portrayed how in post-war Finland historical pageantry had become a popular kind of collective remembrance and experiential authenticity. Past events had been chronologically re-enacted by self-appointed groups of experts as authentic experiences related to the everyday life of the viewers. Popiołek-Roßkamp reflected on the nomination of the reconstructed Warsaw as a UNESCO world heritage site in 1980. Thereby, the notion and metaphor of a genius loci had represented a form of spiritual authenticity: the genius or genuine, is the remaining, although the loci, the place itself, can be transformed. Bataitytė looked at authenticity of ongoing and future development of post-war Klaipeda, Lithuania. Photography and the self-representation in tourist guides, postcards and books had become main tools to reframe the authentic city image: first, from a romanticized Prussian town to a modern Lithuanian port town, and then back again in the 1980s and 1990s to an authenticity attributed to images of the Old Town of the 18th and 19th century. All three contributions discussed authenticity as an argument for post-war discourses: the image and visuality of the past are either an asset or a burden and are part of negotiating the production of urban space and urbanity.

PAUL FRANKE (Marburg/Berlin), AIMÉE PLUKKER (Ithaca) and MARGARITA PAVLOVA (Gießen) illustrated political meanings of authenticity notions, and how authenticity is built, sold, and preserved. Franke traced the clashing and merging of the tale of two cities in Monaco under the reign of Rainer III.: The cosmopolitan Monte-Carlo, run by casino companies, and the traditional Monégasque Monaco-Ville had become the two sides of the same coin, where Monaco’s international exclusivity evolved into the modern Monegasque national identity. Plukker analyzed how touristic imageries and promotions had established fashion consumerism and consumption as part of authentic touristic experiences in post-war and post-fascist Rome and West-Berlin. The architectures – the ancient and fascist buildings in Rome and the modern rebuilt constructions in Berlin – had not only been the sceneries but also consumed and commodified icons. Pavlova placed the efforts to preserve built heritage by grassroots initiatives in the political context of Perestroika in Leningrad/St. Petersburg. Nationalist aspirations had not primarily, exclusively, or generally been the motivation, as is still often assumed. Instead, these initiatives had mobilized the civil society to offer an alternative to the institutional and official path of perestroika and to influence its political course. Notions of authenticity were presented as playing fields of national identities, consumerism, and grassroots movements. This raised the social question about target groups for attributions of the authentic: in Monaco, it had served the pleasure of the European Bourgeoisie, in West-Berlin and Rome, US-Americans had been the addressees of consumption spaces, and the case of St. Petersburg showed how the reconstructions of pre-revolutionary buildings are connected to political identities.

REBECCA MADGIN (Glasgow), ANNA PIOTROWSKA (Krakow), and SUSAN HOGERVORST (Amsterdam) and VINCENT BAPTIST (Rotterdam) dealt with authenticity as emotional attachment between places and people expressed in poetry, music, and facades. Madgin suggested an analysis of how stories of authentic places are told in books, songs, poems, etc., as communal laments of physical and emotional losses, and as verbalized felt experiences. Piotrowska tracked the rise and persistence of the urban myth of a Romani musician in Krakow in the 1980/90s. It had arisen as a legend of a disabled but talented Romani violinist playing his tunes at a central place of transit in Krakow. However, a lack of tangible witnesses of his music, except for two recorded tapes, had challenged its recognition as authentic. The recent remembrance of the musician[3] is, according to Piotrowska, not pure nostalgia, but an attempt by local educated circles of Krakow to tell an alternative story about the Old Krakow rather than the touristic version. Hogervorst and Baptist looked at authenticity attributions in a former red-light, redeveloped and currently gentrified district in Rotterdam. Among former residents, they found a reflective form of nostalgia meaning “not a simple longing for a return to or a rebuilding of the lost past, but … a need for authenticity and meandering reflections on it”. While the residents appreciated the restorations of old facades and the references to a stigmatized, they also doubted the market-oriented character of the development. Hogervorst and Baptist’s contribution to the discussion on authenticity was to challenge Sharon Zukin’s narration of “The City That Lost Its Soul”[4] and rather ask whether the city did lose its soul because authenticity notions can be multidimensional and transformative. By juxtaposing all three works, it became apparent that authenticity is not solely about a longing for a nostalgic past but also about dealing with change: history can represent a unique anchor so that authenticity attributions engender positive emotional responses to changes.

SANDRA GUINAND (Wien), and ORKUN KASAP and MONIKA GRABSKI (Zurich) talked about authenticity in urban development projects embedded in processes of global financialization, growth and competition. Guinand analyzed the underlying mechanism of the preservation of the historic center in Porto, Portugal, that had mainly been initiated from the bottom-up and transformed the center into a magnet for tourists and investors. After real estate funds and companies had entered the field of preserving heritage the built environment and its stories had been consumed, commercialized, and commodified as products of speculation. Kasap and Grabski constructively asked how intangible qualities and authentic experiences can be preserved in face of urban growth and densification in Zurich. They saw the stakeholders of urban developments responsible to consider and mediate qualities like social relationships, place identities and sensual characteristics of everyday lives in their projects. A challenge is that these qualities can only develop over time but are crucial for the vitality and acceptance of urban transformation directed towards the future. Both works revealed how authenticity claims contribute differently to the production of urban spaces: they can be exploited as a commodity and turn cities into touristic Disneylands or can serve the cohesion of neighborhoods and qualitative urban spaces.

The four panels were complemented by a poster session presenting selected case studies of authentication processes within the research project “Urban Authenticity” by Julia Ziegler, Tabitha Redepennig, Anja Tack and Josephine Eckert[5], a guided city tour of Potsdam addressing the authenticity and time layers of the architectures and buildings, and a public discussion about Berlin’s and Potsdam’s authenticity in the face of reconstruction projects since 1989/90.[6] The latter was crucial for the conference as it made apparent how authenticity is not only an academic debate but is publicly debated in Potsdam. The chosen location of the discussion was the Rechenzentrum, interpretable as an implicit endorsement of its preservation. The justification of such and similar statements of historians was among the discussed topics: Magnus Brechtken advocated that historians have a civil society mandate because of their expertise. Martin Sabrow countered that historians should not be in a decision-making position but should provide well-founded arguments as observers. He conceded that it is a tall order to clearly separate the roles of experts and actors. The role of the material substance for the attribution of authenticity and senses of place was controversial, too: the genius loci is only where one wants to see it, thus promises of identity should not be the purpose of reconstructions (Sabrow) versus the material substance creates a physical tangibility of history, historical narratives, and powers in discourses so that the material substance is crucial for authenticity (Brechtken, Anja Engel). Judith Prokasky proposed the compromise that architectures as emotional triggers “do something” to users and viewers and their politically ascribed or individually perceived meanings can be openly discussed in a democracy.

Authenticity was discussed as complex, ambiguous, and as entangled with peoples and places. To address its complexity, diverse expertise, theoretical, disciplinary and methodological approaches were brought together. Methodologically, the contributions ranged from archival research and linguistic analysis to walking interviews and mappings that offered new storytelling of the presented places and sites. That authenticity assembles links between peoples and places became apparent as authenticity notions were contextualized in negotiations of modernization and preservation, of developments between city centers and peripheries, of political agendas of bottom-up and top-down initiatives. Authenticity is not only an expression of such agendas and entanglements, but a discursive practice used to justify political, social, and economic decisions, forming groups whose authenticity notions are more privileged or verified than others’, and shaping people’s imagination of what cities they want to live in.

Conference overview:

Frank Bösch (Potsdam): Welcome address

Christoph Bernhardt (Erkner) / Achim Saupe (Potsdam): Introduction: Historical and urban authenticity in European cities

Session I: Historical authenticity after World War II
Chair: Annette Vowinckel (Potsdam)

Tanja Vahtikari (Tampere): Multiple authenticities and the production of urban space in post-war Finland

Małgorzata Popiołek-Roßkamp (Erkner): Genius loci. Agents and narratives of authenticity in reconstructed old towns in Poland

Dovilė Bataitytė (Warschau): Photography as a tool of power in the former East Prussia region. Klaipeda after World War II – “City of Great Future”

Poster session: European urban authenticity

Daniel Hadwiger (Erkner): The old quarter of Le Panier (Marseille)

Tabitha Redepenning (Marburg): Plac Solidarności – Centrum Dialogu Przełomy (Szczecin)

Josephine Eckert / ex rel. Anja Tack (Potsdam): Potsdam’s Old Market. The effect of the visual

Julia Ziegler (München): Former Nazi Party Rally Grounds (Nuremberg)

Potsdam city tour
Guide: Robert Leichsenring

Podium discussion: A Prussian revival or inner-city regeneration? The challenge of historical reconstruction in Berlin and Potsdam
Chair: Achim Saupe
Panel: Magnus Brechtken (München), Anja Engel (Potsdam); Judith Prokasky (Berlin); Martin Sabrow (Potsdam)

Session II: Politics of identification and citizen initiatives
Chair: Magnus Brechtken (München)

Paul Franke (Marburg): “Flee to the Rock”: Nation building, cosmopolitanism, and the quest for authenticity in Monaco’s urbanization

Aimée Plukker (Ithaca): Spaces of consumption: Fashioning authenticity and urban tourism in Cold War Rome and West Berlin

Margarita Pavlova (Gießen / Potsdam): The obscurantism of history crap diggers: Grass-roots heritage preservationism in Samizdat journals of Leningrad during Perestroika

Session III: Emotions and urban authenticity
Chair: Christoph Bernhardt (Erkner)

Rebecca Madgin (Glasgow): Urban authenticity: A place for felt experiences

Anna Piotrowska (Krakow): The musical legacy of Krakow as another touristic attraction? The case of Romani musician Stefan ‘Corroro’ Dymiter (1938–2002)

Susan Hogervorst (Amsterdam) / Vincent Baptist (Rotterdam): Urban redevelopment and inhabitants’ need for authenticity: The case of Katendrecht’s Deliplein Square, Rotterdam

Session IV: Creating authenticity: Gentrification and democratic participation
Chair: Christian Lotz (Marburg)

Sandra Guinand (Wien): Towards a new heritage regime? Financialization of housing stock in Porto, Portugal

Orkun Kasap / Monika Grabski (Zurich): Use the potential! Preserving intangible qualities in existing neighborhoods, Altstetten / Zurich

Final discussion
Chairs: Christoph Bernhardt (Erkner) / Achim Saupe (Potsdam)

[1] Potsdam was chosen as the cover picture of the conference programme: (May 5th, 2023).
[2] International Council on Monuments and Sites (Hrsg.), The Nara Document on Authenticity, (May 5th, 2023), Nara 1994.
[3] Next to a commemoration hold in 2022, Anny G. Piotrowskiej produced a documentary film as part of the BESTROM project about Romani cultural influences on European public spaces: (Polish with English subtitles).
[4] Sharon Zukin, Naked City. The Death and Life of Authentic Urban Places, Oxford 2010.
[5] Project website (German): Leibniz-Institut für Raumbezogene Sozialforschung (IRS) e. V. (Hrsg.), urban authenticity, (May 5th, 2023), Erkner 2023.
[6] Video recording (German): Leibniz-Zentrum für Zeithistorische Forschung Potsdam (ZZF) e. V., Preußen-Renaissance oder Stadtreparatur? Historische Rekonstruktionen in Berlin und Potsdam als Herausforderung, (May 5th, 2023), Potsdam 2023.

Veröffentlicht am
Weitere Informationen
Land Veranstaltung
Sprache(n) der Konferenz
Englisch, Deutsch
Sprache des Berichts