“The eternal value of architectural design and the restoration of lost buildings” by Prof. dr. M.A.B. Chao-Duivis

History has many examples of iconoclasm and destruction of buildings. Statues and buildings having existed for centuries and sometimes thousands of years were powerless against the blind fury of iconoclasts. In recent years we have seen the dynamiting of the magnificent Buddhas in Afghanistan and more recently the purposeful dramatic destruction of Nimrud, Niniveh, Hatra and so on.

On November 17th 2016, The Guardian[1]  made an urgent plea for the restoration of that which was lost:

‘But all is not lost. Yes, the Assyrian remains have been demolished. But what is demolished can be replaced. Nimrud and the other sites are the subject of records, surveys, films, photographs galore. Every minute detail of the sculptures and reliefs is known.

Digital scanning, robot etching and 3D reproduction can recreate these monuments, to an exactness unknown to past attempts at such reinstatement. Extrusion techniques can rebuild monuments using the dust of the ruins themselves. There is no reason why the temples of Palmyra, the palace gateway at Nimrud or the sixth-century monastery of Dair Mar Elia (St Elijah) should not rise again, exactly as they were as recently as last year. The flattened Nimrud ziggurat was, after all, a mound of earth.’.

There is however a serious obstacle:

‘It lies in reactionary sections of the art historical profession and the archaeology bureaucrats of Unesco. They hold any reproduction to be “inauthentic”; that destroyed sites should be “conserved as found”; that what happens in wars and natural disasters is “history”, and as such should be left in place.’.   Met dat argument in de hand werd de wens van de bevolking wonende in de buurt van de vernietigde Boeddha beelden om deze te herbouwen van de hand gewezen: ‘It would be “brand new” and “inauthentic”.[2]

With this argument the wish of the local people to rebuild the Buddhas was denied: ‘It would be “brand new” and “inauthentic”’.

But is that true? Certainly a rebuilt Buddha would be brand new. But would it be inauthentic? To me it seems like a misunderstanding.

What is the essence of the design of a sculptor or an architect? That is the drawing/the design of the statue or the building that is to be made. There is a difference, because many sculptors make the statue themselves while an architect usually depends on others to realize his design. The realization of the design is however not the factor that determines authenticity. That is the intellectual labour of the creator of the design: of the sculptor and the architect. This intellectual labour is eternal and is separate from the here and now. There is therefore nothing against the repetition of a design. Not even if it is thousands of years later. It is just as authentic as its first realization.

Here a comparison is perhaps helpful in breaking down this misplaced dogmatic thinking. No one argues that it should be forbidden to reprint or repeat Shakespeare’s plays for the hundred thousandth time because the authenticity was consumed after the first time. The million times Beethoven’s music is played, is that listening to inauthentic music? What is the difference between the sculptor and the architect on the one hand and the author and the composer on the other? And why should we not argue the same for the painter? The hand of the master of course gives ‘extra’ authenticity to the painting . But why may it not be repainted if it has been destroyed? Of course it is a copy in the sense of a second or following repetition and no one argues that it is a first iteration. Just as the player of Beethoven’s works cannot argue that he is playing something original in the sense that it has never been heard before. And so also in music the hand of the musician gives extra authenticity to the ‘design’. But how poor would our lives be if the playing of music or the enjoyment of Shakespeare’s plays would be forbidden because it is not authentic or brand new?

The West German cities and towns and villages, especially where non-socialist administrations ruled after the devastating Second World War[3], have been rebuilt on a massive scale as they were. What a delight is this it not to this day to those who live there?

A better understanding of the intellectual accomplishment of the sculptor and the architect and the social desirability to always be able to enjoy what the past has brought us are reasons to break with among others with article 15 of the Charter of Venice: ‘All reconstruction work should however be ruled out “a priori.” Only anastylosis, that is to say, the reassembling of existing but dismembered parts can be permitted. (….)’.

Article 3 of this Charter reads as follows: ‘Article 3. The intention in conserving and restoring monuments is to safeguard them no less as works of art than as historical evidence.’. The prohibition against restoration makes it so that in many cases there will only be ‘historical evidence’ of war crimes. The Guardian is right when it says: ‘The cult of the ruin is now the terrorist’s best friend. He knows that every time we gaze on the remains of his deeds, we will be reminded of his message.’.  So sad.


[1] https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/nov/17/rebuilding-nimrud-atone-sins-west-isis-destruction; Rebuilding Nimrud will help atone for the sins of the west, Simon Jenkins.

[2] This vision has been codified in the Charter of Venice, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Venice_Charter (consulted on November 30, 2016).

[3] I have no source for this statement, but have read this years ago in a newspaper.

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