Krier: Ruins and discontents

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The New Rostrum, Milliarium aureum, the Basilica Julia, the temple of Saturn, the temple of Vespasian and Titus, Via Sacra, the arch of Septimius Severus, the Mundus, the temple of Concord, the Tabularium, the temple of Jupiter.
(Giuseppe Becchetti. 1893. Gallery of Ancient Art)

Since we are still on our reconstruction roll, here is an excellent essay by Leon Krier, architectural theorist and master planner of Prince Charles’s new town of Poundbury. It was originally intended as an introduction to The Roman Forum: A Reconstruction and Architectural Guide, by Gilbert Gorski and James Packer, a massive and copiously illustrated book on the Forum. In his essay, Krier expands perceptively upon the experience of ruins causing disappointment – as noted in my recent post “Rebuild the Roman Forum.” Here is Krier’s essay in its entirety:

***

The Future of Archaeological Reconstruction

by Leon Krier

The Roman Republican Forum was one of the finest architectural and urban ensembles ever realized under the sun. Its reputation had so well survived its near total destruction that it remains to this day one of the most sought after places on earth; clearly not for what it has become, but for what it once was, not for what eyes can perceive there, but for what has disappeared from sight.

Ever since its devastation, cognoscenti and dilettanti have tried to recreate “the glory that was Rome” in measured drawings, models, paintings, all culminating in the 1930s in the creation of the Museum of Roman Civilization and Gismondi’s glorious plaster model of Imperial Rome.

Despite the formidable quantity of intelligence existing on the subject, what is missing on site is generally very unsatisfactorily evoked by guides and guidebooks, by flat words and even flatter images. The information perceived by visitors forlornly wandering amongst the ruins of the Campo Vacchino is on the whole probably even poorer than what they may remember from schoolbooks and pulp-fiction.

With the exception of having discovered once, by myself and by pure chance, a large Roman ruin in a remote pastoral landscape, I never felt established archaeological sites provoking anything but disappointed expectations. I always wondered if I, an unconditional aficionado, could get so little out of celebrated ruin-sites, what must be the state of mind of those who pay for visiting scattered remains they can’t shape back into any intelligible form. It is this feeling of frustration what, through the ages, has spurred archaeological reconstructions, i.e., retrieving in some palpable form something of great relevance not just for our forebears but for us, today.

What is it that is being so assiduously sought on archaeological sites? The question is why is that which is so keenly looked for, namely the buildings, the public spaces, the sculptures, urban furnishings and adornments, so poorly provided by archaeological sites, however well managed or manicured. Why are ruins and fragments supposed to be better vehicles for transmitting “history” than the walls and roofs themselves, the rooms, spaces, platforms and pavings, which once made the physical environment where it all happened.

Notions of conservation, reconstruction and restoration are as old as those of architecture itself. In traditional architectures there is indeed no conflict between principles of building and conservation, of maintenance and reconstruction. These conflicts only arise with the advent of “new” building materials. As a consequence, and quite unjustifiably, synthetic materials are held to be more modern than natural materials. In the ensuing ideological confusion, the technology of building with natural materials has been erroneously declared to be “historical,” dated and hence no longer of technological relevance. This historicist error is at long last being identified and corrected.

The physical and graphical reconstructions of a Valadier, Viollet-le-Duc, Evans, Thompson, Becchetti, Krischen are no longer being decried as unscientific by current archaeological science. They are being instead considered as policy models for the planning of archaeological sites. The recently completed restoration of the Maison Carrée in Nîmes and the reconstruction of the Liebfrauen Kirche in Dresden bear shining testimony to a new attitude, putting to shame the bad surgeries practiced for decades on historic buildings in the name of “modernity” and the Charter of Venice.

  • The refusal to reconstruct ruined historical buildings in their technical and material integrity
  • The sacralisation of ruins,
  • The restoration of ruins as ruins,
  • The building of costly and often purposely jarring protective devices over them,
  • The proliferation of bizarre visitors and interpretation centers,
  • The compulsive collecting, cataloguing and preserving of millions of “historical” bits and pieces, for half a century, without a policy of completing, repairing or recreating them.

All these “ideological fakes” are fast losing legitimacy. For the archaeologist, métier is undergoing a radical renewal as an artistic rather than a bureaucratic endeavor.

The formidable works of reconstruction undertaken by James E. Packer and Gilbert Gorski are the magnificent peaks of a new approach to archeology. Digital techniques are not only changing representation, achieving undreamed levels of definition in whole and detail, but are re-professionalizing archaeological investigation after decades of waste and decay. As a result, great architectural ruins need no longer just be seen as historical relics to be pampered as casualties of bygone ages, but as parts of puzzles to be recomposed in their corporal integrity, be it on paper, on screen and ultimately in situ.

It is a legitimate hope that these wonderful prospects will not merely be seen as evocations of a long gone architectural and urban past but received as inspiring visions, instrumental in leading one day soon to the actual resurrection of the Roman Forum in its former splendor. To ensure maximum effect, I recommend the reader to imagine the figurants sporting contemporary clothing and steering modern vehicles.

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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3 Responses to Krier: Ruins and discontents

  1. petervanerp says:

    In the end of the 19th Century, my grandfather was appointed by the Government of the Dutch East Indies to the commission reviewing what was to be done with the ruins of the Borobudur in central Java ( http://borobudurpark.com/en/temple/borobudur-2/ ) the largest single structure Buddhist temple ever built. The usual reaction was to strip off the most interesting things, and send them to museums in Europe where they could be “properly” appreciated (viz Elgin Marbles) . My grandfather instead successfully argued that the temple should be rebuilt in place, and he was put in charge of the reconstruction, which he accomplished from 1907 to 1911. Unesco later did more work the stabilize the temple in the 1960, which is a pyramid built on a partly natural, partly artificial, hill. Were it not for Theo van Erp, the Borobudur today would be a pile of stones, and museums worldwide would have all 504 Buddhas and several miles of stone carvings of Buddhist stories.

    Like

  2. Pingback: Roman Forum, live, at night | Architecture Here and There

  3. Leo makes some valid and trenchant points here, and I have echoed them in my book, The Vintage House (Norton 2011). Things are indeed changing, though slowly.

    Like

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