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Debates in Art History (part 2): ARCHITECTURE

Architectural history and heritage has been influenced by various aesthetic, artistic, economic and financial negotiations regarding the urban fabric. The construction of monuments entail the dichotomous practice of petrifying memory and destroying (or re-constructing) what existed before, as pertinently stated by Professor van Eck, ‘the monuments shape history, it is not history that shape the monuments’.

Deciding what stays and how it should be preserved has therefore been fraught with debate – culminating in an essential confrontation of the role of architectural historians and heritage studies: should they produce narratives by providing scholarly information, or are they practical disciplines, concerned with conservation? This evokes connotations to Nietzsche’s three types of history, monumental, critical and antiquarian, and the scholar’s stance to them. How do we balance the preservation of history without being engulfed by it, when do we demolish recollections that no longer serve us, who determines this, and what pieces of history do we determine to be teachers for the present?

Contemporary architectural historians and heritage studies seem to be more inclined towards the conservation of past identities, of monuments that hold within them valuable chronicles of past rulers, patrons, artists and architects. The monument has many aspects in common with the notion of the sublime in that it has been utilized in order to create or emphasize national political identities. Indeed, the monument is so intrinsically linked to the representation of past and current national and cultural identities that it arouses great public debate. One such example came about quite recently, when the Castillo de Matrera in Càdiz, southern Spain underwent a radical restoration (see Fig. 1). The modernist take on the Andalusian fortress had been called utter folly and an act of heritage massacre (Jones, 2016). Head Architect Carlos Quevedo explained that his project had been an act of preservation in line with Spanish law, constructed in order to «differentiate new additions from the original structure – thus avoiding the imitative reconstructions that are prohibited by law; and to recover the volume, texture and tonality that the tower would originally have had» (Jones, 2016).

Skjermbilde 2017-04-28 kl. 10.28.53
Fig 1. The Restoration of El Castillo de Matrera

When the history of architecture has been so dominated by a determining upper class, the mechanisms of politics have come into greater focus following greater democratization and public involvement. This, I believe, can be seen across the spectrum of disciplines that deal with the study of cultural objects – art history, heritage studies, museum studies, are embroiled within the increasingly involved public, who take an avid interest in issues such as representation, conservation and scholarly activities that deal with the analysis of history. Indeed, politics might prove to be ‘stronger than art’ as van Eck put it, as the construction or renovation of monuments are guided by political agenda and the politics of representation.

Jones, S. (2016). «‘What The Hell Have They Done?’ Spanish Castle Restoration Mocked”. The Guardian. N.p. Web. 5 May 2016.

Debates on Architecture and the Monument – Inspired by Professor Caroline van Eck.

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