Ruin or Rebuild? Conserving heritage in an age of terrorism
286 | January 2017
By Robert Bevan
Following the 2001 destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan, the Taliban regime organised guided tours of the World Heritage site for western journalists
Debate is raging about how best to respond when historic monuments are targeted by extremists, now that digital technology enables monuments to be reconstructed

In the wake of the Taliban’s destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas of Afghanistan in 2001, a decision was made. The giant stone statues had been so pulverised by explosives that Unesco said it was impossible to reconstruct them using original material. The statues’ niches were best left empty as a testament to the vandalism inflicted on the world’s patrimony.

There was nothing unusual in this. Unesco’s decisions have long been guided by the 1964 Venice Charter for the Conservation and Restoration of Monuments and Sites, drawn up by the conservationists who also established Icomos (the International Council on Monuments and Sites), the advisory body to Unesco on heritage matters.

Under the charter, only the “reassembling of existing but dismembered parts” (anastylosis) is permitted on site, with reconstruction being tantamount to theme-park fakery. The need for authenticity later became a defining issue in the consideration of potential World Heritage sites. Yet, quietly, steadily, this conservation consensus about the centrality of authenticity is being eroded. Mostar Bridge was awarded World Heritage status in 2005 after the span destroyed in 1993 during the Bosnian War was replaced in facsimile using new stone. The vandalised mud shrines of Timbuktu are similarly being rebuilt. Is the ziggurat at Nimrud next?

A copy of Palmyra’s triumphal arch, made in Carrara, was shown in London and New York (Photo by Marco Secchi/Getty Images)
The deliberate targeting of cultural heritage—whether by extremists in the 1990s wars in the former Yugoslavia or by Isil in Syria and Iraq—has been one impetus for this change; the increased digital capacity to reconstruct monuments is another. The reconstruction by the Institute for Digital Archaeology (IDA) of an undersized Arch of Triumph from Palmyra—erected in Trafalgar Square in London, then in New York’s City Hall Plaza—received as much opprobrium from specialists as it did column inches in the popular press.

What to do about reconstruction, after the disasters of war or acts of God, is now the subject of internal debate among international heritage organisations. How will they avoid creating zombie monuments that are brought back from the dead with no authentic life of their own?

“Strict, European stuff”

Francesco Bandarin, Unesco’s assistant director general for culture, questions past approaches to reconstruction and authenticity. “The charter of Venice was written by art historians, not architects,” he says. “It was very strict, European stuff, a 20th-century Italian idea. This is why it never works for architecture­—we have to reinterpret it. Heritage principles have always been evolutionary.”

The seeds of this revisionism were sown some time ago. In 1994, after widespread destruction of monuments in the Bosnian War, the Nara Document on Authenticity was agreed at an international conference in Japan. The document called for the recognition of cultural differences in attitudes to reconstruction, and for sensitivity to the wishes of local communities. Occidental practices, such as the ritual rebuilding of Shinto temples in Japan, provided part of the impetus for the agreement, but it was also a riposte to the distortion of authenticity in nationalist-inspired rebuilding projects. “Deliberate destruction has created a new context,” Bandarin says. “At the time, Bamiyan was an exceptional case.”

Reconstruction work on one of the Bamiyan Buddhas, which were destroyed by the Taliban, was condemned by Unesco. Photo: Unesco<br />
Reconstruction work on one of the Bamiyan Buddhas, which were destroyed by the Taliban, was condemned by Unesco. Photo: Unesco
Over the past year, the issue of rebuilding has been under discussion by Unesco and Icomos, informed by events in Syria and Iraq. Some experts have suggested that a useful distinction might need to be made between “living cities”, where flexible responses to reconstruction are demanded, and places with “no community or users”, such as archaeological sites. “It’s an interesting shift,” Bandarin says, “but it is not totally new for the conservation profession to be looking at community as much as stones.” He points to the growing field of intangible cultural heritage—traditions, languages and art forms, for instance—that accompanies material culture.

For some, however, the haste to “restore” monuments destroyed by the likes of Isil is proving problematic. In 2016, Maamoun Abdulkarim, Syria’s director general of antiquities, declared that sites destroyed in the country’s long-running civil war would be reconstructed. After Syrian government and Russian forces regained control of Palmyra, the Unesco director general Irina Bokova’s statement of “full support” for the city’s restoration provoked an international backlash in the form of a petition by the online activist group Avaaz. The petition described such a plan as “hasty, inopportune and partisan” and argued that, in effect, it “celebrate[d] the Syrian regime and Russian military achievements”.

Bandarin argues that there is too little precision in much of the terminology. “This is an issue that has taken too much attention,” he says. “There’s a misunderstanding of the term ‘reconstruction’ … It is only one technique of restoration.” Unesco has since said that there will be a full technical evaluation of the damage to World Heritage sites such as Palmyra before decisions are taken.

Raising the dead

But this openness to reconstruction marks a sea-change and Bandarin’s critique of the Venice Charter as “written by art historians, not architects” overlooks the fact that its founding committee included many experts with architectural training, such as the chairman Piero Gazzola, as well as archaeologists. Neither are the charter’s demands—for example, that all new work should be reversible—restricted to art historians or conservators. The Venice Charter has an antecedent in the 1931 Athens Charter for the Restoration of Historic Monuments and, before that, in the founding principles of 19th-century organisations such as the UK’s Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings. Earlier still (in 1849), the English art critic John Ruskin wrote: “It is impossible, as impossible as to raise the dead, to restore anything that has ever been great or beautiful in architecture.”

A key difference between then and now is that 21st-century technologies such as laser scanning and 3D printing appear to make faithful reconstruction unproblematic. Roger Michel, the director of the IDA, has defended its attitude to 3D copies, using the old adage of grandfather’s axe—the family heirloom is still the same axe even if both head and handle have been replaced over time. This is a variation of the paradox discussed by Plutarch, among others, which asked whether Theseus’s ship remained the same object if its timbers had been replaced piece by piece. The power of the digital means that paradox has ceased to be abstract and is becoming ever more real.

The IDA claims that it “carries out meticulous and culturally sensitive restorations of objects and architecture destroyed by conflict or natural disaster”. But is this even possible? Richard Hughes, a conservation expert at engineers Arup, was involved in the restoration of Aleppo’s citadel before the outbreak of war. He describes the IDA’s Palmyra “replica” as “absolutely appalling in terms of authenticity”, but is enthused by the ability of the digital to capture large amounts of data that can tell us, for instance, how a building collapsed in an earthquake and how it can be put back together.

Hughes has set up the Icomos-UK Digital Technology Committee, which has around 60 members. “But,” he adds, “whether [technology] is assisting in authenticity is debatable. There’s a big difference between the mathematical and the real.” There is still something missing in what is produced by machines—“the person who touches the stone”.

The craftsman’s touch

“The craftsman as an artist can differentiate his work from a comrade of a thousand years ago,” Hughes says. “See how they dealt with weaknesses in a stone block [for instance]. There is a language there that isn’t in the technological language. I want the feel, the smell, the biological infections on the surface of the stone. That’s what gives charm, mood, spirit of place.”

Asked to think of a really successful full-scale reconstruction of a monument using digital techniques, he can’t. “It’s getting there for objects in museums, such as copying manuscripts, but I haven’t come across anything in whole buildings.”

“I want the feel, the smell, the biological infections on the surface of the stone. That’s what gives charm, mood, spirit of place”

Even if accurate copies of buildings or monuments will soon be possible, should we be attempting this at all in the absence of original, authentic material? Rebuilding is a natural urge after a disaster but, even without questions of authenticity, the historical record can be distorted by the very act of rebuilding, in ways that can cause the original trauma to be forgotten rather than marked. The void left by the bombed Frauenkirche in Dresden was for decades a symbol of the folly of war, which is eclipsed now that the church has been recreated in facsimile. Although some reused stones still bear the scars of fire damage, the rebuilt church, despite its message of reconciliation, is becoming a focus for German far-right groups and their nationalist narrative of victimhood.

A third way of critical reconstruction—incorporating damaged elements as a record of what has happened in the past—has greater integrity. Bandarin agrees that David Chipperfield’s layered remodelling of the ruins of the Neues Museum in Berlin is “a total paradigm” of this approach. The reconstruction at the Neues sits firmly within the arc of authenticity spanning the period from Ruskin to the Venice Charter. “The approach has to be pluralistic, and local communities listened to,” Bandarin insists.

This focus on people rather than bricks and mortar is illustrated in the $25m action plan approved in October by Unesco’s executive board, to implement a new strategy for “the protection of culture and the promotion of cultural pluralism in the event of armed conflict”. The budget is divided between activities such as improving the monitoring of disasters, developing community-based recovery and education projects, and ensuring cultural continuity for displaced peoples.

There is also a new emphasis on linking heritage to human rights and humanitarian aid. Karima Bennoune, the UN special rapporteur on cultural rights, has presented a report to the UN General Assembly stressing that the challenge of protecting cultural heritage cannot be met without first understanding the need to protect people and their human rights. She writes: “We must care not only about the destruction of heritage, but also about the destruction of the lives of human beings. They are interrelated. In particular, it means consulting the people who have particular connections with heritage when seeking to determine whether they wish to rebuild or reconstruct such heritage, and if so, how and when.”

Within the context of community-based decisions, a clear conservation policy that safeguards authenticity is likely to become more necessary than ever. Yet at the moment there is confusion: Unesco intervened in 2013, on the grounds of authenticity, to halt the reconstruction of a Bamiyan Buddha’s feet by experts from Icomos Germany (see box); but it recently lent its logo to an exhibition in Rome of 3D-printed copies of sculpture destroyed by Isil. The Syrian authorities, meanwhile, have stepped back from calls for Palmyra to be rebuilt, pending further investigation. “We won’t start adding modern stones,” Maamoun Abdulkarim told the Sunday Times newspaper.

It remains to be seen whether Unesco’s line on the Bamiyan Buddhas changes to account for demands at a local level. The Afghan ministry of culture and the governor of the Bamiyan region want at least one of the statues rebuilt. They have an eye to future tourism but are also of the view that not to rebuild would be a victory for the Taliban. After all, the rebuilding of Warsaw’s Old Town after the Second World War can be seen as a legitimate act of resistance to Nazi attempts to eradicate Slavic culture.

The cause of destruction should perhaps then be a key factor in rebuilding decisions—whether “living” cities or “dead” archaeological sites. Authenticity may, in cases of targeted destruction, be less of a central concern than repudiating cultural cleansing and persuading iconoclasts of the futility of their acts. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that rebuilt Warsaw or Mostar should then become World Heritage sites (as they now are).

When peace comes (one can only hope), decisions will need to be made about Aleppo, about Nimrud, and countless other places. In an age of targeted destruction and technological change there is a need, more than ever, for a coherent policy framework that recognises the importance of authenticity in guiding truth in reconstruction—even if, in some cases, it is only to consciously set it aside.

A 3D projection recreates the taller of the two Bamiyan Buddhas (Image: © Zhang Xinyu/Xinhua/Alamy Live News)
The outcry over the plan to reconstruct the Bamiyan Buddhas

The saga of the voids left by the Taliban’s destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas in 2001 has prompted some impassioned words in the pages of The Art Newspaper. In 2012, we reported that Andrea Bruno, an architectural consultant to Unesco for more than 40 years, had scrapped all ideas of replacing the Buddhas. “The void is the true sculpture,” he told us. “The immanent presence of the niche, even without its sculpture, represents a victory for the monument and a defeat for those who tried to obliterate its memory with dynamite.”

Bruno added that rebuilding the Buddhas in whatever form (one suggestion had been laser projections) might also offend local people. “Here the Muslims strictly oppose images,” he said. “To recreate the Buddhas would be an insult even to non-Taliban Afghans.” Instead, he suggested a sanctuary at the base of the niche once holding the great Buddha, among the warren of subterranean caves at the site.

In 2014, meanwhile, we reflected the furious reaction to the news that work had begun to reconstruct the feet and legs of the smaller of the two Buddhas, without Unesco’s knowledge or permission. Archaeologists from the German branch of Icomos, led by Michael Petzet, one-time head of the group, were recreating the smaller Buddha’s lower appendages with iron rods, reinforced concrete and bricks, an action Bruno said had caused “irreversible damage, bordering on the criminal”.

Petzet told The Art Newspaper that he and his team “just wanted to preserve what can be preserved” and that everything they had done was discussed with the Afghan authorities. “This [project] is nothing new,” he said.

It was hoped that the sanctuary proposed by Bruno, and since expanded into a cultural centre, would open in 2016. But construction began on the first phase in September, funded by the South Korean government. — Ben Luke

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