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.


 

 
 
 
 

This fun map allows you to see what a nuclear detonation would do to any city on Earth

A 1971 nuclear test at Mururoa atoll. Image: Getty.

In 1984, the BBC broadcast Threads, a documentary-style drama in which a young Sheffield couple rush to get married because of an unplanned pregnancy, but never quite get round to it because half way through the film the Soviets drop a nuclear bomb on Sheffield. Jimmy, we assume, is killed in the blast (he just disappears, never to be seen again); Ruth survives, but dies of old age 10 years later, while still in her early 30s, leaving her daughter to find for herself in a post-apocalyptic wasteland.

It’s horrifying. It’s so horrifying I’ve never seen the whole thing, even though it’s an incredibly good film which is freely available online, because I once watched the 10 minutes from the middle of the film which show the bomb actually going off and it genuinely gave me nightmares for a month.

In my mind, I suppose, I’d always imagined that being nuked would be a reasonably clean way to go – a bright light, a rushing noise and then whatever happened next wasn’t your problem. Threads taught me that maybe I had a rose-tinted view of nuclear holocaust.

Anyway. In the event you’d like to check what a nuke would do to the real Sheffield, the helpful NukeMap website has the answer.

It shows that dropping a bomb of the same size as the one the US used on Hiroshima in 1945 – a relatively diddly 15kt – would probably kill around 76,500 people:

Those within the central yellow and red circles would be likely to die instantly, due to fireball or air pressure. In the green circle, the radiation would kill at least half the population over a period of hours, days or weeks. In the grey, the thing most likely to kill you would be the collapse of your house, thanks to the air blast, while those in the outer, orange circle would most likely to get away with third degree burns.

Other than that, it’d be quite a nice day.

“Little boy”, the bomb dropped on Hiroshima, was tiny, by the standards of the bombs out there in the world today, of course – but don’t worry, because NukeMap lets you try bigger bombs on for size, too.

The largest bomb in the US arsenal at present is the B-83 which, weighing in at 1.2Mt, is about 80 times the size of Little Boy. Detonate that, and the map has to zoom out, quite a lot.

That’s an estimated 303,000 dead, around a quarter of the population of South Yorkshire. Another 400,000 are injured.

The biggest bomb of all in this fictional arsenal is the USSRS’s 100Mt Tsar Bomba, which was designed but never tested. (The smaller 50MT variety was tested in 1951.) Here’s what that would do:

Around 1.5m dead; 4.7m injured. Bloody hell.

We don’t have to stick to Sheffield, of course. Here’s what the same bomb would do to London:

(Near universal fatalities in zones 1 & 2. Widespread death as far as St Albans and Sevenoaks. Third degree burns in Brighton and Milton Keynes. Over 5.9m dead; another 6m injured.)

Everyone in this orange circle is definitely dead.

Or New York:

(More than 8m dead; another 6.7m injured. Fatalities effectively universal in Lower Manhattan, Downtown Brooklyn, Williamsburg, and Hoboken.)

Or, since it’s the biggest city in the world, Tokyo:

(Nearly 14m dead. Another 14.5m injured. By way of comparison, the estimated death toll of the Hiroshima bombing was somewhere between 90,000 and 146,000.)

I’m going to stop there. But if you’re feeling morbid, you can drop a bomb of any size on any area of earth, just to see what happens.


And whatever you do though: do not watch Threads. Just trust me on this.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason. 

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