Summary: Uncover the traces of a unique urban planning project, combining the ideals of the Baroque with the ethos of Protestantism.
Saarbrücken is not a top-tier tourist destination. It suffers from the many ailments that befell most German cities in the post-war period: ill-conceived reconstruction efforts, active deconstruction efforts, and an autobahn through the city center. However, the old Baroque center of St. Johann has been preserved along with fragments of the incredible protestant cityscape around the Ludwig Church in old Saarbrücken. This guide will take you on a relaxed day trip or perhaps a lovely weekend while exploring the region.
If you are still undecided, I introduce Saarbrücken here:
Should You Visit Saarbrücken?
The origin story
The history of Saarbrücken extends far into the past, but the relevant history starts with the end of the Nine Years’ War and the Peace of Ryswick in 1697. By this point, Saarbrücken had been at the center of European conflict for over a century and was little more than a pile of rubble. French forces had evicted the ruling Nassau family, and with their return, Saarbrücken would emerge as a major city in the region.
It’s worth mentioning here that today Saarbrücken refers to what were, historically, two different towns. Saarbrücken was the capital of the County Nassau-Saarbrücken on the left bank of the Saar. On the right bank was the town of St. Johann. Starting under the reign of Prince William Henry of Nassau in 1741, the two towns would undergo a massive urban renewal process and receive their current appearance (without the modern construction). He aimed to construct a shiny city upon a hill: the secular manifestation of his ideal Protestant city. With its white-washed houses and splendid churches, Saarbrücken was to shine the light of its virtues into the surrounding lands.
The creative genius behind William’s image program was the architect Friedrich Joachim Stengel, who had served the extended Nassau family in various courts in the Rhineland. His contribution was a unique protestant baroque-rococo style, distinct from the Catholic traditions of Balthazar Neumann and the Prussian Rococo. (Comparing Stengel to Neumann is probably unfair to Stengel) Saarbrücken would be a planned baroque city, in the style of Nantes, with the St. Ludwig’s church replacing the Ducal Palace as the city’s center.
So what’s left
Quite a lot more than most Germans would have you believe. If you ask the average person what their impression of Saarbrücken is, they would have you believe that the city exists as a sort of prostitution supercenter. While this is true, there is also the beautiful architecture of the old town to discuss.
On the Saarbrücken side, the reconstruction focused on preserving the ‘reconstructed’ Palace square and the central axis connecting the likewise reconstructed Ludwig’s church and surrounding buildings. It’s only partially complete, but the completed parts are very well done. The other radiating streets are mainly empty or lined with the western German equivalent of Soviet post-war prefabricated housing.
At one axis is the palace, an abomination dedicated to post-modernism. Stengel’s palace had ceased to exist during the French Revolution but had persisted in some form until relatively recently. Miraculously, it had actually survived the war mostly intact, but it was decided in the late 1980s that instead of renovating the building, they would tear down the corps de logis and replace it with a post-modern monstrosity. This is easily one of the ugliest buildings humanity has ever conceived. I mean, I thought the point of post-modernity was to reflect on the building’s context. Stengel was a rococo architect. The strange deconstructed classicist cube has no connection with the original building.
On the other hand, Ludwig’s Church and Plaza is one of the most outstanding examples of the post-war reconstruction effort in Europe. Someone correctly recognized that the urban concept created by Stengel extended beyond the church and that rebuilding only the church was insufficient. Stengel had intended the plaza and the entire city to be a Gesamtkunstwerk or a single piece of art. So instead of simply rebuilding a simplified church exterior, they went the extra mile and rebuilt the entire plaza. Even some of the most minor details and interiors were refitted exactly as it once was. I can’t stress enough how cool this is. Even in its incomplete condition, the protestant cityscape of Saarbrücken is unique and is worth seeing.
St. Johann is a lovely German village with a beautiful market square and charming side streets. Stengel also designed the church of St. Johann. Still, the interior is original, and one can see the stylistic relationship with Ludwig’s Church and how it was supposed to be part of a larger cityscape and image program within the city.
The white houses are unique to the immediate area around Saarbrücken and reflect the protestant and reformed ethos of simplicity and turned Saarbrücken into a “Shining City upon a Hill”. Of this style of architecture, very little survives in the Saarland. There are a few streets in Zweibrücken (not worth visiting) and Ottweiler with similar architecture.
The city itself had a lot of potential in the post-war period, but the urban planners dismantled large sections of surviving old town to build the autobahn through the city center, also effectively removing the waterfront as a public space. I honestly don’t understand why they did this. As it quite honestly ruined the center of Saarbrücken.
Anything other than churches?
Not really. There are a couple of museums, none of which are especially noteworthy for a general audience. One takes you through the remnants of the Baroque fortification system, which was dismantled in various stages. Although Germany has a low bar for interesting forts, this is still not worth your time. The second is housed within the old palace church. This museum shows mostly religious and archeological artifacts without any context or coherency. I think this museum has potential if only they provided some meaning to their rather extensive collection.
For more detailed information about opening hours and accessibility check out this article:
Opening Hours in Saarbrücken
Saarbrücken Opening Hours
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Saarbücken is a charming town with a longer and more exciting history than people realize. It’s a shame that so little of its heritage survives to the present day. Rather than seeing Saarbrücken for the sake of it, plan a visit to experience the beauty of the surrounding landscapes.
- Horst Heydt, and Gerhard Heisler. 2008. Ludwigskirche Und Ludwigsplatz Zu Saarbrücken : Ein Sachbilderbuch Für Wissbegierige Kleine Und Grosse Menschen, Die Sich Am Schönen Freuen Können Und Gerne Zusammenhänge Erfahren Wollen. Merzig: Merziger Druckerei Und Verl.
- Konrad Hilpert, Stefan Sieg, and Geistkirch-Verlag. 2015. Die Basilika St. Johann in Saarbrücken Ein Kurzporträt von Konrad Hilpert (Wort) Und Stefan Sieg (Bild). Verlag: Saarbrücken Geistkirch-Verlag.
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