Restoration The Care of Inherited Buildings

Prior to the nineteenth century, the notion of including principles for the restoration of buildings as an aspect of architectural theory would have been meaningless. Vitru-vius, Alberti, and even Laugier would have assumed that a damaged building would be repaired or remodeled in the current manner and a largely ruined building would simply be replaced by a new structure. It was cultural romanticism, originator of the concept of the past not just as previous time but as history, that made the preservation of buildings as they were built a serious undertaking of advanced societies. To restore is, of course, a different impulse altogether from that of building in a revived style, an important distinction in view of the nineteenth-century urge to do that as well.

The impulse to restore buildings of the past did not originate simply as a cultural whim. Rather, it was thrust upon the nations that were the first to undertake it, namely England and France, because of the urgent need to compensate for the imprudent alteration and neglect of great buildings of the medieval past. In England the Gothic revival impressed upon responsible agents the value of preserving the real thing in an authentic fashion. This desideratum had lapsed during the eighteenth century, when lack of regard for medieval styles had made tolerable all sorts of incongruous modernizations in the name of greater comfort. In France, the need for restoration was a case of making up for decades of neglect during and after the revolution, not to mention haphazard repairs of earlier times. It was no accident, then, that the first theorists to address the need for principles of restoration were those who had been prompted to write theoretical treatises under the inspiration of Gothic buildings—namely, Ruskin and Viollet-le-Duc. And it should come as no surprise that the former took a conservative view and the latter a liberal one.

Ruskin approached restoration from the standpoint that the quality of the picturesque, highly desirable in architecture, actually depends upon a degree of decay and also that sublimity depends in large measure upon signs of age. He regarded a certain amount of wear and tear as not only tolerable but even a good thing. To him it simply added to the richness of effect. Restoration, on the other hand, is tantamount to destruction of authenticity. Restoring, he averred, is like trying to raise the dead. Hence to re-carve a surface removes the surviving expression of the spirit of the time, and any attempt to replicate it in a new stone is doomed to frustration. As he put it in "The Lamp of Memory":

Do not let us talk then of restoration. The thing is a lie from beginning to end. You may make a model of a building as you may of a corpse, and your model may have the shell of the old walls within it as your cast may have the skeleton . . . but the old building is destroyed, and that more totally and mercilessly than if it had sunk into a heap of dust. ... [If restoration becomes an unavoidable necessity], look the necessity full in the face, and understand it in its own terms. It is a necessity for destruction. Accept it as such, pull the building down, throw its stones into neglected corners; but do it honestly, and do not set up a Lie in their place.

Look that necessity in the face before it comes, and you may prevent it. . . . Take proper care of your monuments, and you will not need to restore them. . . . Watch an old building with anxious care; guard it as best you may and at any cost from every influence of dilapidation. . . .

Bind it together with iron where it loosens; stay it with timber where it declines; do not care about the unsightliness of the aid; better a crutch than a lost limb; and do this tenderly, and reverently, and continually and many a generation will still be born and pass away beneath its shadow. Its evil day must come at last; but let it come declaredly and openly, and let no dishonoring and false substitute deprive it of the funeral offices of memory.

Ruskin regarded fine old buildings as nothing less than sacred relics. Their existence in itself constitutes sufficient grounds for preserving them. But they belong to those who made them and not to those who come after, so the society that inherits them has no right to alter them in any way. He discussed this issue only in terms of physical integrity, probably never thinking of circumstances in which reuse for a purpose other than that originally intended might be the sole justification for guaranteeing the survival of the building. Clearly this is an attitude markedly different from our own, and one reason for it may be that he could not imagine that ordinary buildings from the past would become the subject of restoration.

As reactionary as Ruskin's position seems at face value, it was in one sense radically progressive: he was far more willing than we to demolish an old building in order to avoid compromising its form or purpose. He was in favor, then, of preservation not for the sake of maintaining an old building just because it is old, but for the sake of preserving the inspirational spirit of the past. In consequence, his arguments have a boldness not usually attributed to them in their implicit warning against the deleterious effects of meaningless preservation achieved by means of insensitive restoration.

Unlike Ruskin, who viewed buildings only as a lay critic, Viollet-le-Duc was deeply involved in the practice of restoration itself. The decision to save the buildings he worked on had been made far above the level of his discretion, by the national government, and it was his business to carry out this decision rather than to examine its wisdom. Accordingly, he began from the standpoint that the proper approach to restoration is to decide what needs to be done and how, not whether it should be done. The practical issues involved in saving buildings were his province. These were developed at the very beginning of his career, in the cover letter—addressed to the Minister of Justice and Religious Rites—accompanying his proposal soliciting a commission to restore the Cathedral of Notre-Dame in Paris. Later he refined and codified his principles of restoration in the article on that subject in his Dictionnaire raisonné.

At the outset, Viollet-le-Duc drew a distinction between the restoration of a scenic ruin and of a historic building that continues to be used for its original purpose. For the ruin, he stated, "it is not necessary to renew; rather, brace, consolidate, and replace . . . the utterly deteriorated stone with new blocks, but refrain from carving new moldings or sculpture." In other words, keep it in as authentic a state as possible, but do not disguise modifications necessary to maintain its preservation. On the other hand, for a building still in use it is necessary to ensure structural stability and to introduce current standards of comfort while making every effort to maintain the historical integrity of the design. In other words, a certain amount of discretion must be exercised, and therein lies the conflict of principle-laden claims that faces every restorer. He was aware that it is seldom possible to address every necessary and desirable concern without compromising one principle or another; indeed, he was to become familiar in time with the vitriolic controversy that such compromises provoke. But he faced the enterprise of restoration as unavoidable if historic buildings are not to be lost altogether.

He pointed out that it is necessary to become as informed about the building as possible before deciding upon alterations or embarking upon the work. Preparation must include familiarity with all documents related to the building, especially old drawings or other records of the former appearance of dilapidated areas. A thorough examination of the building should be made in order to become fully aware of changes made during the live history of the building and to distinguish them from the original state. A careful record must be made of the state of the building before any restoration effort begins. He pointed out that photography was already becoming important in that respect, but he also made careful watercolor renderings of every elevation, both inside and out. It is often in the course of making such a record, he observed, that one becomes aware of vestigial evidence that is not readily noticed in an inspection. A thorough knowledge of the historical style of the building and that of any additions or alterations must be brought to this process, for it is the only way to discipline critical judgment.

Then begins the hard part, involving discretionary decisions on every side. If a portion of the structure must be repaired or replaced, is it necessary to do it exactly as it was originally done, or can it be improved either in material or method? Determining the answer is like moving about in a minefield. If the repair is in an area that does not show, as under a roof, he regarded it as folly not to make changes in method or material that would increase the strength of the structure or make it more durable. If the repair does show, it must be done in an authentic manner. Authenticity is itself sometimes difficult to establish. If, for instance, the original construction was faulty and was altered during the historical life of the building, the new repair should reflect the old improvement. If, on the other hand, a historical alteration was made without actually improving the structure, it is preferable to restore the original configuration. The same applies with replacement materials, meaning that the original type of material should be used unless it is demonstrably inferior to the one later substituted. In no case, however, should modern materials be interposed. The risks of doing so are chemical or structural incompatibility, often resulting in damage to the authentic portions that remain.

Then there are questions about the design. If a portion of the building had been left incomplete, is it appropriate to furnish what was lacking or to invent a likely design for the missing portions? Viollet-le-Duc unequivocally proscribed such "completions," adjuring the restorer to forget his own tastes and instincts in the interest of preserving art rather than making it. However, it is well known that he often gave in to the temptation to do otherwise, particularly at Notre-Dame. If evidence is found indicating that the original design was different from that at the time of restoration, is it appropriate to obliterate the alterations? The answer must be carefully considered, because the patrons and builders may have concluded that that aspect of the design had been faulty and needed correction. In such a case the alteration ought to be regarded as inherent to the historical character of the building. In general, Viollet-le-Duc thought that a restoration ought to respect the evolution of a building throughout the duration of its historical life. On the other hand, changes made during a later, culturally alien era ought to be subject to removal, unless they are of special artistic merit.

In all these considerations, he maintained, one must be practical, respecting the needs of present-day users of the building. If the function of the building has altered since it was constructed, the restoration must accommodate the current use, as in the case of a church, in which liturgical practice has changed since the time of its original design.

Also, although historical patina is important in preserving the character of an old building, it is valid to restore the brightness and richness appropriate to such an edifice. As he famously declared, a carefully wrought restoration must balance all the considerations, so that the final result may not resemble the exact appearance of the building at any specific moment in its historical life. The reasonable pragmatism of this philosophy of restoration reflects his grounding in the real world of work and events, in which the goals of preservation are weighed against those of continuing utility. It is a philosophy that widely separates him from Ruskin's idealized polarity of fastidious preservation or resigned destruction, and its versatility makes him the true founder of the principles still in practice today.

The greatest change between the nineteenth-century outlook toward restoration and that of today is that the concept of what is to be undertaken in the area of renewing old buildings has broadened considerably. Whereas Ruskin and Viollet-le-Duc thought of restoration as applying mainly to major structures, cathedrals and palaces, today's practice extends downward to include quite ordinary buildings. When restoration is carried out for the purpose of preserving historical architecture, it has become painstakingly scientific. But when it is a case of rehabilitation and adaptive reuse, the guiding principles are necessarily less restrictive, shaped more by concerns for economic viability than for artistic integrity. In general, such guidelines have been developed not in a theoretical context but in city-planning and tax offices, where the goals of public policy and practical development are reconciled.

The broadening of the concept of restoration to include adaptive reuse can probably be attributed to the indirect influence of Robert Venturi, whose Complexity and Contradiction and Learning from Las Vegas were pregnant with cultural implications even he may not have recognized at the time they were written. (Such is the life of books once they are on their own in the world.) One of the implications grew out of the concern for context, namely the need—usually identified by city planners—to retain something of the local ethos of an urban environment by retaining as many older buildings as can be made useful. Hence the tax incentives that make rehabilitation and adaptive reuse attractive to developers. Another emerged from the celebration of both complexity and contradiction, which was projected onto the context and thus helped to create a taste for using buildings for purposes other than those for which they were designed.

Twentieth-century restoration efforts have occasioned refinements of these nineteenth-century principles, but they have not replaced them or even greatly modified them. No subsequent theorist of note has felt called upon to enunciate explicit principles for restoration, so the pioneering modern formulations remain the major statements on the subject. Unlike principles for the design of new buildings, those for restoration cannot be a matter of personal preference, so there can never be a code of principles that is not involved with controversy.

Was this article helpful?

0 0

Post a comment