Reconstructing Lost Buildings

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    • #711565

      Reconstructing lost buildings: the Berlin Palace as a model for Ireland? was the title of a ‘panel discussion’ hosted by the Irish Architectural Archive in Trinity on Friday evening.

      With all due respect to the Prussians, one would probably struggle to find a less appealing example of a lost building around which to pitch a discussion on the appropriateness, or otherwise, of the concept of historical building reconstruction, particularly ‘. . . as a model for Ireland – question mark’

      The Kaiser and pals in jovial mood striding towards the Schlossbrucke with the palace in the background. The second guy is completely unaware of the bags he’s made of that pirate hat

      Add into the mix that the architect for the project and the presenter of the case for reconstruction on this occasion, Professor Franco Stella, speaks only Italian and some German and that the room was populated [sparsely enough it has to be said] almost exclusively from the ranks of the architectural community, ranging from several high office holders in the Institute down to students just beginning their indoctrination. In this company, you sensed that Professor Stella would be bringing a stapler to a gun fight.

      The Berliner Stadtschloss was, by any objective standards, a big ugly, city-block-sized, Kaiser haus that successive Hohenzollerns couldn’t stop themselves from adding more bits onto, yet when its war-torn ruins were demolished by the DDR in 1950, a big void was created in the centre of Berlin’s civic heart as if thieves had crept into the good room and lifted the old family sofa. Belatedly, the DDR authorities recognised this and in 1973 they began the construction of an equally vast and equally uninspired Palast der Republik, as a showpiece for the modern communist state.

      the DDR Palast der Republik

      Unfortunately for DOCOMOMO activists who love this kind of thing, it turned out subsequently that the enormous steel frame of the peoples’ Palast had been sheeted in enormous quantities of asbestos, which rendered the entire building a peoples’ hazard and when, with reunification on the horizon, this was discovered, a way was paved for notions of demolition and replacement to take hold in the psyche of the Berlin public and their public representatives. Inevitably perhaps, given Germany’s extensive record of reconstruction, it wasn’t long before the architecturally unlearned turned to thoughts of rebuilding the original baroque palace with its 19th century additions, and with that the lines were drawn for a showdown with one of the holiest of architectural dogmas; thou shalt not reconstruct

      To make matters worse, Professor Stella’s presentation made it clear that essentially only the external appearance of the three main sides of the Schloss and the dome were to be reconstructed, compounding the unforgivable crime of historical reconstruction with the mortal sin of facadism. Not only that, but in his efforts to not upstage the original baroque architecture, Prof. Stella had designed the new bits around the back and in the courtyards in a stripped classical style that everyone in the room instantly connected with Speer and Mussolini, adding another layer of architectural abhorrence to the package. You half expected one of the slides to show a Fritzl basement just to round the whole thing off.

      When Professor Stella finished his presentation, through the mildly embarrassed Italian speaking architect pressed into the role of interpreter, the discussion panel assembled on stage beside him like a firing squad ready to carry out their function.

      Professor Stella’s only certain friend on the discussion panel was Manfred Rettig, a career diplomat and chairman of the Berlin Palace project, who, as the first panel member to speak, dutifully backed the architect’s account with a further outline of the rational for the project from a Berlin perspective, emphasising the cultural gain that the new facilities to be housed in the reconstructed palace would bring. So far, so diplomatic.

      The second speaker, Kathleen James-Chackraborty, currently an art-history professor out in UCD, is one of those American academics who cut straight to the chase without pausing to observe any outmoded diplomatic niceties. Her thrust was that this was all ‘a bunch of facades that don’t mean a lot’ and if you want to see how to insert new cultural buildings into historic European cities go off to Paris and look at Jean Nouvel’s Arab institute. Failing that, the Reichstag project also showed how to get your contemporary interventions right, glass dome, public access, people on top, that kind of thing. That got the crowd going; they had come out on a miserable night to register disapproval in person and finally somebody was getting the show started.

      proper Michelle Fagan on the left . . . .

      The person purporting to be Michelle Fagan was next up. In contrast to the shoot-from the-hip-approach of the previous contributor, Michelle Fagan [we’ll call her] had come to the proceedings with ‘as open a mind as possible’ and, as if to establish that an inner struggle with even handedness was going on, she did a certain amount of squirming in her seat in a convincing display of someone determined to thread a diplomatic line between what it would be polite, and presidential, to say about a project steeped in architectural heresy, like this, and the disdain that she was really feeling on the inside. Searching for positives, Fagan derived some satisfaction from the fact that a historical reconstruction like this does, by its nature, generate a demand for craftsmanship [ – that contemporary architecture isn’t interested in – ], but one sensed that this point was being made in a semi-detached sort of way as one might abstractly admire the technological achievement behind the making of a nuclear bomb, without remotely conceding that it’s a good idea to let one off. There was mention of a tension between the past and the present and of ways of neutralizing that tension. Importantly, Fagan recognised that there is a distinction to be made between ‘ordinary people’ and, you know – architects. Ordinary people are inclined to like old buildings, bless them, and it was implied that while this shouldn’t excuse the likes of the Berlin Palace reconstruction, it is an explanation of sorts. Her final thought was; if we accept the idea of historical reconstruction, what if in a hundred years, the people of Berlin started a campaign to demolish the reconstructed baroque palace and rebuild, in its place, the demolished 1973 Communist Party Palast der Republik?

      There was no way Shane O’Toole, the final panel member, was going to drink from that poisoned chalice, but he had some artful dodging of his own to do on the subject of Archers Garage which, as a practiced professional, he accomplished without breaking sweat. Archers Garage might have been a DOCOMOMO cause celebre, but it wasn’t a reconstruction per se, it was making the guy pay the penalty for unauthorized demolition, which is a different thing.

      With that, the discussion was opened to the floor, and before you could scan for the nearest exit, Frank McDonald, who had been getting visibly hot under the collar as Prof. Stella’s presentation progressed, was up and out of his seat to denounce the Schloss reconstruction as having no more value than the fantasy structures in Vegas. Frank lambasted the professor’s presentation for the shameful absence of any consideration of the lost communist Palast der Republik in the discussion, but his primary charge was that the palace reconstruction ‘lacked all authenticity’

      The term ‘Authenticity’ tends to be trotted out on these occasions as though this is a scale with just one notch. In reality, there are multiple degrees of authenticity and what we need to do is strike a balance between the legitimate desire to maintain the highest possible levels of authenticity in any dealings with historical buildings with the equally legitimate goal of passing on to the next generation the most complete and accurate building record we can, not just the easy bits that taste or chance have avoided destroying. The Berliner Schloss is an authentic and significant part of Berlin’s urban record, it is not a fantasy someone dreamed up and people who try to put its reconstruction into the category of a Las Vegas fantasy structure display a very deep misunderstanding of the concept of authenticity.

      the war torn remains of the palace shortly befor the DDR decided to demolish this old remnant of imperialist Berlin

      From the back of the hall, the ever reliable spanner in the works, Alan Mee, brought up Fitzwilliam Street and the ESB building, which gave Fagan the gift wrapped opportunity to retort with the valid enough argument that the Stephenson/Gibney building has its own undeniable architectural merit and, like it or not, this is a complicating factor, no matter how much one might yearn for the 17 Georgian houses that the ESB building replaced.

      The final contribution from the floor was from the venerable Shaffrey who made the point that after the devastating bombing of their town centre, the people of Omagh were determined to rebuild one of the destroyed commercial premises, somewhat in spite of professional opinion to the effect that the building was effectively gone. In the end, the building was reconstructed, but it was done, ‘to not let the bombers win’, so again, no architectural consciences were harmed in the reconstruction.

      Overall, while the event was interesting and the discussion lively, the idea of pitching this; the first serious discussion here on the topic of historical building reconstruction, around the controversial [and not particularly relevant to us] example of the Berlin Palace has probably set the subject back about ten years.
      If anything, I suspect that old prejudices are more likely to have been reinforced rather than broken down.

      The principles at stake here still remain elusive:

      Is historical building reconstruction a valid option?
      Is there a difference in principle between restoration and reconstruction?
      What are the circumstances that permit reconstruction?
      Is the manner of the original building’s destruction a factor?
      Is there a five second rule, like when you drop a hot dog on the floor? Does time lapse invalidate the process?
      Must reconstruction be total, or can it be selective?
      Is it a prerequisite that the original building was of high architectural worth, or can it just have been a big presence that is now a big absence?
      Who is entitled to have a say on whether a lost historical building is reconstructed or not?

      The reality is that the architectural community’s disdain for historical reconstruction is as ingrained as any of the ideological strands that facilitated and sustained the modern movement. When you consciously erect a division between the past and the present, as the modern movement did, you make it almost impossible to interact with the past in any normal way.

      The desire to rebuild lost buildings is bewildering to most architects brought up in the milieu of the modern movement and consequently it can only be understood by them as some kind of nostalgic impulse and nostalgia, as we all know, is the lowest form of fondling looking backwards, like keeping worthless memorabilia in an old biscuit tin. But when a city loses a building that people feel was somehow intrinsic to its distinctiveness, whether in itself an artistic triumph or not, much deeper impulses than we traditionally associate with nostalgia come into play.

      Because cities are made up of a great number of individual buildings, urban buildings, by definition are always part of a bigger picture and the more significant the individual building, the greater the gap in the bigger picture when the building is lost. A lost building leaves an imprint on that place where it stood that lingers there in the civic consciousness usually until either, memory fades completely, which one would hope it never does, or, something better is built in the space.

      Certainly, building something better in the space solves all the problems, but as long as there is a genuine disconnect between the public perception of building worth and the architectural establishment’s opinion on the same subject, asking people to have faith in contemporary architecture’s ability to deliver something better is like asking the people of Berlin to agree that the DDR Palast der Republik was a better building that the Hohenzollern Schloss. Even mustering all the nostalgia that must be lying about in old DDR biscuit tins, you’ll still struggle to do that.

    • #817870

      What a great post Gunter. I’m in awe of your recall 🙂

      I found it fascinating that the Germans are to spend €600m on this project (albeit providing a range of cultural facilities under the banner of the Humbolt Institution). Surely this is hubris…Berlin’s version of our Ballsbridge Tower.

      The original palace developed from 1400 – 1850 and was a monstrously ugly,if strangely fascinating building. It really beggars belief that they wish to reconstruct it. The blandness of the original is only added to by the blandness of the new elements proposed by Stella.

      I felt the discussion never really got to tackle the issue of what this all means for Dublin/Ireland. I certainly felt very European though!

      I’ll have to give your questions about some thought…

    • #817871

      A very entertaining account, Gunter.

      To quote John Earl*

      All the philsophical attitudes and policy statements ….amount in the end to a monocular view of what conservation is about. We have looked with only one eye – the Western one. In most oriental cultures the idea of going through agonies of conscience over the preservation of particular morsels of old fabric simply because they are old would not be seen as entirely reasonable. From this alternative viewpoint, a building has an indestructible soul; a permanent reality, which can survive any amount of renewal, including, in the case of the most ancient and revered monuments, a succession of total rebuilds from the ground up.

      The Japanese temple complex of Ise Naiku in Honshu Province has been replicated every twenty years since the reign of Emporer Temmu (636 – 686). **

      *Building Conservation Philosophy, Donhead, Shaftesbury, 3rd Ed, 2003 p142
      ** James Marston Fitch, Historic Preservation 1990, quoted in the above book.

    • #817872

      Indeed, one often feels that attitudes to conservation diverge considerably within the western world – often between neighbouring countries, such as in Europe. The very project discussed above is not a scenario one could see being played out in Ireland, where a deep-rooted apathy towards the built environment holds sway, and yet conversely, the statutory protection given to buildings here and the resultant level of reverence afforded to Protected Structures is sometimes quite remarkable – often an approach not seen in many parts of the UK and the Continent. Like a frightened dog snapping from a distance at a cat, it seems our post-colonial hang-up on sniping at the law while simultaneously adhering to it continues to hold sway.

      I think gunter nits the nail on the head by honing in on matters of ‘authenticity’. For me, this was the crux of the entire debate on the Berliner Stadtschloss, which wasn’t discussed on the night, and as such, Frank McDonald was completely off the mark in his lambasting of the project. How can it possibly be claimed that the initiative is little more than a vacuous Las Vagas proposal, when it involves the reconstruction of an iconic, landmark public building in a capital city, replicating in large part a previous building that stood on the same site? The concept of ‘authenticity’ has manifold strands of meaning, which if condensed into a narrow interpretation that suits a particular agenda, can be quite a dangerous thing. In honesty, aside from discussing general principles of conservation, I do not think any of us here are in a position to adequately adjudicate on such a politically, culturally, emotionally charged proposal as this one; it is for locals to democratically decide the merits and demerits of replicating or replacing a building of such a complicated civic nature. Indeed, the very fact that it is one of the most hideous buildings most of us have every laid eyes on, and presumably the Germans also, makes it all the more apparent that this is about more than just the building itself. To sit in a concrete lecture theatre listening to an academic debate about a building project that was anything but academic, located over a thousand miles away with a steaming pile of emotional baggage behind it, seemed a rather fruitless exercise to me from the outset. Who are we to opine on such a complex project?

      To distil cases such as this solely into theoretical principles sometimes just doesn’t work. As the most eloquent speaker on the night, Brian Hamilton of the OPW, pointed out: who are the custodians of the zeitgeist? Should architects alone be allowed decide the ‘dogma of the day’, or should the public be allowed have their democratic voice heard? That is not to say the democracy works well in the built environment – let’s face it, it almost never does – but surely architects are there to guide us and educate us, not preach and dictate to us?

      It was disappointing to see a largely architecty crowd show up to the debate. These are issues that the wider public should be engaging with, and the rather narrow, dominant opinion offered by the (too few) people that got a chance to speak did not, I felt, offer a sufficiently considered response to the multitudinous questions raised by the refloating of the Berliner Stadtschloss.

    • #817873

      For people who doubted gunter’s reporting skills, Frank McDonald has re-stated his ‘Las Vegas’ judgement on the – Berlin Palace reconstruction proposal – in today’s Irish Times.

      See scan of article below;

      If that print is too small, maybe some of ye with online subscriptions might post a direct link

      As Graham has said, we can’t possibly know the mindset of the Berlin public who campaigned for the reconstruction of this building, whose war torn shell, as Frank acknowledges, the Communuist government of East Germany vindictively demolished, but one suspects that a impulse to reclaim lost heritage, rather than pure architectural appreciation may have been the deciding factor.

      Is it a valid aspiration to attempt to reclaim lost heritage?

      Can lost heritage be reclaimed?

      Does anybody care?

    • #817874

      A link to the Irish Times article (you dont need a subscription to the Paper of Record as yet)

      I not sure that enough care Gunter…

      Here’s another interesting link that I came across during the week from our more informed friends across the pond, It might of value to the diminishing band of built environment professionals in Ireland who care

      A Good Practice toolkit for integrating built heritage into regeneration…

    • #817875

      Before the announcement of his resignation today, and with it news of taking up residence in retirement in an enclosed order within the Vatican City, Pope Benedict had earlier indicated that he wouldn’t mind seeing out his days in the great Benedictine monastery of Monte Casino.

      Any architectural dogmatist will tell you that Monte Casino was reconstructed – Las Vegas style – after its complete destruction by Allied bombardment in 1944!

    • #817876

      What about reconstructing a town? Petit Champlain, Qubec:

    • #817877

      Quebec looks like an interesting case exene1, have you insight to share on the matter?

      Just judging the bits and pieces that turn up on the inter-web, the restoration of several of the Place Royale buildings looks reasonably credible to me, if perhaps a tad hokey at street level and a tad pristine at roof level.

      The Barbel House on the east side of Place Royal in 1970 above, and today, below.

      The north side of Place Royal in about 1900 above, and today, below.

      The Canadian Encyclopedia is a bit sniffy about the whole thing;

      ‘Several buildings were renovated between 1970 and 1979. The result has a certain pedagogical value for illustration purposes, but very little historical value [according to the definition of this term by Alois Riegl, which is ”the value of an object which can be studied scientifically as an artefact of an era”] at least when it comes to the 18th century. Today’s historians consider this work as a product of Quebec’s cultural policy in the 1960s and 1970s, in terms of historical value, as a reminder of this period.’

      There is little doubt that the Quebec authorities in the 1970s had at least one eye on the tourist potential that a Williamsburg-style colonial quarter might generate [Colonial Williamsburg apparently draws 4 milliam visitors a year] so we don’t know what weight was given to the intrinsic heritage value of the individual buildings in considering their restoration to an earlier state. Un-doing later additions, where these were inoffensive, was probably a bad call, but as with the Berlin Palace, we can’t know how deeply the local community may have wanted to reclaim a built heritage that had a particular significance for them and architects are not sole custodians of the built environment, despite what they might think.

      I thing the issues raised by the Quebec experience would be well worth exploring further, especially if they are now dismissed as a product of the 1970s!

      Clearly, what is a careful attempt at urban restoration to one man, is a ghastly heritage-theme-park to another.

    • #817878
      Paul Clerkin

      Although the old town in Quebec city is a tourist attraction, it’s still a living, breathing quarter out of season. And it does seem to be well cared for, even loved by the council, businesses, residents – unlike Dublin.

      On the site here, I just sidestepped the whole dating issue and went with square layout…

      1688 – Place-Royale, Quebec City, Quebec

    • #817879

      @Paul Clerkin wrote:

      Although the old town in Quebec city is a tourist attraction, it’s still a living, breathing quarter out of season. And it does seem to be well cared for, even loved by the council, businesses, residents – unlike Dublin.

      I notice that it’s also on the UNESCO World Heritage Site list, since 1985!

      . . . . how’s our application coming along?

    • #817880

      One of the issues raised in the IAF discussion on the Berlin Palace reconstruction was the time lag between the demolition of the building’s war damaged remains in 1950 and its proposed reconstruction now. I don’t recall anybody specifically saying that they believed the time lag invalidated the exercise, but that notion was definitely there in the background and I’m sure it would have come to the fore had most people not already been inclined to the view that the whole exercise was thoroughly invalid for more than enough reasons already.

      The time-lag argument is like the old crime-of-passion defence;

      You catch your beloved in an amorous clinch with a sleezeball and you immediately take out your pistol and shoot the cad on the spot . . . who can argue with that!
      Whereas, you pause to consider the options, smoke a cigarette, check the sports results on the wireless, then take out your pistol and shoot the cad, in many countries, that’s cold blooded murder.

      A counter argument [in terms of architectural reconstruction] to the critical importance of spontaneity would be the likes of the Governor’s Palace in Williamsburg.

      The Governor’s Palace was constructed between 1706 and 1722 and from then until 1780, at which point the capital of Virginia was moved to Richmond, the building played host to a wealth of significant figures in American history. In 1781, the building was destroyed by fire and over succeeding decades its ruins crumbled until they were eventually cleared completely in the 1860s. It wasn’t until the late 1920s that a local pastor called Rev. Goodwin headed up a heritage committee with the objective of protecting the remains of Colonial Williamsburg and rebuilding the Governor’s Palace as one of the centrepieces of a Colonial heritage project. To carry out the reconstruction, the committee had only the contemporary written accounts of the building to rely on, together with the evidence from a detailed archaeological investigation and one 18th century sketch, known as the Bodleian Plate

      the ‘Bodleian Plate’ discovered in the Bodleian Library in 1929

      The reconstructed Governor’s Palace was completed in 1934 and has now stood for slightly longer than the seventy five years that the original building stood, which is half the length of time, between destruction and reconstruction, that the building was absent from the site.

      the State Dining Room in the 1970s

      The interior layout could be deduced from the archaeological evidence and contemporary accounts, but the decorative scheme is largely conjectural, although based on thorough research and comparative analysis. A 1970s photograph of the state dining room shows the interior fitted out with lots of nice 18th century clutter and a lassie in period costume, all under the watchful eye of a slightly sinister James I hanging over the mantelpiece.

      Wiki records that:

      ‘The costumed interpreters have not always worn Colonial dress. As an experiment in anticipation of the Bicentenial, in the summer of 1973 the hostesses were dressed in special red, white, and blue polyester knit pantsuits’.

      The mind boggles, as Graham would say. Apparently, visitors were confused and the polyester experiment was dropped in favour of reverting to period costume.

      Was the reconstruction of the Governor’s Palace in Williamsburg an invalid exercise because of the one hundred and fifty year time lag/ or the paucity of records/ or the reliance on conjecture?

      Has Williamsburg ‘no more authenticity than Las Vegas’?

      Does the historical value of Williamsburg lie now only in what it tells us about the 1930s rather than the 1730s?

      What happened to the star-spangled polyester pantsuits?

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