Thursday, July 26, 2007


Once again it's Thursday, and once again it's time to figure out if I've had any thoughts worth exploring. Well, thank goodness my thoughtful husband takes the time to comment on my blog - last week, Paul brought up historical restoration in his response to my comment on travel v. tourism. This topic seems to go hand in hand with what I was thinking about - and raises a question: what are artifacts for?

In Norway, we went to Haakon's Hall . It had been a medieval feast hall, which eventually was turned into a storehouse. At some point in the 1800s, the historical significance of the building was realized, and they set about restoring it. The "restoration" was a fanciful take on what a medieval feast hall would have been like, based more in the aesthetic and mood of the time than in actual reproduction. During WWII, the Hall was seriously damaged when a ship blew up in the harbour. So, in the 1960s, about 100 years after the original restoration it was once again restored. At that point in time, they had to decide - try to recreate what was just lost, or try to undo what was by then considered a vulgar artists rendering? The decision was for the latter, and Haakon's Hall today is supposed to look more like it did in its original form. Nobody considered giving it yet another facelift to match the thoughts and mores of the 1960s.

In the Orkneys, where there have been successive waves of civilization since the stone ago, strategic locations have been repeatedly built upon. As Paul mentioned, there was one site with 3 layers of fortification, and they were trying to figure out what to do - should they restore the first layer, or destroy the first layer to get to the older foundations? Should they just leave it as it is? Should they let tourists come and climb on the ruins, or should they cordon them off, like Stonehenge ?

In comparison to stonehenge, there are standing stones in the Orkneys ? that were mainly carried off to make fences. I look at that and i think it's a shame - but if I was a medieval farmer that wanted to keep my sheep from running off, and I didn't worship the sun, why would I leave that perfectly good builing material there? There's a fundamental tension in these questions between function and beauty, and between progress and preservation. Should we keep things because they meant something (i.e. religious symbology) to someone at some point, even if they don't mean that to us now?

This question extends beyond monuments to smaller possessions too. Should I not use the good dishes to eat off because they might break, and they were handed down from my grandparents? Do we really need to inherit a silver tea set from both sides of the family? If we did, should we use it? If we don't want to use it, should we hold onto it? As material consumption skyrockets, these questions will be more pressing for our generation than ever before. Families used to have only a few nice pieces to pass down. Paul and I already have a house full of nice stuff, and in 30 years, we could hypothetically have inherited another house or 2 worth. Are we beholden to these possessions because they belonged to someone else?

And back to buildings and sites - what is the point of restoring them? What are we trying to accomplish? To understand another way of life? To retain some aspects of that way of life in our modern world? Do these goals trump more pragmatic considerations? As we begin to realize that the level of consumption on our planet is unsustainable, should we be preserving buildings and momuments that have recyclable material, or could be adapted to a more relevant function?


Simone said...

Old buildings are often much more beautiful than modern ones (in the eye of this beholder) so I think it would be a shame to tear them all down. They say history repeats itself. maybe we are supposed to learn about our past by seeing tangible reminders of what used to be.

although I agree that with Haakon's hall it was a bit bizzare to think that most of it was built in the 60's but it was supposed to represent something much much older. how is this different than Disney World, just because the foundations are old? At the same time, it seems to have become a useful public space which is used for concerts and other events as well as to teach and remind us of the history of the area... don't know...

el Maggie said...

I agree with you that old buildings are much nicer to look at. I also think that there is psychological value in being in attractive surroundings. Maybe the answer is what they've done with the old shipyards in Norway where they have kept the integrity of the site so you can understand what it used to be, but made it into something functional for today. Speaking of ship yards - I think it's really interesting in Belfast that their big ugly yellow cranes that were used in the shipyards have become a protected historical landmark - they've decided that even though it isn't pretty, it's a reminder of their roots, and it should stay in the midst of the gentrification going on all around it.

Paul said...

I am of two minds about old buildings and old things. One mind finds them beautiful and inspiring. I love old ruins and historical sites. Let me talk about the other mind, however.

It bothers me that we keep restoring Ottawa's Parliament buildings and old churches. These buildings were created at great expense to capture the grandeur of their purpose (nation-building, religion). However, by adding all that wealth and art into the structure back then, we are now saddled with its upkeep. If we don't repair these buildings, it looks like we don't support the ideas that they stand for.

I have problems with this for the reason that great wealth should never have been the symbol used to show the greatness of these institutions. What they say are that "(God or gouvernment) favours the rich" or that "(God or gouvernment) promotes being rich". Now I, and every generation after me, have to keep paying to propagate this misleading message.

I would love to see us create long-lasting, efficient, and practical buildings with some sustainable architectural and artistic flair to house our institutions. That way we won't be sending out the wrong message and dropping the burden on future generations.

I'd be willing to tear down the Parliament buildings to accomplish this.

Simone said...

But Paul, don't you think that every Canadian that comes to the parliament buildings gets benefit out of just having that beautiful space? I think it's totally worth keeping it up. so many places are built just for function and are horrible. It seems like in the past wealth was used more for buildings that everyone could appreciate. now, we want to pay less taxes and keep all our wealth for our own private homes, gardens, swimming pools, etc. while I don't disagree that it's a good thing that our standard of living has improved, I think it's a shame that we don't put more money into our public buildings and make more buildings like the Parliament Buildings. I think it's a bit sad how much we lament the use of public funds to keep up beautiful things and to create beautiful things in the first place.