The Perils of Restoring Ancient Architecture with Modern Materials

The theatre at Kaş - undoubtedly the worst case of reconstruction
The theatre at Kaş - undoubtedly the worst case of reconstruction

Text by our correspondent from Didyma, Glenn Maffia. All photos by Graeme Patrick Houlden.

The eminently laudable desire in restoring ancient architecture is an endeavour that seeks to preserve our human cultural heritage while exhibiting the architectural grandeur of previous civilizations.

Nonetheless, extreme caution in the use of modern materials in this restoration process must be of paramount attention in this aspiration. For, inevitably, this use of contemporary materials raises concerns about the potential perils faced by these historic structures.

It is critical to emphasize the necessity for careful consideration in the preservation techniques that shall maintain the integrity and authenticity of these revered landmarks.

Deviation from original aesthetics

The intent of the restoration must also be of interest for those concerned with the plight of ancient artefacts. Is such a project being sought to educate the public, or to exploit a site for a commercial opportunity?

The technology is available to reproduce an ancient site in 3-D graphics without the need to ‘fiddle’ with the pristine original. By all means, careful maintenance of a site is always imperative, but that must not alter a structure into a personal interpretation.

Whilst a 3-D version can be changed without affecting the original, any changes to the original template are nigh on permanent. With little or no scope to readdress a mistake(s).

One of the pertinent dangers resides in the deviation from the cultural aesthetics and the intended vision of the original architects. Modern materials, sometimes laughably characterized by their distinct visual appearances, may introduce stark contrasts against the weathered and well-worn patina of the ancient structure.

Such visually distracting peculiarities can obscure the historic value, authenticity, and aesthetic unity of the ancient structures. Thus, diminishing the immersive and contemplative experience for the visitor.

Structural incompatibility

The structural compatibility between ancient and modern materials poses another pivotal challenge. Ancient structures were often built utilizing locally sourced materials, meticulously chosen for their natural durability, elasticity, and compatibility.

Replacing such materials with modern alternatives, that possess different characteristics, may juxtapose against the delicate equilibrium that has sustained the ancient structural integrity for thousands of years.

There is also the distinct possibility that the use of inappropriate materials could potentially lead to accelerated deterioration, compromising the structure’s long-term preservation.

I have too often observed modern concrete (entirely different from ancient concrete) being utilised in so-called restorations.

Chemical reactions

The inclusion of modern materials could result in unforeseen chemical reactions within the existing architectural components. As has been observed upon innumerable occasions, is the corrosion of metals present in the original structure being adversely affected by the introduction of certain synthetic materials or coatings.

This negative reaction between contradictory materials has the potential to effect irreparable damage. Thus jeopardizing the building’s historical and cultural value in the process.

Historical and Cultural Accuracy

Restoration projects are not solely about preserving monuments, their inclination should also inherently possess the requirement to serve as an educational tool in which to impart historical and cultural knowledge. Though, as I mentioned above, we do have alternatives today where the original is left untouched.

In utilizing modern materials to imitate ancient craftsmanship could, without intent, create a bogus narrative. One which causes a blurring between original and restored elements. This distortion of authenticity obscures the visitor’s capability to ‘drink-in’ the original structure within its particular historical context, therefore possibly distorting the perception of our past.

Lack of Sustainable Conservation

It remains imperative that in restoring ancient structures that they should remain as closely aligned with principles of sustainable conservation as possible. The inclusion of modern materials too often circumvents the well-honed techniques which employed naturally harmonious methods. This, to me, rather lackadaisical attitude towards the use of contemporary alternatives could well result in the neglect of environmental sustainability and the preservation of traditional craftsmanship. Thus, further jeopardizing the future protection and maintenance of these sites.

Would one paint over a Rembrandt, Picasso, da Vinci etc. in the name of restoring the artwork? So why do so in architectural masterpieces?

While the restorations of ancient architecture undoubtedly require intervention and preservation efforts, the lack of our knowledge of the finite details in its construction and the predisposition to employ a rather heavy-handed brutality with the use of modern materials must be kept to a minimum to focus predominantly upon the delicate framework of the original.

Invariably, the prioritization of such projects to preserve historical authenticity, structural stability, aesthetic coherence, and cultural significance is paramount. It is essential to approach such undertakings with caution, employing a combination of traditional techniques and equitable modern technologies to strike a balance between preservation and progress.

The observant, meticulous planning and implementation of an attempt at reconstruction remains firmly at the core of these projects. I have seen too many that have abjectly failed.

We must ensure the lasting legacy of these ancient structures, allowing future generations to appreciate their true architectural magnificence. A pastiche is merely a delusion for those whom have no empathy. Surely, our aspirations should be cast within a more elevated sphere?


Image gallery: 

Bouleterion at Patara
Bouleterion at Patara
Bouleterion at Patara. Basically a new build
Bouleterion at Patara. Basically a new build
Theatre of Kaş with modern concrete in abundance
Theatre of Kaş with modern concrete in abundance
Temple at Laodicea showing the disparity between old and modern materials
Temple at Laodicea showing the disparity between old and modern materials
Temple at Laodicea close up of old and modern materials
Temple at Laodicea close up of old and modern materials