Destroying history to save it

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Daniel Libeskind’s Royal Ontario Museum addition superimposed on Rostam Castle. (Dezeen)

Placing iconic modernist architecture into ancient historical sites can help preservationists think about how to save neglected landmarks.

Allow that sentence to revolve in your mind for a minute and see what insights might be generated. … Huh? Not much happening, eh? Well, the line “We had to destroy the village to save it” may arise in the recollection of some people viewing the photomontages by Iranian architect Mohammad Hassan Forouzanfar. Six of his montages can be viewed in Dezeen, and also on ArchNewsNow.com as part of editor Kristen Richards’s policy to keep us all laughing out loud. (See my last post, “City hall as happening place.”)

In “Architect overlays famous modern buildings on Iran’s ancient palaces and castles,” India Block, for Dezeen, writes:

Forouzanfar has collaged these images to examine the tension between visions of the past and the future, and start a conversation about preservation.

Neither the architect nor the writer make any real attempt to spin the bull into anything resembling a coherent idea, except to assert that tension (of the “creative” sort, no doubt) was involved. Most of the article’s commenters appeared to grasp the scam. So I popped this right into my growing file of unintentionally humorous modernist posturing.

Of course the works of architects like Zaha Hadid, Daniel Libeskind, Norman Foster, and I.M. Pei are their own in-jokes, but it struck me as maybe a little bit obscene to juxtapose them with fragile UNESCO World Heritage sites. For an Iranian to do that to the historic treasures of his own country seems damnably subversive. Maybe that’s the idea.

Indeed, Forouzanfar’s concept does quite clearly suggest that the object of the exercise is destruction, supposedly acceptable to Dezeen under the pretense of preservation.

The Taliban’s destruction of the paired Buddhas of Bamiyan, Saudi Arabia’s destruction of historic sites in Mecca (to make room for modernist hotels and shopping malls), the Islamic State’s destructive rampages against the ancient archaeological sites and artwork of Nimrud, Ninevah and Mosul in Iraq, and in the ancient city of Palmyra in Syria (to give only a few examples from recent decades) suggest that this attack on Iranian heritage by modern architecture fits a distinct pattern.

[I would clarify that the Mecca demolitions are also motivated by thinking against idolatry under the Saudi Wahhabi (or Salafist) ruling sect similar to that of ISIS and the Taliban.]

Such horrors are hardly a laughing matter. The indigenous cultures of the developing world have long been targeted by neo-colonialist elements of modern Western culture with the eager participation of elites in the targeted nations, many having only recently secured independence from imperialist overlords. Furthermore, modern architecture has been used to help destroy historic cities and towns throughout Europe and America, and to ruin the investments of families who buy homes in historic neighborhoods as well.

Maybe that sounds overwrought to some readers, but modernism’s founding architects (Corbusier, Mies, Gropius, etc.) believed that the new architecture they pioneered, in which references to the past were strictly forbidden, also required the eventual eradication of all historical architecture. This was in line, not coincidentally, with the recognition of Lenin and other thinkers that “socialism in one state” was doomed to failure. Its economic rivals could not be allowed to undermine progress toward the radiant future.

So maybe these articles that have cracked a good chuckle in this corner are really not so funny after all but more a matter, as the red-diaper set used to say, of “boring from within.”

About David Brussat

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. History Press asked me to write and in August 2017 published my first book, "Lost Providence." I am now writing my second book. My freelance writing on architecture and other topics addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am 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 employ my writing and editing to improve your work, 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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9 Responses to Destroying history to save it

  1. Walter Astor says:

    There is NO situation in which a Daniel Libeskind design or addition can ever look good. Hiring Daniel Libeskind to produce a design in a sensitive historical setting is like hiring a cheap hooker to perform pole dancing at a Pope’s funeral.

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    • Walter, you may have come closer to the truth in describing not just the work of Libeskind but to the whole of modern architecture than anyone else in history. Bravo! Though I’m sure you understate the case significantly.

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      • Walter Astor says:

        David … one day I’ll tell you what I REALLY think about pretentious clowns like Daniel Libeskind, Peter Eisenman, Bjarke Ingels and their ilk. But in this public forum I sought to refrain from the use of language that more accurately describes the work of these visually and culturally illiterate ignoramuses.

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  2. Steven Semes says:

    It is useful in this context to re-read the so-called “Athens Charter” of 1931 (not the one about conservation of monuments, but the one drafted by Le Corbusier, Siegfried Giedion, and others and published several years later). This Charter is a kind of constitution for modernist architecture and urbanism and makes very clear what the early Modern Movement thought of the architectural and urban heritage. Nothing happening in “contemporary” architecture today isn’t in some way already foreseen by that Charter.

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    • Precisely, Steve, and I think that every work of modern architecture carries out the charter’s goals in spite of the fact that not every modern architect knows about those goals or that charter. In fact, very few do. It does not matter. The characteristics of modern architecture accomplish the goals of the charter regardless of the intention of the designer.

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  3. Nikos Angelos Salingaros says:

    David,

    The topic of your post is vital, since a manipulated population worldwide is driven to destroy its architectural and urban heritage so that a tiny elite can extract huge profits from building junk. I tried to address the biological/sociological roots of the problem in a recent article:

    SOCIO-CULTURAL IDENTITY IN THE AGE OF GLOBALIZATION
    http://jomardpublishing.com/UploadFiles/Files/journals/NDI/V2N1/Salingaros%20N.pdf

    Because this catastrophe is so pressing, I’m soliciting essays from readers (please contact me directly). Maybe we can get them published in order to wake up the world. Small chance… but we ought to try.

    With best wishes,
    Nikos

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    • Nikos, the destruction of Islamic heritage sites in Mecca by the Saudis arises not just from the desire to make room for new construction from also Wahhabi thinking along the same lines as the thinking (if you want to call it that) of ISIS and the Taliban. I should have made that clear in my piece. Both motives are extremely destructive.

      Just finished your article, by the way. Brilliant as always.

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  4. LazyReader says:

    Like a cancerous tumor, growing over the healthy tissue of society.
    On the other hand, if the Islamic world wants to destroy it’s heritage, by all means ENGAGE.
    Like new sports facilities and coincidentally most mass transit projects since the 1970’s, supertall highrises and museums dedicated to the modern art; they are nothing more than civic jewelry.

    People don’t realize the skyscraper is gonna be obsolete, they’re not built to accommodate the boom and bust cycles of real estate. This is best summed up in places like Dubai where highrise construction has broke record pace, I’ve seen them many of them are virtually empty. What do you expect when the heat where it costs as much as 1,000 a month just to air condition your condo and they’ve saturated the market with too many highrises. Burj Khalifa is half empty. rents in the Burj Khalifa plummeted 40% some ten months after its opening. Out of 900 apartments in the tower, 825 were still empty at that time. China is building whole cities for a populace that cant afford them, cause a third of their economy is state sponsored construction which is ridiculous even thou China has a billion people their population density is not high, prior to 2000 they were still very rural society.

    For thousands of years the pyramids at Giza, Egypt were the tallest man made structure in the world; So I guess the Middle east is building glittering highrises to recapture that glory and to hopefully attract people to reassure them not to fear the hazards of radical Islam. And China is doing it cause to not to means sending millions of Chinese either back to the collectivist farms or the Nike factories.

    This is part of Saudi’s new ambitious construction boom. Much of this was due to the oil bubble. All this financing was put in place assuming $110/barrel of oil and a particular output level. That oil price can potentially get back up there, but only after significant production cuts. The total revenue will be unlikely to ever materialize, especially with the major oil consuming nations exploring domestic sources and showing year over year oil use decline for the past decade.

    I would say Saudi Arabia is a lesson on attempting to maintain an economic system on a single commodity. If engineers ever successfully engineer a solution to extract shale oil (which the US has some of the largest global reserves at 3-6 Trillion barrels) oil prices will probably never rise to a point. Bad for OPEC and Norway.

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