Against Restoration

Some time ago I attended a play staged in Casale Cervelletta in Rome. The show was attractive, the format original, but what is interesting for me is the shelter: the house is not restored, partly ruined, not permanently used, and – maybe because of that – likely to be “lived” in a poetic form. On arriving I can’t see the mass of the building, but only the main facade on top of a little rise. It is still daylight, I get my ticket at the kiosk and drink a beer. I’m alone in the crowd and perhaps this amplifies my emotional perceptions. At dusk, I can see from the ruined windows hands and faces watching us and waiting for us. The show takes place partly in the spoiled courtyard of the house, partly in darkish rooms, some of which still littered with old furnishings.


The magic of theater animated the space and awakened its genius loci, transforming the walls and windows into tracks and thick roots of the civilization I belong to. And a question arised: would that happen if the complex had just been restored? My answer is no – otherwise this post would have had another title – and I honestly asked myself if my impression was due to an “aesthetics of ruins” from romantic remembrance. But I don’t think so: the point is, the location of our life is like our body, which carries the signs of our personal history in the form of scars, wrinkles, a gait a little bit crooked or curved, a light in the eyes that tells the happy moments and the painful ones. Also a house tells its story, the one of those who lived there, generation after generation. It shows it in its cracks, in the plaster peeling, in the worn floors, in the lopsided windows. It tells stories that can be heard only through a poetic catalyst, that is why they emerge only when it is inhabited by art.

Cervelletta       EPSON DSC picture

Restoration aims precisely at destroying all this: it is a facelift, a refusal to accept that time passes, it is the desire to forget our own story, a story of poverty.

But the one who hasn’t a story cannot have a future, and the capitalist and consumerist culture demands us to be in a permanent present where past and future do not exist. Indeed, there is not even the present: there is only something that is “going to happen” and never does. Each one of us has the opportunity to choose to stop for a moment to listen, to take up the legacy of all the generations that have gone before us and make them revive in himself.

Not all of the restoration is to be rejected, of course: if we stopped taking care of our relics, like anything else, they would decay much faster. This actually happens, as we all see too often in our precious historical centers, until the buildings can no longer be called so, but become ruins. I’m amazed thinking that the church of Santa Sabina in Rome is almost coeval to the Basilica of Maxentius (or Constantine, if you prefer): stately and magnificent the latter, modest in comparison the former. But that one is still standing, while of the other there only remain a side aisle and a few pieces of conglomerate (the famous Roman concrete!), scattered on the ground. Why? Because the church has been used continuously for the past 16 centuries, while the roman basilica has not. Indeed it was plundered to build all the other beautiful churches in the eternal city.

But this carefulness, this continuous and solicitous use is not called “restoration” (at least for the insiders), it is called maintenance and has been an integral part of our cultural DNA until it was supplanted by the frenzy of the ‘new’ that has its matrix in the industrial revolution and its hub in consumer capitalism. That came first in the advanced countries, then in the others, first in the capitals, then in small towns and finally in the villages. The city of Sana’a, Yemen, is plenty of earthen “skyscrapers” 8 to 10 storeys tall, built centuries ago and, until a few years ago, protected by a layer of painted lime continually refreshed; by women, to be precise. Now they don’t do it anymore, nobody does it, and the historic city of Sana’a must be restored, with UNESCO funds (which contribute to GDP growth a lot more than women who whitewash their own home). But there is no need to go that far: in Sperlonga, southern Lazio, up to twenty or thirty years ago all the houses were painted every year. Here too, by women. Here too, they no longer do so. Indeed, the women are no longer there: they left with their families, to live in modern houses in Fondi, Gaeta, Latina. The old town is inhabited three months a year by Roman or Neapolitan vacationers who don’t give a damn about whitewashing. And the walls crumble, until one has to intervene (without UNESCO funding, in this case) with chains of iron and cement.

Sana'a     Sperlonga3 This is all to say that architecture is a living thing, living the life of those who live in it, and alive as long as it is cared for by those who use it. When no longer used or cared for it dies and decomposes naturally, unless it is “frozen” as those bodies in formalin that it is in fashion to display in exhibitions that meet great success. It is okay for the Coliseum or the Parthenon, much less for all those buildings – even very old ones – that may still live a pleasant old age, taken care of by their inhabitants, without scientific parameters and consequent budget, but with their stories, their passions and – why not – even their mistakes.

About paolo ivaldi

Architetto, lavora presso il Ministero degli Affari Esteri e della Cooperazione Internazionale. Ha insegnato progettazione e storia dell'Architettura presso Sapienza Università di Roma. Impegnato in una personale ricerca sul rapporto tra arte e scienza in architettura.
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12 Responses to Against Restoration

  1. francesca pizzo says:

    due link per analogia:
    sono felice di sapere che anche tu sei affetto da Timidina C;
    sono felice di denunciarti che per le strade di Locorotondo si potrebbe camminare scalzi grazie alla costante e quasi compulsiva manutenzione dei suoi abitanti, ancora oggi attiva.
    un abbraccio.

  2. paolo ivaldi says:

    Timidina C? Mah, non saprei… anzi, io difendo il diritto a sbagliare, ma forse… perché no, se associamo “timidezza” a “interrogarsi sempre”. Grazie del contributo, mooooooolto apprezzato. Andiamo tutti a Locorotondo!

  3. Biz says:

    Bel post. Ho letto anche le altre cose, questo blog mi piace sono d’accordo quasi su tutto.

    • paolo ivaldi says:

      grazie Biz! mi interessa quel QUASI. Su cosa non sei d’accordo?

      • Biz says:

        In realtà oltre a leggere questo, ho dato una scorsa a tutto, non accuratissima (e quindi per ora il “quasi” è relativo alle parti non vagliate).
        Qui ho qualche dubbio riguardo all’errore. Nel senso che alcuni errori durante l’uso di certi edifici sono di tale gravità da non essere ammissibili, oppure da richiedere davvero un rimedio (non necessariamente ricostruttivo, certamente … ma magari verrebbe in epoca successiva considerato, a sua volta, un errore 🙂

  4. Martin Cosentino says:

    Signore Ivaldi,

    There is a very ‘pragmatico’ atmosphere to your article AGAINST RESTORATION. Yet the sword has two sharp edges and does cut both ways. ‘Roman’-ticism is personified by the Roman and Greek ruins in the Western World, and this will not go away anytime soon. Even the earthen ‘skyscrapers’ of Sana’a hold an excitement all their own from ages past.

    What we maintain, we keep. The rest goes to rack and ‘ruin’ and whatever else we can do with a 2,000 year old structure. I can see the human need to gaze wistfully on these ancient stones, no matter the state of their neglect or preservation. We need to connect emotionally with what preceded us- the actual people who built these piles of stones. And if there is a ‘past’ that we care to preserve, that is the metal test that determines what will be saved and what will be allowed to become ‘ruins.’ In a sense we are getting our cake, and eating it too, with the both of these. That may be the final tribute we pay to our ‘antepassati’ to their culture, all fame and failure together.

    Maybe that is the ‘eternal present’ that we long for, since the passage of time does bring emptiness and death.

    • paolo ivaldi says:

      Thank you Martin for commenting. I like the image of the both-edges-sharp sword. Reflecting on what you say, it might be put down this way: the inherited built environment serve two functions: be used (as it is, transformed, whatever), and as a physical link to our past, a solid witness of our collective unconscious, if Jung give me permission.
      The second function is quite recent, but: it implies that the object is preserved as it is, possibly forever; and that the use of it, if any, be subject to its preservation, and not vice-versa. The two things, applied to the whole built environment, prevent us from using it with ease, and encourage more and more building and land consumption.

      • Slawek Porowski says:

        Paolo and Martin,
        Gentlemen, your insights thoughtful and so well presented, yet both your posts come from sons of a civilization which had not experienced severe loss of the historical links the way some others had. I was born in Warsaw, Poland, long enough ago to remember the city still in post-war ruins, the left bank of Warsaw destroyed more completely than even Dresden, another city reborn and restored. Yet today thousands walk the streets of Warsaw’s Old Town and behold history which has been restored fabulously and faithfully, links to the past alive with links to the future.
        Today I write to you from Seattle, born but yesterday by the European standards, yet still blessed with some once quite lovely building, many in disrepair. I am involved in restoring one of them and find myself troubled by the notion that one could consider its passage into disrepair a normal aging, and that restoration, as opposed to maintenance, somehow corrupts history. I like Paolo’s comments on function, yet what options do we have, as citizens and architects, when building are taken from us, be it by earthquakes and fires, or by acts of terror?
        There is more to this discussion, I am sure, and I am looking forward to it. Thank you both

        • paolo ivaldi says:

          It is indeed an issue still open: if a building or an entire town is lost, should we re-build it “as it was, were it was” or make something totally new? It seems that the first solution is always preferred by the community who suffered the event (war, earthquake…), while the second leave much more possibilities to the artist’s Ego or the developer’s wallet. In an article I wrote years ago, commenting the post-earthquake (L’Aquila, 2009) policy, I tried to suggest a third way, taking care of what remains and re-designing what is missing, without pretending to “obliterate” the distruction and what caused it. I will post it again soon.

  5. Mark Unger says:

    I have always been suspicious of the restoration of old buildings. Maintenance… no problem. It overlaps with the construction and perpetuates the story but leaping back over 50 to thousands of years to Botox a relic? If we insist on personifying buildings my guess is the more noble ruins would ask to be left alone to age with grace. “Learn my lessons and improve on the tracts of inhuman rubbish you build now. Have you stopped making stories? Don’t treat me like porn. Love the one you’re with.”

  6. Tom Smith says:

    The decision to restore, maintain, or to “let go” I feel should be above all done on a case by case basis. Example: Bodie State Historical Park. Bodie was an old mining boom town of the 1860’s, rather than “restore” it ( like Virginia City, NV or Tombstone AZ.) It has been left in a state of “Arrested Decay” and so is an appropriate use of the site to illustrate a true “Ghost Town” of which so few remain.

    • paolo ivaldi says:

      I definitively agree. But: are we saying that ours is a case-by-case discipline? That no general assumption can be made regarding the opportunity to do or do-not? If this is the case (and I think it is), then can we still call it science, or must we recognise that we are totally in the realm of art, or however we call it, subjective judgement? And, if it is the case, can we still provide somebody professional skills (officially defined) to call him/herself “architect” (entitled to decide whether do or do-not), or should we judge the architect’s qualification only on his/her “review pedigree”, assuming all the consequences? Tough questions…

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