How to preserve historic buildings: Protect or rebuild?

David Whitley 8

Athens misgivings

I’ve recently got back from Athens, a city with the sort of historic pedigree that most destinations would kill for. And, given that I’m a sucker for history, I should have lapped it up gleefully.

But something wasn’t quite right. Take away the fact that Athens is a dirty and rather ugly city, the historic parts didn’t hit home and reveal their stories. Part of this is due to extremely dry, tedious signposting, but part of it is due to the restoration.


The buildings on the Acropolis – the great hill that acts as a symbol of classical Greek civilisation – are under repair. Cranes and scaffolding are a permanent sight up there, but oddly this isn’t what niggled me. Look closely at the Parthenon and the Propylaia, and you can see big chunks of gleaming white marble that don’t match the rest. They’re obviously recent additions.

Something about this jars. I know the aim is to recreate the Parthenon as faithfully as possible, making sure everything is sculpted as was and that stone is plucked from the same quarry, but I don’t like seeing obviously fake bits.

The power of ruins

You see, I think ruins have a lot more power when they’re allowed to be ruins. My favourite Welsh castles are the ones that are effectively a load of stones on a hill – they invoke feelings of loss and time passed. To try and rebuild these castles would just be silly; it’s better to have a few remnants of the real thing left to speak for themselves rather than a power-diluting fake.

Rebuilding the Parthenon

The time to rebuild the Parthenon was after the gunpowder explosion that nearly destroyed it in 1687. There’s not a single person alive today that has a memory of what it looked like – they have a memory of the ruin. The time to rebuild something is when people regard it as it was, rather than what it is.

There’s a massive difference between preserving something – keeping what still stands standing – and recreating it. If you want to do the latter, stick a museum up alongside it that can use any techniques it likes to show how things used to be. Bizarrely, the new Acropolis Museum in Athens does this – which makes shunting in random bits of modern marble into a 2,500 year old building even more ill-judged. By all means fight to save what’s left, but sometimes it’s too late to rebuild something.

Do you agree? Should restoration projects attempt to rebuild or just preserve what’s left? Share your thoughts by leaving a comment below…

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    1. Keith January 19, 2011 at 09:53 -

      Something to think about, certainly!

      I was at Knossos a few years back, where they took great pains to point out what was original, and what was reconstuction of how they *thought* it looked.

      With computer-generated imagery, it’s not impossible to show how it was (or how they thought it was)at a nearby ‘interpretation centre’, or something … after all, they did a pretty fair representation of the Tower Bridge under construction in ‘Sherlock Holmes’

    2. Matthew Teller January 19, 2011 at 13:02 -

      Interesting post. I also come across this a lot in the Middle East. From what I’ve been told, the new stonework sticking out like a sore thumb alongside the original stuff is state-of-the-art current thinking in the archaeological world. On sites where the decision has been taken (for archaeological or cultural reasons) to reconstruct rather than just preserve, the policy is not to attempt to blend new work seamlessly with old, but rather simply to insert new material that has been designed to look as the original building would have done when new. (Is this making sense?) The point, so the thinking goes, is not to preserve a snapshot of 2011 by recreating the building as it looks now, but to attempt to show – as much as possible – what the building looked like originally.

      I’ve seen it work amazingly well – Qasr Hallabat, a minor site in Jordan, comes to my mind – and I’ve seen it jar awkwardly, like you described the Parthenon, David (the Amman Citadel, for instance, where preservation would have been more appropriate than reconstruction).

    3. John January 19, 2011 at 13:52 -

      This is a huge subject. World War 2 destroyed a lot of buildings in Europe. Frankfurt was redeveloped into a new city, preserving just a few of the less damaged buildings. In contrast Munich was reconstructed to its Pre War state. Personally, I prefer Frankfurt, but I’m probably in a minority.
      Would you go so far as to not rebuild the Astronomical Clock in Prague after this damage: ?

    4. David January 19, 2011 at 14:00 -

      @matthew – You know the Middle East better than I do. Can’t say I’m too enthused by this approach though. Instead of trying to make a building look as though it would do when new, why not just build something new and equally spectacular?

      @John – I think I touched upon your point re: the Astronomical Clock (which, incidentally, is a frontrunner for Europe’s most overrated tourist attraction). That was rebuilt quickly after being damaged – essentially a contemporary repair job. My beef is with trying to piece something back together centuries afterwards. For example, if the Palace of Westminster was badly damaged now, I’d want it to be restored to the current state as quickly as possible. But I wouldn’t want the Tikal ruins to be ‘improved’ in the same way.

    5. chris ward January 22, 2011 at 00:25 -

      Hey David, I always enjoy reading your blog and enjoyed your latest MSN article this morning. I wanted to ask you about them – do you send in a complete article or just give them a brief outline? I ask because I’ve sent MSN a few things over the last year and never received any kind of response.

      Agreed re. the Parthenon by the way – was there in 2004 and it looked great from the right angle, terrible from the wrong. I take it they haven’t finished it yet then!

      chris ward

    6. David Whitley January 22, 2011 at 06:52 -

      Hi Chris – generally it’s a case of pitching the article idea to the editor, await approval/ rejection, then write it once you have the go ahead.

    7. chris ward January 22, 2011 at 11:12 -

      David, thanks for your reply. I’ll take that route in future!

    8. Matthew Teller January 24, 2011 at 10:19 -

      “why not just build something new and equally spectacular?”

      Because then it’s all about US and what WE think is spectacular – instead of all about THEM and what THEY thought was spectacular. We get plenty of chances to do the former (Golden Gate Bridge, the Gherkin, Dubai), but, being dead & all, they’ve run out of options.

      So if a bit of new brickwork can help me to visualise what made their jaws drop in wonder – instead of preserving a heap of dusty ruins to reinforce the dumb fact that this building is very old – well, that’s job done, I’d say.