published on Wednesday, May 16, 2018
What do we do with the past? How to reconstruct can often be as, if not more, vexing matter as designing from scratch.
The question is especially present in Germany, where many of the most prominent commissions from the last 80 years have been reconstructions. The debates surrounding these commissions often divide, and regress into simple dichotomies: the past versus the future, the call of context versus the seductions of style, nostalgia versus zeitgeist.
Art historian Alexander Stumm recently published a book, “Architectural Concepts of Reconstruction” (Architektonische Konzepte der Rekonstruktion) that digs into the theory, history and precedent to put the conversation into context.
Starting with the point that these conversations are as old as the buildings whose reconstruction we ponder, he examines and organizes the different schools of thought surrounding reconstruction, moving the question beyond the simple “Nostalgia or the Future?” dichotomy.
I sat down with Alexander Stumm to talk through his ideas, and, working with the Canadian architect Anne Ma, we made a series of drawings to help illustrate the five different categories of reconstruction he puts forth in his book.
FEATURE: INTERVIEW WITH ALEX STUMM
Nicolas Kemper: You just published a book, on the theme of reconstruction and authenticity – so when is it okay to rebuild a building?
Alexander Stumm: My approach was that this term, ‘Reconstruction’, is too burdened, and my departure point was first to define this term properly. I quickly realized then that, even in the last 200 years – since the beginning of what we think of as preservation – there have been many different positions on reconstruction. So I split the term into five different types of reconstruction.
NK Why do you start 200 years ago?
AS The most important author was Eugène Viollet-le-Duc, the French preservationist and architect, who influenced the whole century. Everyone else built off the theory of preservation that Viollet-le-Duc describes in his 1854 Dictionnaire raisonné (“A Reasoned Dictionary of French Architecture”) – it is actually the first theory of reconstruction. In the 1850s he said that a preservationist should not just preserve the building as it stands, but bring it to an ideal state – a ‘complete’ state it never achieved before: that is, a preservationist should make the building better.
AS The materials should be more durable, the forms more perfect – as the original builder may have built it – this is what Viollet-le-Duc did, in his practice as a preservationist. So in effect, with the cathedrals he was restoring, he was building fictional medieval buildings. This is something we from today can easily criticize, because he would often destroy historical parts of the buildings, in order to make them better. But for him, it was the only way to bring the building back to life.
NK We do not come across this approach very often today.
AS Well we actually see it most often with the reconstruction of modern buildings. E. g. when Muck Petzet Architects restored the Old Dining Hall in Munich’s Olympic Village (2009 –13), they set out to reconstruct an idealized version of the building from the 1970s.1
NK I suppose they did the same with Paul Rudolph’s Art & Architecture building at Yale.
AS Yes – so the concept has not disappeared. But in the meantime, over the course of the 20th century other concepts of reconstruction have developed.
NK You were saying this discussion is particularly important in Germany, how come?
AS The reconstruction debate in Germany has to be seen as an exceptional case, because it often concerns the reconstruction of buildings that were destroyed in the second world war. Because of the German culpability in the second world war, the reconstruction debate has a moral layer that refuses to be quickly laid aside. The fear is reconstruction would wipe away the shame, and in effect the German culpability would disappear, or be hidden. This destruction in Germany fundamentally formed the post-war German identity. The constant encounter with that which the Nazis had destroyed – would be, through reconstruction, erased. That is the fear. And it cannot be easily dismissed. So you have to look at each reconstruction project very carefully. Then even look at who are the actors: who is interested in a reconstruction, and why?
NK It is always surprising, for Americans, how visible the destruction of the second world war still is in Germany.
AS Yes, but that visibility is also a difficult question – there are many concentration camps that have been reconstructed. They are not authentic, they were completely destroyed, but they are today once again visited, and many of the visitors do not know they are not historic material/ substance – at Auschwitz, for instance – many of buildings, including the crematoriums, were rebuilt.
AS Yes – and this is a tricky question – on the one side there are people who think it legitimate, because it is like a museum, an exhibit that shows this gruesome part of us – that it is not about having the exact stone that was once there, but it is about remembering the experience. But on the other side, there are already forces on the right that think the holocaust was fabricated, and it does not help when you are reconstructing concentration camps. We had this argument just last week, at an art history conference. Extremely tricky.
NK It is a matter of trust.
AS Yes – but then again some of these forces on the right have no trust anyway. It is a difficult question. A very dark matter. The area where reconstruction becomes a very difficult discourse field. This is nevertheless not the only area of concern with reconstruction. I talked in my book about the Barcelona Pavilion. Spanish architects, in the 1980s, decided to rebuild the pavilion, naturally one of the most important buildings of the 20th century, and they thought it should have its colors. This of course is entirely different from the moral arguments in Germany, but the Barcelona pavilion today is completely identical to what once was there, and of course many who visit have no idea that it is not authentic.
NK And of course its influence was originally as a photo – as a black and white photo –
AS Yes, the famous photography from Sasha Stone, that for decades heavily influenced the reception of the Barcelona Pavilion.
NK What is the line between the discussion in Germany, where it is a moral matter, and the discussion in other lands?
AS In my book I try to outline different typologies within reconstruction, which I think is very helpful when we have these discussions, because then it is possible to better focus on reconstruction. I describe for instance perfect reproduction as “simulated reconstruction,” – you will never achieve an identical building to what was, but you could achieve something very similar. Some find that scandalous, very uncomfortable, a little scary. Walter Benjamin lucidly described this feeling in his fundamental essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” one of the most important articles in the 20th century for art theory.
AS Walter Benjamin argued that the aura of a piece of art is lost, when everything becomes reproducible. So I talked about Barcelona, and the Old Bridge of Mostar that UNESCO itself rebuilt. It is then easier to comprehend when it makes sense to reconstruct. The bridge connected two communities that fought – so the bridge as a symbol for reconciliation – the bridge as a symbol can as a symbol perhaps be something that brings the communities together. That can be helpful to think of in Germany.
NK Some parts of the past are worth Reconstructing
AS Yes, but just because one reconstruction makes sense, that does not automatically legitimate others.
NK Your book is mainly about very important, symbolically significant buildings. How does the logic adapt for buildings that have no such importance – “fabric buildings”, such as the typical perimeter block buildings here in Berlin?
AS Yes. What I address in the book does not just apply to important monuments. After the second world war, ordinary buildings were rebuild quite often, in cities such as Munster, but normally simplified: without articulated gables, instead a little more sleek and modern – but nevertheless to make an experience of the city once more possible.
AS This is another of the five categories in the book: Conceptual Reconstruction. In end effect it is a completely new building, but it tries to translate the historical building to something that is in the end effect completely new.
NK What is the difference between reconstructing, and copying?
AS The site.
NK But why is the site important?
AS (laughs) An important question, for the architect. The site brings with it an immeasurable amount of meaning – when Paul Getty rebuilds the Villa of Papyri at Herculaneum, in the Palisades of Los Angeles, that means something entirely different from repairing the original in Herculaneum. You cannot compare the two.
NK And is anything built on the site constitute a reconstruction?
AS No. The site is important, but the new building must also be oriented to its predecessor: it must relate in its plan, in its exterior appearance, and in its interior appearance to its predecessor. So for Critical Reconstruction, when there is at most a nominal relationship to what came before, that is not really reconstruction.
NK In the book, you listed Critical Reconstruction as a digression, not really reconstruction. You also put ‘Ritual Reconstruction’ in this category: how come?
AS For Ritual Reconstruction the prime example is the Ise Shrine, which was often used in the 80s as proof that perfect reconstruction is acceptable, but the Ise Shrine is very tied up in a specific cultural, religious, ritualistic context. We have nothing like it in western cultures. You cannot so simply adopt it.
NK Back to the beginning: was there push back against the ideas of Viollet-le-Duc?
AS Yes, in part from Alois Riegl, the Austrian Art Historian from Vienna. Riegl thought the historicist reconstruction of Viollet-le-Duc had gotten out of hand. Many architects who had not at all the expertise that Viollet-le-Duc had, nevertheless tried to rebuild fictions, doing some terrible damage and building some pretty terrible things, so Riegl wrote the “The Contemporary Memorial Cult”, and broke down how someone could rebuild. He posited buildings have a duty to preserving their history.
NK So it was no longer about just rebuilding, but actually protecting and preserving – about showing and celebrating the old parts
AS Yes – it was important that it be preserved, but also that it once more be useful, and that you must be able to recognize what is old, and what is new.
Interpretive reconstruction is the approach Carlo Scarpa took with his reconstruction of many buildings in Italy, the most important of them being Castelvecchio in Verona.
NK And that is under the influence of Hegel – for Hegel it is not just important that what is new looks new, but what is old looks old
AS For Hegel history is always, through dialectic, maturing: and so it is important that not only what is new is better, but also that you can clearly see that what is old was worse, degraded.
NK Your project is very German: putting everything in categories
AS Yes – typologies are always a little ideal – you rarely have a perfect example of one, in which you find a perfect form. They are always a little mixed, and never perfectly split from one another. For instance I list the Barcelona Pavilion as an example of simulated reconstruction, but some walls that Mies had planned to be marble, he did not have enough money, so instead they used brick. In the reconstruction, they used marble. Nevertheless it is not as Le-Duc would have rebuilt it, it is not historicist.
NK Le-Duc would have tried to make the Barcelona Pavilion more Miesian.
AS Yes I am not sure what Le-Duc would have made of Mies, but he may have changed some of the proportions, or the placement of columns, to bring it closer to what he understood the ideal Miesian building to be. But once you understand these categories, then you can mix them, play with them, and achieve something much more meaningful with a reconstruction. I guess this is German. But also of course academia: this is our job.
NK What is the connection between this discussion, and those who want to build new buildings that resemble old?
AS Yes – that is something I did not deal with in the book: You can only reconstruct something that was already there. Historicist architecture – that is something we have always done. Only with modernism did we have this dogma that you were only allowed
to build what is modern. Reconstruction, too, in the end, is something itself completely modern. And to follow this train of thought, modern is not just what is called modern, but reconstruction. It all goes back to the same thought structures, it goes back to Hegel, who built out this dialectical historical model that whoever is new, must develop new principles. In turn, what is old must be correctly old, to honor its place in the development of what is new. To go back, or tamper with the past, is not – in Hegel’s view – “vernünftig”, not reasonable. But Hegel’s is only one historical philosophy thought model. Gilles Deleuze, or Michel Foucault, have entirely different models. This rhizomatic model from Deleuze is to berth the parts adjacent to each-other – without a simple categorization in high and low, better and worse.
NK So you have no issue with those who re- use old forms?
AS When it is done well – not this investor architecture, that will import a few Renaissance arches onto the facade, because they think it will please people – that does not at all interest me. But I think it also no good to dogmatically insist that every historical form has no right. It would be good when architects could freely, un-dogmatically operate, as Viollet-le-Duc had, in his theory, and in his work with iron construction. That I find entirely exciting, to bring old forms into the present.
~ Interview conducted in German ~
ADDENDUM: A WORD ON THE BAUAKADEMIE
NK The German government recently put aside 60 million euros to rebuild Schinkel’s Bauakademie, which survived the Second World War, but was then demolished by the East German government. What is your opinion on the Bauakademie?
AS An exciting theme, directly adjacent to the Berliner Schloss. What I find quite promising is to go ‘half-half’: half reconstructed, from the facade – next to one another. From history and from contemporary architecture. Not just a modern translation of what once was, but to see something completely contemporary adjacent to something completely reconstructed. And how that could appear. That interests me.
NK All that in order to have a conversation, between today and Schinkel?
AS Maybe yes, but also to really contrast the two. We should not try to resolve differences, or make them disappear. We should not try to make the differences disappear, but rather accept them.
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