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To restore or not to restore?

Updated Thursday, 1 February 2018
What philosophical issues arise during the restoration of historical sites? Professor Derek Matravers considers the arguments for and against repairing, restoring and reconstructing buildings of ruin.

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To repair, restore or reconstruct? 

The French art historian and archaeologist, Adolphe Napoleon Didron, famously said: ‘for ancient monuments, it is better to consolidate than repair, better to repair than to restore, and better to restore than to reconstruct’. It is easy to understand the reasons behind this view of his. Here are three.

An engraving of French archaeologist, Adolphe Napoléon Didron (1806-1867) An engraving of French archaeologist, Adolphe Napoleon Didron (1806-1867)

The first is a reason against repairing and restoring. It is a curious fact about human beings that we value artefacts simply because they have been around for a very long time. We value them for their history; for their story. When they were first constructed, we can imagine them shiny and new. Then over the centuries, they take some knocks, get put to different uses, and eventually end up bearing the patina of age as we see them today. If we intervene now, to stop them decaying, we stop their story; we bring their history to a close. They cease to age, as we repair and reconstruct the ravages of time. As it was their story that we valued, there is something almost incoherent about our doing this.

The second is a reason against reconstructing. Consider the fabulous French city of Carcassonne. This was pretty much a ruin in the mid-nineteenth century until the French architect, Eugene-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc, undertook a process of restoration which was completed only in 1910. Carcassonne is now a major tourist attraction – people come to marvel at what is seen as ‘an excellent example of a walled medieval city’. Much of what people see, however, is 19th-century reconstruction – in a sense, Carcassonne is no more a medieval city than Cinderella’s castle in Disneyworld is a castle. In other words, reconstructions are fakes; we might know they are fakes (we might not, of course) but they are fakes nonetheless.

Carcassonne Castle, France Carcassonne Castle, France

The third reason is also to do with faking, but in a slightly different sense. Artefacts show the signs of their wear; the marks upon them manifest their story. Consider a case of a building that is damaged in war and a decision is taken to restore it to exactly how it was before the damage. That, in a way, denies that episode of its story; it sort of pretends that it never happened.

The philosophical debate 

There is a great deal more that could be said – but this is enough to get us going. The last example leaves us with a good question. Consider the case of the (slightly weirdly named) House of the Blackheads in Riga. This building was and is important to the Latvian sense of national identity. It was bombed to a ruin by the Germans in 1941. During the Soviet occupation of Latvia, it was not rebuilt (the Soviets having no reason to encourage a sense of Latvian identity). Eventually, in 1948, the Soviets, with some degree of secrecy, bulldozed away the ruins. Once the Soviet Union had collapsed, what should the Latvians have done?

House of Blackheads and St. Peter's Church Tower at dusk, Riga, Latvia. House of Blackheads and St. Peter's Church Tower at dusk, Riga, Latvia.

In fact, what they did, was reconstruct it. The fact that the building had a social role clearly is important here (the same could be said for the historic centre of Warsaw, which was also reconstructed). The process of reconstruction itself raises a host of philosophical issues. To reconstruct something is to recreate it as it was – one aim must be some degree of authenticity. But what should be recreated? The house as it was in its heyday? Or the house as it was just before it was destroyed? The old house (I assume) did not have a disabled lift. Should the new house have one? Or would that be inauthentic?

Putting aside the issues that arise once the decision to reconstruct has been made, let’s focus on the question of whether that decision was the right one. The Latvians now have a House of Blackheads much like the one that was there before it was bombed. Are they denying history? Must everything that happens in the history of a building be respected? In one sense, it does seem wrong to simply pretend that certain events never happened. However, in another sense, it does not.

If somebody comes into my house and spray-paints graffiti on my wall, the fact that this has been done surely gives me no reason at all not to restore the wall to how it was before. Not everything that happens to a building or other artefact in is history needs to be respected. A difficult matter that faces the world (or at least, those in some parts of the world), is what to do with buildings that are currently being damaged or destroyed by armed groups out of spite, or out of some demented ideology. Should we simply consolidate the ruins? Or should we restore the buildings and, in a sense, wipe out this terrible episode in their history?


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