N.D. grad’s Rome restoration

Yesterday’s post, “Preservation at Notre Dame,” introduced readers to the new Master of Science in Historic Preservation at Notre Dame’s School of Architecture. The program’s inaugural graduate, Eric Stalheim, investigated, for his master’s thesis, the restoration of the Roman Forum to public use as one among possible strategies of historic preservation.

The Forum, of course, was the center of Rome and the location of its main governmental structures. It did not originate as a single planned space but grew organically over the centuries. As with any such evolving place, a major question for preservationists who contemplate restoration must be where to “freeze” it in time. This is among the questions Stalheim encountered as he studied past restoration proposals. Another is whether restoring the Forum, either for daily use or as a museum, is feasible or even appropriate.

Today the Forum is, as program director Steven Semes describes it, a “gated tourist attraction isolated from the modern city and unusable by the city’s citizens.” It is a World Heritage Site, which limits a preservationist’s options. As a tourist attraction, it holds a venerable status as the remains of one of civilization’s great scenes of history. It is what it is – but do Rome’s citizens want to embrace the risk of transformation?

Certainly not right away, you might reasonably suppose. So Stalheim’s thesis proposes not an actual rebuilding of the Forum but an investigation of the idea of rebuilding the Forum. He writes:

This proposal simply builds upon previous exploratory inquiry by taking credible theoretical reconstructions of the past and investigating what would be required to realize such a proposal. This process requires that we understand how much we know about the monument in order to make a judgment about whether there is sufficient evidence to allow for full reconstruction.

Semes describes the structure of his investigation:

Eric first developed a master plan for the entire archaeological zone of central Rome, including the Roman Forum, the Imperial Forums, and the Palatine Hill, re-weaving the area back into the fabric of the city, re-establishing ancient and medieval routes traversing it, and uniting it to surrounding neighborhoods.

Exemplifying the sorts of balancing act preservationists must undertake was Stalheim’s hypothetical reconstruction, as described by Semes, of the Temple of the Divine Julius Caesar:

Because so little is known about the temple, Eric chose to protect the existing foundations in their current state and construct a new structure above them, occupying the same volume as the original temple and in a similar classical style, but employing modern materials like cast metal and glass. The new structure would protect the archaeological remains below while making possible a new civic use of the site, representing the previous volume of the temple and its podium without attempting to render its original material or detail. [It is the dark temple in the graphic illustration atop of this post.]

I shudder at the idea of reconstructing the temple in “modern materials like cast metal and glass.” I trust, however, that the program’s first graduate is not backsliding toward the practice, in much modernist-inspired preservation, of affirming contrast over continuity. Whether to rebuild an ancient monument using the materials and practices of the time would certainly be best, but is it feasible? Or perhaps an effort to mimic the old materials with new materials is more feasible, while accepting the inevitability of using modern methods and techniques, if it must be, in the actual work of rebuilding.

Questions like these are a large part of what preservationists must undertake to answer as they investigate specific cases, as many of them will do upon graduation. We all have reason to look forward to many more Notre Dame graduates such as Eric Stalheim, who want to protect what remains of the world we love as a model for building a future we can love even more – certainly more than what standard-issue preservation philosophies have all too often bequeathed.

Screen Shot 2017-10-20 at 11.14.07 AM.png

The Roman Forum as it looks today. (Wikipedia)

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Another reimagining of a rebult Forum. (From a 3D model by Lasha Tskhondia)

About David Brussat

For a living, I edit the writing of some of the nation's leading architects, urbanists and design theorists. This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. My freelance writing and editing on that topic and others addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a fellow of the Royal Society of the Arts, and a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to invest your prose with even more style and clarity, please email me at my consultancy, dbrussat@gmail.com, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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2 Responses to N.D. grad’s Rome restoration

  1. I agree, Peter. I’m of two minds about restoring the ruins. It would be neat, assuming they try to restore it as close as possible to what existed (when? another question!), rather than turning it into an obviously recent take on the original (for the sake of authenticity, of course, since something that looked as if it might be the original cannot be authentic!) Yes, I like wandering around Rome as it has evolved more than wandering around the ruins of ancient Rome. But I might enjoy wandering around the ruins of ancient Rome more if it were rebuilt with outdoor cafes et al.

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  2. petervanerp says:

    Our view of the Forum today is a result of Mussolini’s decision to destroy that quarter of Rome as it had evolved in the 1,600 hundred years since the fall of Romulus Augustulus . A true Modernist, he blasted through a main street for his Imperial parades. If we are to reconstruct the Forum, what era should it be built to?
    I much prefer the rest of Rome, where the past has been incorporated into the present over the centuries. You can eat dinner in a restaurant built into the remains of the Theater of Pompey where Julius Caesar was murdered 2061 years ago.

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