Kriston Capps is a staff writer for CityLab covering housing, architecture, and politics. He previously worked as a senior editor for Architect magazine.
Short of encasing a historic building in glass, no preservation effort can both save a structure and leave it exactly as it was.
The Matrera Castle in Villamartin, Spain, has endured weather and war since the 9th century. Three years ago, a storm badly damaged the structure, threatening its stability and making an intervention necessary. According to critics and preservationists, however, the effort to save the Andalusian fortress from ruin instead hastened its demise.
Where once the castle’s time-tossed battlements jutted up into the Spanish sky, new limestone walls emerged. The restoration altered the crumbling castle, introducing a significant structure outlining and framing the fortress’s original mass, in the name of historic preservation.
Another botched Spanish restoration: That was the judgment rendered by the Internet. Carlos Quevedo Rojas, the architect behind the restoration, soon joined the ranks of Cecilia Giménez, the notorious artist who volunteered to restore a mural of Christ and gave the world “Beast Jesus.” Spanish preservationists and Villamartin residents were livid, per a report in The Guardian.
But Rojas knew exactly what he was doing. His restoration aimed to “avoid the aesthetic mimicry that involves falsification or loss of value of authenticity,” according to the architect’s design statement. Short of encasing it in glass, no restoration effort was going to succeed in both saving the structure and leaving it exactly as it was. A muscular intervention may have been the only way forward.
Consider Astley Castle, a formerly abandoned fortress near Birmingham in England. Thanks to an extensive renovation by Witherford Watson Mann Architects, visitors may now book a stay at the site. (It books eight guests and is occupied well into 2017.) The architects gave the structure an extreme makeover; for its troubles, the firm was awarded the Royal Institute of British Architects’ Stirling Prize in 2013.
The difference between these projects, of course, is that one served to preserve the castle’s history—compromise notwithstanding—while the other transformed the castle’s function.
Oliver Wainwright, the architecture critic for The Guardian, outlines two more precedents for Rojas’s extreme restoration of the Spanish fortress: David Chipperfield’s proposal for a restoration of Castello Sforzesco in Milan and the restoration of a Roman theater near Valencia by Giorgio Grassi and Manuel Portaceli. The latter Spanish restoration was later overruled, effectively, after an extensive, 17-year court battle that reached all the way to Spain’s highest court. (It has yet to be dismantled.)
The problem with adding structure to an ancient edifice is that the support itself will one day require attention. In 50 years and 100 years and 1,000 years, architects and historians will need to decide what to do with the problem of Carlos Quevedo Rojas. Over time, critical consensus will swing back and forth, from radicalism to restraint.
But in 100 years, something of the fortress may still be standing. The same might not be true had preservationists decided on a purer course that resulted in an immaculate, historical rubble.