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Build Back Worse?

A new book delves into the ethics and provenance of historical reconstructions.
Photo shows a replica of Paris in Tianducheng, a residential

Fake Heritage: Why We Rebuild Monuments, John Darlington, Yale University Press, 248 pages

A recurrent and infuriating contemporary response to the damage or destruction of historic buildings is that reconstruction is flatly unacceptable because, to condense the common objections, the building would be fake. It was easy to fear that John Darlington’s Fake Heritage: Why We Rebuild Monuments might offer more of the same, but instead it is a judicious and sympathetic survey of the great variety of reconstructions that exist across the globe. The author, executive director of World Monuments Fund Britain and Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries, is obviously extremely concerned with the importance of history and rightly condemns some reconstructions as objectionable. Yet he deftly argues for the value of numerous others.

You don’t have to search very far to find arguments that historical reconstruction is sheer forgery or worse. Look to numerous objections to replacing the Notre Dame roof, typically coupled with preposterous arguments for a contemporary-styled replacement. Or check up on reactions to the fires that consumed Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s Glasgow School of Art Building. To quote one account in the UK Sunday Post, “It is a terrible loss but creating a copy would be like exhuming a corpse and mummifying it.” Huh?

This is a variety of Ruskinian insanity resembling anti-vaccination or Randian extremes of unwillingness to place a fingertip on the workings of the free market. It is a determination that we must remain mute witnesses of history and cannot provide any sort of hand to arrest its progress. There is a sort of fetishisation of original materials as the vital property of historical structures, with almost no acknowledgement that this simply isn’t how most people look to their built heritage. The question is whether our sense of “a building” is an emergent property of the age of its physical parts, or rather of its design in general. The answer for the general public seems to overwhelmingly be the latter. The St. Mark’s Campanile in Venice collapsed in 1902 and was rebuilt as a treasured symbol of the city; was this wrong? People miss a building as a physical presence; generally less so as an artifact down to the level of each individual stone. As Darlington writes, there is often an interest in a “more coherent historic state.”

There are miserable reconstructions and outright frauds, and Darlington treats them rightly harshly, but the questions involved are complicated, not simple: “How do we celebrate or remember what went before without resorting to twee pastiche, cosmetic enhancement or airbrushing that transports a place back to a time that never existed?” 

There certainly are grotesque rebuilds. Krakra Castle in Bulgaria features a curtain wall of polymer concrete, which gained it the nickname “Cardboard Castle.” Also in Bulgaria, the Byzantine fortress of Yailata was rebuilt of aerated concrete blocks “earning the sobriquet of Cheese Fortress.” Tsaritsyno Palace in Moscow was completed with reinforced concrete, glass, a carpark, and a roof whose historical details are entirely imaginary. Saddam Hussein displayed as little regard for history as he did for humanity in a “largely conjectural” reconstruction of Nebuchadnezzar II’s palace at Babylon, with “both the act of reconstruction and the materials used (concrete-based mortars) damaging to authentic archaeological deposits that lay underneath.” All of this is unquestionably bad. 

In some cases, however, seemingly nothing will satisfy critics. Especially frustrating are circumstances where war or natural disaster have robbed cities of their past, and the response of some is that even the slightest effort at rebuilding is unacceptable. 

Frankfurt’s postwar reconstruction is one such example. The city rebuilt a handful of historic structures after World War II but then shifted to modern replacements. Local taste shifted subsequently and the city undertook a partial restoration of its traditional fabric in the 2000s, recreating buildings and historic street plans in parts of the city center. This might sound reasonable to you as an effort to repair the scars of war, but it wasn’t enough for some critics, who called the reconstruction “a homogenized, Disneyfied quarter of half-timbered rebuilds of historic houses.” Darlington continued, “the proponents of contemporary architecture argue that the restoration of Frankfurt’s Altstadt does not return the old city centre to the multi-layered palimpsest accrued over centuries of development, but creates a single-vision, static snapshot that undermines historical integrity.”

It’s not that this criticism is inaccurate, and in fact such concerns need to be weighted and evaluated in any reconstruction. But it sets a bar for rebuilding that is inevitably impossible to clear. It also might be a more pressing theoretical question if the city was being levelled entirely and rebuilt in medieval style, and yet the area in question is tiny, with modern construction surrounding it, which has created a more varied city than a pure postwar style.

Darlington looks at the many reasons that have prompted reconstruction, with faith a prominent source, from medieval churches destroyed in Azerbaijan to Yazidi temples in Kurdistan, a Hindu shrine in Gujarat, India, and many more. There are good questions about historical fidelity here. He points out, for example, that the Great Mosque of al-Nuri, destroyed by ISIS, had a minaret misaligned by 2.5 meters. Do you rebuild that? If the leaning tower of Pisa collapsed would you rebuild it straight? It’s a different question from whether rebuilding is an illegitimate dissimulation altogether, however. 

There are unquestionably many instances when choosing not to rebuild a structure has been exceptionally moving. The Kaiser Wilhelm’s Kirche in Berlin, Coventry Cathedral, or the World Trade Center come to mind. Yet the idea that this is the only appropriate approach to damage is exceptionally grating. Such objections arose in the reconstruction of Ypres after World War I. “Those who wanted to rebuild were reminded of a 1915 statement from the Belgian architect and minister Joris Helleputte that ‘Belgium does not need to preserve its ruins to remember its misfortunes.’”

There are many difficult cases and many difficult questions. A renovation of Nicholas Hawksmoor’s St. George’s Church in London sought to restore lion and unicorn statuary removed by prudish Victorians. The trouble? Accurate depictions of the original statuary didn’t exist.

From the perspective of today, Viollet-le-Duc’s work on Notre Dame “over-elaborated and guessed details of what went before,” and yet the response was doctrinaire. John Ruskin wrote, “it is impossible, as impossible as to raise the dead, to restore anything that has ever been great or beautiful in architecture.”

There are good and bad ways to go about such efforts. The principle of Anastylosis is best, “restoring a ruined monument using the original materials and architectural elements in the most faithful way possible, often reassembling its fallen or scattered fragments.” Sometimes that’s not possible. 

The question of authenticity often seems to become one of abstracted philosophy:

When is a Georgian roof not a Georgian roof? Remove a faulty tile from an eighteenth-century roof. Replace it with something in keeping, but new. The roof is still Georgian. Repair more of the same roof in the same way, and still the roof is Georgian. Replace all the tiles on the roof—is the roof Georgian? The shape, the appearance may be exactly so, but the materials are all modern, as is the intervention.

How many original materials are left in the Eiffel Tower, he asks? 

Darlington also explores a broader world of much more actively fake reproductions, which don’t presume in the slightest to rebuilding. The Parthenon in Nashville is obviously not real, nor are the many recreations of Las Vegas, or other replicas all over. “No one pretends such structures are real: they are pure fantasy, designed to extract as much money as possible from people’s pockets in ingenious ways.” And yet they’re kind of fun, aren’t they? 

“Fake” buildings also become beloved with time. Sham ruins crumble at countless palaces across the world. There is cause to worry that these might be mistaken for the real thing in the distant future, but that’s a reason mainly to keep the best records we can. 

There are other fakes, such as Chinese copycat towns modeled on European or traditional Chinese cities. They are criticized for their artificiality, but Darlington very reasonably describes them as “an attempt to learn from other places,” most particularly in creating dense pedestrian-friendly streetscapes.

There aren’t always easy answers for how to settle such questions, but Darlington does advance one very simple and sensible rubric for how to approach them, which is acknowledgement. He writes, “Acknowledgement that gives clarity, which allows others to understand a building or artefact’s place in a historical sequence; acknowledgement that credits the replicated, but also distinguishes from it; acknowledgment that is authenticated by others and is built to outlive the original authors.” Pretending that a new building is old is an affront to history. Rebuilding as best as one can and making quite clear what you are doing is not. 

“Look closer, be curious, challenge,” Darlington writes. “Invariably, the past is infinitely more interesting, complex and nuanced than fantasy can ever be.”

Anthony Paletta lives in Brooklyn. This New Urbanism series is supported by the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation. Follow New Urbs on Twitter for a feed dedicated to TAC’s coverage of cities, urbanism, and place.



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