How to preserve historic buildings: Protect or rebuild?

David Whitley January 18, 2011 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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