Reconstruction in Architecture

Text by Giorgio Grassi

My relationship with architecture and its practice is based on the (admittedly schematic) idea of an architecture founded on the specificity, autonomy, and substantial unity of its experience in time. And this in the sense that for me, that experience is exclusively accountable to itself, to its own materiality and physicality as an autonomous and independent fact, and to its essentially self-referential character, all of which makes it, precisely, an experience that is fundamentally unitary in time.

That this is the case is demonstrated by every work of architecture worthy of the name. But every such work also attests to the fact that it is conditioned by or even dependent on those that preceded it, even when it seems to have superseded or refuted them. All historical experience of architecture is based on this premise: the uninterrupted bond with ancient architecture from the Renaissance on (in this connection, it is worth recalling the beautiful words of Adolf Loos: “For as long as humanity has felt the greatness of classical antiquity, the great architects have been bound together by a single common idea. They think: the way I build is the way the ancient Romans would also have built. We know they’re wrong. Time, place, purpose and climate, milieu thwart this ambition. But whenever architecture is pushed further from its greatness by the small ones, the ornamentalists – as happens again and again – the great architect is there to lead it back toward antiquity.”).
What was said above naturally has consequences precisely for the subject of reconstruction.
The first and most obvious consequence is that for me, there is no significant difference between construction and reconstruction. If the relationship to historical experience is a necessary and inescapable condition of a project, then all projects – even if they proceed from different, even very different conditions, are in reality reconstruction projects.
Another consequence that flows from these assumptions is that the fragment (whether archaeological or not) – and that is exactly what a monumental ruin is – has no architectural value in itself. An architectural fragment is always merely part of a whole, part, that is, of a work that was designed to express itself in all its completeness as an architectural work. And as such, the fragment only has value as part of that work.
In this sense, the original ruins of the theater of Sagunto were the point of departure for our project – they were literally the stones on which we built. And this we did – in the first instance and in the most general sense – with the exclusive aim of restoring to those ruins what for us was their sole legitimate task, to bring to light the true form of the Roman theater of Sagunto.
All the rest – everything that can be said about the ruins as such, about their value as a historical memento, collective or individual, about the evocation of the past, the myth of the origins, etc., all of which in fact belongs exclusively to the realm of intellectual reflection on, or sentimental identification with, the world of the ruins – has nothing to do with the ruins themselves or the architectonic fragment as architecture.
Our reconstruction effort was first of all based on the original ruins of the theater of Sagunto, and then, of course, on the type of the Roman theater (perhaps the type of public building defined more precisely and canonized by the entire experience of Roman civic architecture). We built a theater “in the manner of the Romans,” and we naturally did so with the means, the culture, and the eyes of our time (with our own eyes): thus, it is precisely a Roman theater built today.
In the 1960s and ‘70s, Sagunto underwent interventions whose object was not the Roman theater but its ruins, and whose aim was clearly to develop them into a spectacle in their own right, to make them showier and more prominent. Faced with these interventions, we chose to eliminate those that led to a distorted reading of the ancient artifact, while on the contrary preserving those that did not conflict with its reconstruction “as it was”: essentially, even if they were the product of a belated Ruskinian interpretation of the ruins, they too now belong to the building’s history, and to eliminate them would have meant destroying a piece of that history unnecessarily.
With respect to the Greek theater, the Roman theater was something entirely new and absolutely extraordinary. Its objectives were quite distinct, and hence the result could only be a different, indeed completely different, thing. Whereas the Greek theater is above all its site, the Roman theater is exclusively its form – a form that is capable of adapting to and imposing itself upon any site whatsoever.
It is this absolute primacy of the form in the Roman theater that led, indeed virtually obligated us to reconstruct Sagunto.
While there are innumerable more or less well preserved Roman theaters scattered throughout the vast area of the empire, there are very few (Aspendos, Sabratha, perhaps Basra) that are still in a position to restore to us the specific quality of the Roman theater as architecture.
The idea of the Roman theater is entirely contained in its architecture, in its unmistakable volume and the dizzying space of its enclosure, in its artificiality, which is so obvious, so open and unabashed with respect to its various objectives, so in keeping with its practical purpose and subsequent development (the Renaissance theater and the teatro all’italiana). Even the political idea of the Roman theater, its civilizing as well as conquering function in such a vast territory, is entirely contained in the canonical forms of the physical structure of the theater.
The extraordinarily innovative character of the Roman theater as physical structure contrasts – and not without reason – with the modest inspiration that, on the contrary, characterizes much of Roman theatrical production when compared with that of the Greeks. Which only confirms the primacy of the building’s architecture over every other aspect of the theater in Rome.
There is a curious and revealing anecdote that is worth mentioning in this context. At a conference held by E. Souriau in Paris in the 1950s on the theme of “Architecture et Dramaturgie,” among the various influential figures who spoke were Le Corbusier and Louis Jouvet, the most famous architect and most influential man of the theater of the time, both of whom spoke on the topic of the theater as architecture. The peculiar thing – but not that peculiar on closer examination – is that Le Corbusier argued that the entire meaning of the theater lies not in its site but in the theatrical action (for example, he describes the campielli in Venice as theatrical sites), whereas Jouvet attributes to the physical structure, to its unique and remarkable space, the deepest and most authentic meaning of the theater, the very special bond that links the spectator to what takes place on the stage (“…Arenas, amphitheaters, or theaters. Whether ancient or modern, it is in these deserted structures, as one suddenly enters them and is penetrated by their strange emptiness and silence, that one can approach an authentic idea of the theater.”).
It certainly was not our aim in reconstructing Sagunto to propose a model solution, something that might teach others “how it’s done,” something that might serve as an example for other projects, something that might be repeated.
We had identified a few specific conditions in the theater of Sagunto that seemed to us to be necessary and sufficient for its reconstruction in keeping with our aims (the completion of its volume within the context of the city of today as well as that of its internal space on the basis of what its remnants had to offer before our intervention). These included the state of the ruins, which had been irreversibly compromised by crude mimetic interventions, and the relationship between the ruins and their surroundings, which had fortunately preserved the conditions of the original structure vis-à-vis its site: the theater’s ruins separated the area of the forum, which lay above it, from the ancient city on the hill below it.
Taking as our point of departure the idea of architecture and of the relationship between project and historical experience described above, our aim, right from the start, was to put that idea and working hypothesis into practice as directly and explicitly as possible in their most didactic form, so that the procedure could emerge clearly and unambiguously. The result and the result alone would justify the procedure.
Only the realized project would show whether or not we had been able to establish a coherent and positive relationship with that extraordinary moment in the historical experience of architecture that was precisely Roman architecture. It alone would show whether or not our project had succeeded in reestablishing that “alliance with the ancients” that we find in all the great architectural works of the past, without giving up the specificity of our training and our affiliation with our time but on the contrary binding ourselves to it even more firmly, without, that is, giving up the freedom to express ourselves with the means at our disposal today, without concessions or expedients of any kind.
Why perform a comedy by Plautus or a tragedy by Seneca today? Why do so if we have no idea “how” they were performed at the time? Our words, our gestures, our intonation, even our technical means – masks or microphones, natural or artificial light, etc.: everything separates us from them; everything is different. The means we use to express ourselves are our means; they are those of today – and they could not be otherwise. Do we then lose something of those texts by performing them? Or on the contrary, isn’t that the only way to rediscover what unites us and what permits us to recognize and see ourselves reflected in them? And if that is the case, why should we refrain from doing so, since the only legitimate way that we have to perform those texts is our own?
But if that is the case, then why is there such an outcry when there is talk of reconstructing an ancient monument? And why should we refrain from doing so, if the only legitimate way that we have to reconstruct such monuments is our own?
The result in the case of Sagunto may or may not be to one’s liking (that is none of my business), but it cannot easily be claimed that it constitutes a perversion of the ruins, a misunderstanding of their meaning and material, or an improper use of them, or that something they formerly possessed has been taken away from them and lost (isn’t that just like maintaining that Plautus cannot be performed today because we don’t know how it was done at the time?).
The Roman theater is a well-defined architectonic type; the period of its construction in the Roman world did not last long – little more than a century; but its vital role has never ceased (the process of developing and deepening the virtuality that was preserved by the architectonic type of the Roman theater has never been interrupted). It has reappeared whenever the theater had need of it again: in Italy in Parma and Vicenza; in Spain in the corrales; in London in the Globe; and so on through the teatro all’italiana and its extraordinary spread throughout the world. Whenever the theater decided to take up residence at a site, it took shape in the form that, although it was the first, already had within itself everything it needed to adapt without changing, without altering what, for Louis Jouvet, is the very meaning of the theater of all times and places: precisely its form, which is always new but in reality always the same.
As for the Berliner Schloß, the situation is obviously completely different. For example, one would be hard pressed to maintain that it is a typical castle, a typical example of a castle among the many in Germany or Europe, that is, that it reflects a distinct and recognizable architectonic type. This is because in reality there is no determinate type of the castle (in a certain region, for example, and a certain time). Moreover, the Berliner Schloß is exquisitely composite; its construction was subject to a diverse, indeed extremely diverse, array of influences over time (due to the clients, the architects, changing economic conditions, etc.).
In other words, unlike the Roman theater of Sagunto (and it is surely no accident that with very few exceptions, Roman architecture is an architecture without individual architects), the Berliner Schloß represents only itself. And from the point of view of its architecture, that makes it unrepeatable, practically but also theoretically.
The only alternative would be to construct a copy of it – an exact copy, as similar to it as possible in its good points as well as its bad. That is what was done, for example, with the reconstruction of the campanile of San Marco in Venice after its sudden collapse, an approach that in this case was justified by the desire to restore the architectonic composition of the square. It is also what was done with the reconstruction of the historic city center of Warsaw; in that case, by contrast, it was justified by the powerful ideological and political motivation to put the war in the past. In both of these cases, however, the architectonic value of the reconstruction was clearly nil, since neither of the two responses reacted in any way to the fact that they were nonetheless still responses at the level of their architecture.
Both of these theoretical motivations are at work in the reconstruction of the Berliner Schloß. The ideological and political one is certainly the more powerful, even if that of the architectonic restoration of the Lustgarten is obviously the one it is easier to win acceptance for.
On the other hand, treating monuments as if they were merely political symbols is not just simplistic but politically childish; and it is also always an act of gratuitous violence. That is what the GDR did when it destroyed the Berliner Schloß and built the Palast der Republik in its place (a banal example of contemporary architecture, perhaps unworthy of being preserved but an important piece of history nonetheless, which does not vanish painlessly). But it is also what the city is preparing to do today in an effort to “put things back in their proper place,” as the saying goes – formally in their proper place, and yet in the process obliterating a piece of the city’s history, which belongs to it in spite of everything.
In fact, I believe that the point of view of the city and its history is the proper one from which to view the issue of the reconstruction of the Berliner Schloß. The castle is an important part of the city’s history, and in this sense it is its mirror. Whatever is ultimately done (whatever is constructed, destroyed, or reconstructed), the castle will continue to represent that history faithfully. We must acknowledge this and accept it as a fact that is independent of us, and decide if it is our task today to make a futile attempt to blot history out by reconstructing the castle in an uncritical – deliberately uncritical – manner, or to highlight the special quality that the building possesses by dint of having for so long been a privileged witness to the history of the city.
I realize that this is something with which architecture has very little to do, or at least on an issue like this one it is not in a position to express itself using its native means. Nevertheless, architecture can draw from this issue indications, suggestions, but also concrete elements for a critical reconstruction that is as valid as it is necessary, helping to ensure that the new castle’s forms are able to recount those changing and dramatic events which they are no longer in a position to bear witness to directly.
What, then, should we expect at this point from a reconstruction of the Berliner Schloß? Certainly not a building that is proud of itself and proud to be back as if nothing had happened, the result of a hasty decision to do whatever it takes to ensure that, in the end, the building is in its place again and shown off to its best advantage. Nor, however, should we expect a large commercial and cultural center on an international scale, a cultural hub, a convention center, etc., with all the amenities, that is, a large and complex structure that could not possibly stand in any plausible relationship with a castle, be it old or new, and especially not with a castle disguised as the old Berliner Schloß. Nor even – to return to a hypothesis already tried in its time in provisional form – a system of stage sets designed, on the one side, to delimit the Lustgarten “as it was” (but are we sure that that’s the best solution for the Lustgarten?), and, on the other, to hide behind them an entire series of more or less necessary functions.
In my opinion, none of these responses is worthy of the city of Berlin, neither of its new situation nor much less of the city “as it was” before the demolition. I believe the only viable alternative is the one that has already been mentioned, that is, to replace the old castle with a new one. A castle for Berlin on the same site, not bound to the old one except by the fact that it too attempts to present itself as a castle, not necessarily bound by the forms or even the dimensions of the old one, a castle that, while faithful to the aim of reconstruction, also assumes the task of responding to the Lustgarten of today, the elements of whose composition are the same as they were when Schinkel built his museum, with the sole exception precisely of the castle. A Berlin city castle constructed today, with today’s eyes and means (for that matter, is there an alternative?). Frankly, an almost impossible challenge, in my view at least (however, one in which more than a hundred architects were involved). A challenge posed to contemporary architecture by an old monument that the Berliners themselves perhaps never particularly liked and that they may even have almost forgotten, a monument that not long ago they stupidly tore down, convinced that they would be able to replace it with something more suitable and appropriate to the times.
With a similar degree of faith in their resources and a certain amount of thoughtlessness and presumption, they are now preparing to reconstruct the Berliner Schloß, with stage sets on two sides to delimit the Lustgarten and the Kupfergraben, additional sets to define the internal space of the Schlüterhof, and behind and in the midst of this improbable system of stage sets virtually all that the area of the old castle can possibly hold, which is necessary to finance the costly operation.
And all of this despite the fact that the Berliner Schloß – that old, exaggerated, and unwieldy structure – is not at all the unique and irreplaceable piece that it is said to be (with all due respect for Schlüter, Eosander, etc., what was lost was certainly no masterpiece, at least in my opinion). It was a freestanding structure capable of holding its own beside the many other ambitious freestanding structures in that area (including the cathedral, the Nationalgalerie, the Pergamon, the Bode, etc.), but certainly not beside the Altes Museum, which faced it and which seems to have attempted to ignore its unwieldy neighbor in its own design. It was a building, one imagines, that Schinkel would have preferred not to have before him when designing the Lustgarten.

Text from: Displayer–a publication series on politics of exhibiting in space which publishs the seminars’ results within the programme Exhibition Design and Curatorial Practice at the University of Arts and Design Karlsruhe. The text by Giorgio Grassi which is based on the student’s questions has been written for the third issue of Displayer, Karlsruhe/Berlin, June 2009, pp.234-238.

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