The Varieties of Travel Experience   /   Summer 2024   /    Essays

As You Were

The Case for Rebuilding

Witold Rybczynski

Notre-Dame de Paris burns, 2019; Vanessa Peña/Alamy Stock Photo.

During the lengthy debate about what to do with the World Trade Center site and how to commemorate the 9/11 Twin Towers, some suggested that the two skyscrapers simply be rebuilt. Wouldn’t they be a powerful memorial? But what an outcry that idea produced! Rebuild as before? Never. The towers, each 110 stories high, had dominated the Manhattan skyline for a quarter century, but they had never been popular. Moreover, rebuilding them would disturb what some people were calling “hallowed ground.” But it was more than that. It was the very idea of recreating the past that many found unacceptable.

This was an odd attitude, historically speaking. Destroyed landmarks have been regularly rebuilt since, well, time immemorial. After Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed by the Babylonians in 587 BC, seventy years later the Second Temple was built on the same spot, and although details of its exact design are sketchy (the building was later destroyed by the Romans), the new temple is described as having the same dimensions as the old. The Persians destroyed the goddess Athena’s temple when they sacked Athens in the fifth century BC, and thirty years later the Athenians built the Parthenon in the same location, and with roughly the same footprint—and form—as its predecessor. They even reused some of the marble.

There is nothing unusual about wanting to recreate a destroyed past. When a 1577 fire damaged a large portion of the Doge’s Palace in Venice, the architect Andrea Palladio proposed tearing down what was left of the Gothic building and replacing it with an entirely new design in the Roman-inspired style he favored. The Great Council of Venice, perhaps reacting to popular demand—or simply out of frugality—decided that as much as possible of the old structure should be saved and that rebuilding should bring back the fourteenth-century original, pointed arches, filigreed arcades, and all. Another of Venice’s prominent landmarks is St. Mark’s Campanile, a 323-foot brick watchtower that has been standing in the Piazza San Marco since the fifteenth century. In the early 1900s cracks appeared in the tower, and it was while repairs were being undertaken that, on July 14, 1902, the whole thing collapsed into a huge pile of rubble. That same evening, the town council unanimously decided that the tower should be rebuilt exactly as before (well, not exactly—the structure was strengthened with reinforced concrete). A decade later, the work was completed and the cherished landmark, which Venetians call el paròn de casa, the master of the house, was back.

Similar rebuilding occurred in Belgium following the First World War. The town center of Ypres, which came under intense artillery fire, had been almost completely destroyed, including the Lakenhalle, or cloth hall. The massive market building, of Gothic design, dated from the thirteenth century, when Ypres was a center of the flourishing Flemish textile industry. Between 1933 and 1967 the Lakenhalle was meticulously rebuilt, with old material being reused when that was possible, or new when it wasn’t. The library of the Catholic University of Leuven is another Belgian example. It was located in a lakenhalle of more recent vintage, dating back only to the seventeenth century, that was burned to the ground by vindictive German troops. Its replacement, built with American funds, was a grander version in the same Flemish Renaissance style, and when that building was destroyed in the Second World War it was carefully restored.

The Second World War, which saw the advent of mass aerial bombing, was, if anything, more destructive than the first. In the postwar period, many destroyed landmarks were rebuilt, including Cologne’s cathedral, Dresden’s eighteenth-century Frauenkirche, Berlin’s Charlottenberg Palace, and the tsarist Peterhof and Catherine Palaces in St. Petersburg (then Leningrad). One of the largest reconstructions was Warsaw’s Stare Miasto, or Old Town. In 1944, in reprisal for the Uprising, Hitler had ordered the Wehrmacht to raze the city, which it did, exploding and burning buildings with Teutonic efficiency. While most of Warsaw was rebuilt in the bland style characteristic of the postwar period, certain civic landmarks, such as the the medieval Stare Miasto district and the seventeenth-century Royal Castle, were faithfully restored to their prewar state. The reconstruction was controversial outside Poland—critics considered it an inauthentic pastiche—but to the Poles, what the rebuilt buildings stood for was far more important than their actual age.

Whence comes the contemporary taboo against rebuilding the lost past? I think there are two sources. One is the architectural profession. Of course, architects prefer to build their own designs, but the resistance goes deeper than that. A foundational tenet of the modern architectural movement was the idea of an architecture “for our time.” That is to say, the modern age, which was revolutionary in many respects, required its own distinct—and revolutionary—architecture. Although this directive originated in the 1920s, it has persisted: Each period deserves its own distinct architecture. As part of this argument, the public is told, “We understand that you like the old buildings, but we just can’t build that way anymore even if we wanted to—we don’t have the craftsmen or the old skills.” If it were shown that in fact you could build “traditional” buildings, who knows where that would lead? Better not to open that door.

Then there is the question of authorship. The modern attitude is that great architecture is a personal expression of the architect, and, like a work of art, a building may not be altered. When the Italian-American architect Romaldo Giurgola was commissioned to expand the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas, (Louis Kahn, the building’s architect, had died sixteen years earlier), he proposed duplicating the vaults of the original to create a seamless addition. Led by some of the top professionals in their field, architects clamorously denounced the project. The fact that Giurgola had been a colleague and close friend of Kahn, and that Kahn himself had earlier created a design for a larger version of the museum that formed the basis for Giurgiola’s proposal, counted for nothing. “Why ruin the masterwork of Kahn’s life with such an ill-considered extension?” asked a letter to the New York Times whose signatories included Philip Johnson, Richard Meier, and Frank Gehry. The humiliated museum canceled the project and fired the architect.

The other source of the taboo is the historic preservation profession. An international meeting held in Venice in 1964 was an early effort to regulate this emerging field. The result was the influential “Venice Charter for the Conservation and Restoration of Monuments and Sites.” The Venice Charter treated historical monuments as works of art and placed a priority on maintaining their artistic integrity. Restoration was to be handled delicately: “Replacements of missing parts must integrate harmoniously with the whole, but at the same time must be distinguishable from the original so that restoration does not falsify the artistic or historic evidence.” In other words, the new had to be distinct from the old. As for projects such as Stare Miasto, the Venice Charter was unequivocal: “All reconstruction work should, however, be ruled out a priori.”

Even though some of the strict prescriptions of the Venice Charter have been eased over the years, and Stare Miasto was named a World Heritage site by UNESCO, the combination of preservation theory and architectural dogma has had a powerful influence. While historical reconstructions such as the rebuilding of the twelfth-century St. Michael’s Monastery in Kyiv and the nineteenth-century Orthodox Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow, both demolished in the 1930s by the Communist regime per its policy of state atheism, have wide popular appeal, the professional bias against faithful rebuilding persists. When in the 1980s a group of Catalán architects rebuilt the pavilion that had been designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe as part of the German Weimar Republic’s section at Barcelona’s 1929 International Exposition (and had been dismantled when the exposition closed), many critics denounced the reconstruction of the iconic masterpiece as a fake. Similarly, a scholarly paper characterized Dresden’s rebuilt Frauenkirche as “a fantasy of reconstruction” and “monumental fetishism.” Such criticisms have led to some distinctly odd reconstructions. The Königliches Schloss, Berlin’s royal palace, which had been demolished by the East German government, was rebuilt after German reunification. Three façades are stone, faithful reproductions of the original Baroque exterior, but the fourth is unadorned Modernist concrete. In a review of the building, Michael J. Lewis, writing in The New Criterion, described this latest interpretation of the Venice Charter as “the architect’s way of winking at you and reminding you that this is a work of the early twenty-first century and not the early eighteenth.”

Yet there are signs that the taboo may be starting to crumble. On April 15, 2019, a fire destroyed the roof and spire of the great cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris. Almost immediately, architects began proposing wildly original replacements: glass roofs, rooftop gardens, a stainless-steel spire. The administration of French president Emmanuel Macron, seemingly of like mind, announced an international architectural competition. The president promised an “inventive reconstruction” that would leave the cathedral “more beautiful than before.” The prime minister, Édouard Philippe, called for “a new spire adapted to the techniques and the challenges of our era,” whatever that meant.

Le Figaro published a protest letter calling for a more measured response, not an “architectural gesture.” The more than one thousand signatories included a former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the two chief curators of the Louvre, and a number of prominent French preservationists. After a public and professional outcry, the French National Assembly passed legislation requiring the restoration to “preserve the historic, artistic and architectural interest of the monument.” Although the bill did not become law, the architectural competition was canceled. There would be no winking—Notre-Dame would be rebuilt as it was before. The reconstruction is currently underway. The vaults that were destroyed by the collapsing spire are in the process of being rebuilt, damaged stonework is being reinforced, and oak trees have been harvested that will be used to fabricate the timber trusses of the roof. The cathedral is slated to open to the public in December 2024, although construction is not expected to be completed until the following year.

A prominent part of the Notre-Dame reconstruction is a slender spire, an oaken framework covered in lead that stands over the crossing. The spire has a complicated history. The original flèche, which dated from the thirteenth century, reached a height of 256 feet and was the tallest landmark in Paris, but by the end of the 1700s it was in such poor condition, even in danger of toppling, that it had to be pulled down. Its replacement was completed in 1859. Although Gothic in spirit, it was almost sixty feet taller and ornamented with statues of the Apostles. Its construction was part of a major renovation of the old cathedral, which had been neglected, insensitively altered, and—during the French Revolution—vandalized. The restoration project was the responsibility of the architect Eugène Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc, a pioneering preservationist, but of a pre–Venice Charter sort. For example, he did not return Notre-Dame to its twelfth-century origins, favoring instead its thirteenth-century iteration, which included features such as flying buttresses. He removed later additions to the cathedral, although the authorities insisted that the Louis XIV–era choir be retained. Viollet-le-Duc’s approach to preservation was interpretive rather than archaeological. For example, while he restored the carved Gothic gargoyles high on the cathedral roof, he added chimeras, sculptures of mythical beasts that were present on some medieval churches, though not Notre-Dame.

Such “improvements” fly in the face of modern conservation theory, yet for many visitors the ghoulish chimeras perfectly encapsulate the spirit of medieval architecture, which was Viollet-le-Duc’s intention. He famously pronounced that “to restore a building is not to preserve it, to repair, or rebuild it; it is to reinstate it in a condition of completeness which could never have existed at any given time.” This somewhat cryptic statement underlines the paradox of historic preservation. “Completeness” is not, and has never been, a natural condition of architecture. Buildings, unlike paintings and sculptures, are always in flux: The weather takes its toll, stones and bricks are repointed, roof slates replaced, and wood repainted. Practical considerations intervene, functions change, new needs arise, buildings are enlarged. Technical features require updating: more efficient heating and cooling systems, better lighting, and safer elevators. A building—any building—always represents something new as well as something old. Thus, old buildings are not The Past. They are partial and imperfect reminders of days gone by—but all the more valuable for that.