Thursday, October 14, 2010

fables of the reconstruction

At the end of his brilliant essay on the Barcelona Pavilion – Mies Van De Rohe’s Paradoxical Symmetries – Robin Evans added a short post-script dismissing concerns about the buildings authenticity. The original Pavilion was built for the 1929 International Exposition in Barcelona and demolished shortly after. The building that Robin Evans visited was a reconstruction, completed in the 1980's.

Architecture differs significantly from other art forms in that the final product - the building - is made by people other than the architect. Architects - along with the other members of the design team - really only produce a very complex description of the building, not the thing itself. Although there are questions of authenticity that reside in the manner of a building's construction - that is, in the way that it has been made - artistic authenticity is part of a wider set of issues to do with the buildings relationship to time and place.

The  concept of the zeitgeist is central to the rhetoric of modern architecture. The belief  that buildings should embody the 'spirit of the age' assumes that they can be the logical outcome of the contemporary forces that bring them into being. Such a belief in modernity and in the duty of art and architecture to express the unique conditions of its own period is clearly antithetical to reconstruction. To be authentically modern, one can't recreate the past.

In recent decades a small number of highly significant 'lost' buildings - including the Frauenkirche in Dresden and the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow - have been reconstructed. Unlike the Barcelona Pavilion, the return of these buildings is clearly more a political issue than an aesthetic one. Their re-appearance is an attempt to heal the scars of war or a way of rejecting the political ideology that removed them in the first place.

There can't be a site that better represents the vicissitudes of the twentieth century than Christ the Saviour. It lies in the centre of Moscow, close to the Kremlin and on the banks of the Moskva river. The original cathedral was constructed on this site in the mid-19th century. It was demolished in 1931 in order to make way for the enormous Palace of the Soviets. Only the foundations for this building were completed though and, after lying dormant for years, the site was turned into an open-air swimming pool. Then, in the last decade of the 20th century the cathedral was re-built, an immaculate copy of the original that was consecrated in August, 2000. To complete the return to a pre-revolutionary condition, the cathedral was the venue for the glorification of the last Russian Tsar as a saint.

In a sense, this story is almost too perfect an encapsulation of the retrogressive nature of reconstruction, far too neat a fable. The cathedral hasn't been rebuilt for any architectural qualities it might have had, although, like all cathedrals, it is impressive and awe inspiring when inside. It's reconstruction is a matter of attempting to erase the political events of the 20th century from the site, which from an architectural point of view seems a massive shame. The vast, circular Moksva swimming pool looked like a fabulous constructivist object, a gigantic circle from a Malevich painting spinning through the thixotropic space of the city.

Unlike books, or films, or paintings, a new building usually means the destruction of a previous one. Buildings replace each other, sometimes wrongly, and their conservation is a highly problematic issue because they always mean something to someone. In a sense, reconstructions compound the insult by demolishing the buildings that result from previous demolition. They attempt to rectify the violent erasure of the distant past by erasing the  recent past.

The reconstruction of Christ the Saviour is an attempt to erase the crimes of Stalin, quite specifically as it was he who ordered the cathedrals destruction. Yet, re-writing history is a cliche of Stalinism. The re-built cathedral assumes that nothing of worth existed on the site and that nothing was lost in its reconstruction. The missing swimming pool has become like the people removed from official photographs and history books.

All of which assumes that buildings only exist in their physical form, rather than as a memory, or a photograph or a story. The Barcelona Pavlion only existed as such fragments for many years. It's canonic status within architectural history rested on a handful of black and white pictures and a few drawings. Arguably it's importance was, at least in part, a result of its inaccessibility. Buildings are sometimes more powerful in their absence. Certainly, its easier for a clear narrative to be developed when there is nothing left to contradict it. The perfection of the Barcelona Pavilion was preserved because, for fifty years, it never grew old. It's reconstruction allowed Robin Evans and others to reassess its qualities and contradictions, sometimes radically so.

It's hard to make a case against reconstruction on the grounds of being true to the zeitgeist. Such a position assumes a reductive relationship between technology and form. What happens for instance if the spirit of the age is nostalgic, or inherently reactionary? Ultimately, the argument against reconstruction might be same one as for any building. What does it replace and is it worth it? The Barcelona Pavilion replaced nothing but itself. The site had remained empty and the rotting foundations found in the ground were that of the original. It's tempting to suggest that these should have been retained as a ruin, a genuine preservation of the original. But this is simply another kind of sentimentality, an aestheticisation of the past that merely speaks to a melancholic rather than optimistic frame of mind. It's not so much the ersatz, or inauthentic nature of reconstruction that is the problem, more the futility of the gesture.

A restoration debate has been rumbling away in London these past few years. The Euston Arch was demolished in 1961 and, ever since, there has been a consistent campaign to have it rebuilt. Positions are polarised, and over rehearsed to the point of meaninglessness. But there's always been one detail I've found intriguing about the story which is that the stones from the original arch lie at the bottom of the River Lea. Parts of these remarkably well preserved columns and classical details have already been raised from the river. The proposal now is to literally rebuild using the salvaged material. No doubt if the plans go ahead the stones will be cleaned and repaired and the missing parts remade to complete the whole. As all reconstructions are representations of history though, maybe a more truthful picture would be to only use what can genuinely be reclaimed. The result, with its holes and gaps and stains might be a more compelling, and more genuine, record of the building's history.


Jack Burnett-Stuart said...

...which leads onto Hans Dollgast's reconstruction of the Alte Pinakothek.

Giovanni Tiso said...

Great post, and one that brought to mind the ritualistic reconstruction of the Ise Shrine (due next in 2013 - how I'd love to be there for it).

owen hatherley said...

Ha! That's a much better discussion of the subject of my next column in BD, which is up on the site in about half an hour. In my defence, I had a tighter wordcount...

(also, quickly re: Euston - I'm sure my position here is also 'over-rehearsed', but it surely fits more in the Christ the Saviour than Barcelona section, what with the kneejerk assumption that what was built there in the 60s is worthless. The redevelopment plans for Waterloo are similarly alarming, but it's sad that (eg) Gavin Stamp supports the former case of destruction of a perfectly decent station and not the second.)

angry catalan said...

The reconstruction of the Barcelona pavillion was very political. Oriol Bohigas (whose idea it was to reconstruct the pavillion) says that, as a student under Francoism, he found a picture of the Barcelona Pavillion and thought it was some building in Barcelona, Venezuela. Until the mid-60s, Modernism didn't exist, and indeed modernists in all fields of culture had to flee the country or were killed, especially if they were pro-Catalan. I don't think Bonet Castellana or Josep-Lluís Sert just fancied a trip to America now did they.

Oriol Bohigas is kind of a left-wing "noucentista". "Noucentisme" is a Catalan cultural movement from the 20s. It's a rationalistic movement based on the idea of "civilisating" and "city-fying" society through the creation of Catalan cultural institutions. 1920's Noucentistes were bourgeoise and a bit fascistic in their will to educate the masses - indeed some of them went pro-Spain and pro-Franco later on, though some others didn't and went into exile, notably Josep Carner. The point is that Bohigas understood it meant dignifying the city though a public legacy which should become inextricably linked to the identity of the city and its people, and that's what's behind "the Barcelona model" and the reconstruction of the Barcelona Pavillion - or, as Bohigas' motto goes, "our goal is to reconquer the city centre and monumentalise the periphery".

I hope this sheds some light on the subject. Maybe it's off topic. I don't know, but back in 1983 rebuilding the Barcelona pavillion was not nostalgic but inaugurating a period where a socialistic Modernism was to turn Barcelona into a livable city. It kind of failed because it wasn't very socialistic in the end, but it also kind of succeeded. But it was definitely NOT something that happened on the scale of the history of the architecture, or on the scale of the building itself and nothing more. It was about the city.

angry catalan said...

Also, supposedly the rebuilt Pavillion is formally quite different from the original one - a lot has been written about this.

As for reconstruction using actuall remains... there's Corbu (Ronchamp), there's Miralles (Utrecht, Sta. Caterina) and there's Scarpa (everything he did). These three examples I look up to. That's how I think we should look at history.

MM Jones said...

Great essay, I find the last part about the Euston Arch especially interesting.
A third example might be the Palast der Republik, the former East German parliament in Berlin. This has a parallel story to Christ the Savior, but in this case the communist-era building was totally razed by 2008 to make way for the reconstruction of the Prussian-era Stadtschloß (which was lost during the war).
The Palst der Republik housed public venues and concert halls. The new schloss will not be a government building, but will be used as a museum.
Its interesting how a choice was made to re-introduce the seat of a historic imperial power, and erasing the manifestation of another era-- one nostalgia winning over another.

Charles Holland said...

thanks for very useful comments.....

Angry Catalan, thank you for the insights into the politics behind the reconstruction of Mies' pavilion particularly. I didn't think the reconstructed pavilion differed greatly although I understood there were some detail adjustments.

MM, I was in Berlin before the Palast der Republik was demolished and when a screen print of the Stadtschloss was put up on scaffolding to encourage the re-building. The most interesting part of the Palast was the preserved balcony (which presumably has been stored prior to wholesale reconstruction?) which preserved an important element of history whilst moving on....

Lang Rabbie said...

The Stadtschloß actually survived the war partly intact and was demolished by the DDR authorities.

The preserved balcony of the Stadtschloß - from which Liebknecht declared the first socialist republic - wasn't incorporated into the Palast der Republik. It is still standing as part of the former Staatsrat (DDR Council of State( building on the south side of the square to which it was moved - which IIRC predated the Palast by at least a decade. So the questions are whether they move it back again after 40+years, and if so what to fill the gap in the Staatsrat facade with!

What is even odder is the temporary "Humboldt-Box®" pavilion now going up to promote the Humboldtforum that will eventually occupy the rebuilt Schloß. The box is not a pastiche bleeding chunk of the Schloß, but a "contemporary" design - it looks like a rip-off of Koolhaas's Casa da Música!

Lang Rabbie said...

By the way, has there been a decent article yet comparing David Chipperfield's work at the Neues Museum and what Hans Dollgast's did in Munich 50 years ago the Alte Pinakothek.

Charles Holland said...

Lang, yes you are right of course. I'm getting my DDR buildings mixed up. The Staatsrat complete with its bit of Schloß is still there. Good question though as to where it will end up after reconstruction.

Kosmograd said...

There's a great detective story to be written (by someone more dedicated and focused than me), in trying to unravel what happened to the original Barcelona Pavilion. I've always found it a mystery that such an icon of Modernism was demolished and thrown away so unceremoniously, even if it was intended to be a temporary building. Angry Catalan's comments make me wonder if there was a political angle not only in its reconstruction but also its demolition - a wilful act of forgetting.

MM Jones said...

I was also fortunate to see the old Palast when it was still standing. You could buy paper model postcards of it in the design shops in Prenzlauer-- I sensed a nostalgia for what was not yet lost. On my next visit to Berlin it was almost fully pulled down. Unter den Linden was echoing the jackhammers, the rusty skeleton was shrouded in promotions for the new/old schloß that was replacing it. There was actually a rather excellent outdoor exhibition of historic photographs of the spot; here and there was some graffiti decrying the recreation of one history by erasing another.
I still wonder where all those bright, pink-bronze mirrors that glazed the Palast have gone to now. For myself, to find one in some vacant Brandenburg field would be a prize greater than pulling a caryatid from the bottom of a river.

Really enjoying the journal, Charles.


Steve Parnell said...

One of my PhD arguments is that history is to the past what architecture is to building: the former being representations/reconstructions of the latter. The two aren't interchangeable terms in either case.

loving "thixotropic space"!

Charles Holland said...

Yes, this is Beatriz Colomina's point too. That architecture is mediated building, or that architecture is constructed through its mediation.

Thanks, thought I'd got away with that little bit of purple prose!