To Replicate or to Readapt?

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At the time of speculations on the replacement of the spire at Notre Dame de Paris, we take a look at how Edinburgh has dealt with restoration of its lost architecture.

Future of Notre Dame de Paris Cathedral

On 15th April the cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris caught a devastating fire. The roof and the spire of this 850-year old architectural marvel got destroyed, but luckily main structure and the bell towers were saved. The authorities later on proposed a temporary wooden cathedral-like structure to be built and international architectural competition to redesign the roofline and the spire was announced. The competition would give cathedral “a spire suited to the techniques and challenges of our time”. See some of the proposed designs here.

Image source: Dezeen article. Seven alternative spires for Notre-Dame Cathedral. https://www.dezeen.com/2019/04/25/notre-dame-spire-alternative-cathedral-designs/

Restoration of ‘The Mack’

In very similar, but even more devastating series of events the Mackintosh Building of Glasgow School of Art got destroyed. ‘The Mack’ caught fire twice: the first time in May 2014, and as renovation works were nearly completed, the building got lost in a fire again, this time in June 2018. The debates still linger on wether to rebuild the school faithfully to the original, or preserve it as ruin and building a new facility within. Read more about these debates here.

The Notre Dame and the GSA’s Mackintosh Building both showcase powerful landmarks of human’s creativity and it is understandable why architectural profession has opposing opinions on how to reconstruct the missing pieces: should they replicate the structures lost in fires or should they reminisce on those lost structures using the techniques of today?

Rebuilding after Edinburgh's fires

These events inspired me to look into how architects of Edinburgh dealt with lost built tissue in the past. As any overcrowded city, Edinburgh was not immune to disasters. In mid-November of 1824 Edinburgh was engulfed in one of the most destructive fires in the city’s history. The fire lasted for 5 days and was responsible for destruction of some of the oldest architecture in the city of Edinburgh. The blaze left the most catastrophic results in buildings of High Street and Parliament Close (now known as Parliament Square).

Similarly to Notre Dame, the spire of adjacent Tron Kirk burnt down. The lead, in which the roof was clad, began to melt. The original design of the spire of Tron Kirk mixed Palladian and Gothic elements, which were inspired by the Dutch architecture. Instead of reproducing the original design, the architects R&R Dickson decided to rebuild the impressive spire in a very Christopher-Wren style. Just like Tron Kirk, the destroyed buildings from the Tron Kirk to Parliament Close were not rebuilt according to original plan, but rather as a planned run of well-proportioned Georgian houses.

Changes at St Giles Cathedral

Sometimes, no major disaster is required for rebuilding a historic structure. Changes of context (demolition of the old Tolbooth and luckenbooths), shifts in religion as Scotland converted to protestantism under John Knox, and mere whims of fashion were the reasons for changing the fabric of the most important church on Royal Mile,  Saint Giles Cathedral. 

St. Giles Cathedral was renovated twice and both processes demolished some important architectural features, such as chapels, old galleries, and partition walls, so that the symmetry of external appearance and single interior spaces were improved.

St Giles Cathedral | Edinburgh Old Town | Architecture Tour

The answer to the question of preservation strategies is not simple, mainly because architecture is one of those disciplines where there is more to it than just black and white. However, I do believe in accepting alterations, as they are an inevitable part of any building’s lifespan. Therefore we must learn how to be at peace with history, deal with the tragic loss, and subsequently learn something from it. 

Instead, throughout the history the society has been and is still striving to reconstruct and reproduce those lost parts of monuments in even more authentic manner, as nothing tragic ever happened. If we are unable to look our past in the eye, I suppose it would be sensible to take any additional measures in preserving cultural heritage, so that the same legacy, that was so graciously passed onto us, could shine in all its glory for the future generations.

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