We think sustainable urban planning is new – but the ancient Romans were recycling buildings millennia ago

“Hmm, we can reuse this.” The Colosseum. Image: Getty.

In any debate on new construction in our urban centres you are likely to hear phrases like sustainable urban planning, adaptive reuse and recycling heritage – so much so that anyone would be forgiven for thinking that these were modern concerns.

However, these principles have a long history in the ancient world. Anywhere permanent materials such as marble and granite were used to build monuments and infrastructure, recycling and reuse followed.

The ancient Roman world is littered with examples of architectural recycling. Under the banner spolia studies, archaeologists and art historians have increasingly focused attention on the hows and whys of reuse in antiquity.

Ancient architectural recycling falls into two broad categories: adaptive reuse of immovable structures, when a building or monument is renovated and its primary function changes; and reuse of architectural elements, where both functional and decorative material is removed from one building to be incorporated in another (spolia).

While this is often associated with changes in ideologies, there is also evidence of opportunistic recycling following disasters. These events created a surplus of materials that could be salvaged for new constructions.

Same aesthetic, new function

In the hearts of Rome and Istanbul, the capitals of the ancient Roman and Byzantine empires, stand the Pantheon and Hagia Sophia. These iconic and celebrated public buildings were adapted for different religious purposes throughout history. Both maintained their heritage aesthetic, while renovating their function.

The Pantheon was adapted from a pagan temple to a consecrated church in 609CE. The exterior Pantheon was largely unchanged, while the interior was stripped of its pagan elements.

Hagia Sophia was adapted from a Christian basilica to an Islamic mosque following the fall of Constantinople to the Ottomans. The exterior required only the addition of minarets. The interior was whitewashed to cover the rich mosaics of its previous life.

Civic buildings, too, were prime candidates for adaptive reuse, thanks to the rich materials and design of their original constructions.

The restored Library of Celsus, Ephesus, with excavated ancient water pipes in the foreground. Image: author provided.

At the newly listed UNESCO World Heritage site of Ephesus, the tourists’ visit culminates at the impressive multistorey Library of Celsus. Originally built in the second century, an earthquake and fire destroyed the library and its holdings in 262CE.

The impressive facade of the library was salvaged and adapted 100 years later into a nymphaeum, a public water fountain. The adaptive process incorporated other recycled materials from nearby public monuments, mostly marble blocks and free-standing sculpture, fitting the change in function. This reuse gave the non-functional, but already historic, structure a new life.

Recycling as propaganda

The Arch of Constantine is possibly the most referenced structure in spolia studies. Dedicated in 315, the arch celebrates Constantine’s victory over his rival Emperor Maxentius at the Battle of Milvian Bridge.

The Arch of Constantine, where recycling even serves the purpose of propaganda. Image: Steve Kershaw/creative commons.

First noticed by Raphael, the arch was built from a mixture of new and recycled decorative building material. Scenes of animal hunts, religious sacrifice and historic battles were taken from monuments built in the second century CE, including those of the emperors Hadrian, Trajan and Marcus Aurelius. These scenes represented the “golden years” of Rome’s past.

Constantine didn’t just simply recycle these pieces; he reworked the stone faces of Rome’s greatest emperors into his own image. With this act, the emperor takes on all the great qualities of his predecessors and sets himself up as the rightful leader of Rome. This recycling takes us into a world of political propaganda, something the Romans were renowned for.

This bold inclusion of old material in a new monument for Rome led to a whole new recycling trend in architecture. Decorative elements such as columns, capitals and architraves were given new life in buildings of the fourth century CE.

The trend became so popular that new laws were created to protect public buildings from being stripped of their decoration. Only if a building could not be restored was it permitted to recycle that building’s materials.

Opportunistic recycling

Natural disasters and invading armies often left ancient monuments in ruin. These created a stock of marble, granite and sandstone that could be reused in new constructions.

The theatre at Nea Paphos, the scene of archaeological excavations since 1995. Image: Paphos Theatre Archaeological Project, University of Sydney/author provided.

In Nea Paphos, Cyprus, a devastating earthquake destroyed the 8,500-seat theatre in 365CE. Instead of being rebuilt, the theatre became a useful source of marble and stone. Many of the columns and decorative architecture were carried off to be reused in the new Chrysopolitissa basilica, 300 metres down the road.

In Athens, a late Roman fortification wall is a hodgepodge of recycled materials. Image: F. Tronchin/Flickr/creative commons.

In Athens, the invading Heruli destroyed several public buildings in 267-8 CE. However, this left behind a good supply of reusable materials. The Athenians recycled many elements, from column drums to relief sculpture, in a large fortification wall circling the heart of the city. Today, the wall appears as a hodgepodge of recycled elements from Athens’ classical past.

In 2004, the Australian Department of the Environment and Energy released a document supporting adaptive reuse. This booklet said:

Historic buildings give us a glimpse of our past and lend character to our communities as well as serving practical purposes now.

In 2011, the renamed department released a guide to help realise new recycling opportunities related to construction and demolition. These principles are part of our general thinking about urban planning. However, it is clear that this is not a new approach to sustainable urban development. Rather, it continues an ancient tradition of recycling.The Conversation

Candace Richards is acting senior curator at the Nicholson Museum, University of Sydney.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


 

 
 
 
 

The smartphone app placing virtual statues of women on the map

A virtual Edith Wharton in Central Park, New York City. Image: The Whole Story Project.

If you’re a woman, then in order for you to be immortalised in stone, bronze or whatever once you’ve shuffled off this mortal coil, you should either have royal blood or be willing to be sculpted naked. That is the rule of thumb.

A statue that actually celebrates a woman’s achievements is a rare sight. Writing in the New Statesman last year, equality campaigner Caroline Criado-Perez found that out of 925 statues in Britain, as listed by the Public Monuments and Sculpture Association, only 158 are of solo women. Of these, 46 are of royalty, including 29 of Queen Victoria. Fourteen depict the Virgin Mary.

There are signs of change, albeit slow. The suffragist Millicent Fawcett is set to be honoured with a statue in Parliament Square, where currently all 11 of the statues are of men. (They include Nelson Mandela and a nine-foot Gandhi.) The monument is to be unveiled next year to celebrate the centenary of British women receiving the right to vote.

Elsewhere, the late comedian Victoria Wood is being honoured with a statue that’ll be erected in Bury, Greater Manchester. In the Moss Side area of the city, a statue of Emmeline Pankhurst will be unveiled in 2019. Unlike the Fawcett one, neither of these is expected to receive public money, relying on crowdfunding and other sources instead.

So how many more statues of women, regardless of how they’re funded, would we need to build in order to reduce the gender gap? Well, according to Jonathan Jones, art critic at the Guardian, the magic number is: zero.

Jones’s argument, back in March, was that building statues doesn’t advance feminism, but simply traps us in the past. He wrote:

Statues don’t hold public memory. They politely bury it. These well-meaning images melt into the background scenery of our lives.

Whether this is empirically true is questionable, but it’s true that we tend not to erect them as often as we used to anyway. This is partly because there is less space available for such monuments – a noticeable disadvantage cities of the present have compared to those of the past. In order to reduce the imbalance, statues of men would probably have to be removed; many would no doubt be okay with that, but it would mean erasing history.

One partial answer to the problem is augmented reality. It can’t close the gender gap, but it could shine a spotlight on it.

To that end, an advertising agency in New York launched an app at the beginning of May. The Whole Story allows users to place virtual statues of women on a map; other uses can then view and find out more about the individuals depicted at their real-world locations, using their smartphone cameras.


Currently, users have to upload their own virtual statues using 3D-modelling software. But going forward, the project aims for an open collaboration between designers, developers and organisations, which it hopes will lead to more people getting involved.

Contributions submitted so far include a few dozen in New York, several in Washington and one of Jane Austen in Hyde Park. There are others in Italy and the Czech Republic.

Okay, it’s an app created by a marketing firm, but there are legitimate arguments for it. First, the agency’s chief creative office has herself said that it’s important to address the gender imbalance in a visual way in order to inspire current and future generations: you can’t be what you can’t see, as the saying going.

Second, if the physical presence of statues really is diminishing and they don’t hold public memory, as Jones argues, then smartphones could bridge the gap. We live our lives through our devices, capturing, snapping and storing moments, only to forget about them but then return to and share them at a later date. These memories may melt away, but they’ll always be there, backed up to the cloud even. If smartphones can be used to capture and share the message that a gender imbalance exists then that’s arguably a positive thing.  

Third, with the success of Pokemon Go, augmented reality has shown that it can encourage us to explore public spaces and heighten our appreciation for architectural landmarks. It can also prove useful as a tool for learning about historical monuments.

Of course no app will replace statues altogether. But at the very least it could highlight the fact that women’s achievements are more than just sitting on a throne or giving birth to the son of God.

Rich McEachran tweets as @richmceachran.

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