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.


 

 
 
 
 

“Every twitch, breath or thought necessitates a contactless tap”: on the rise of the chain conffeeshop as public space

Mmmm caffeine. Image: Getty.

If you visit Granary Square in Kings Cross or the more recent neighbouring development, Coal Drops Yard, you will find all the makings of a public space: office-workers munching on their lunch-break sandwiches, exuberant toddlers dancing in fountains and the expected spread of tourists.

But the reality is positively Truman Show-esque. These are just a couple examples of privately owned public spaces, or “POPS”,  which – in spite of their deceptively endearing name – are insidiously changing our city’s landscape right beneath us.

The fear is that it is often difficult to know when you are in one, and what that means for your rights. But as well as those places the private sector pretends to be public space, the inverse is equally common, and somewhat less discussed. Often citizens, use clearly private amenities like they are public. And this is never more prevalent than in the case of big-chain coffeeshops.

It goes without saying that London is expensive: often it feels like every twitch, breath or thought necessitates a contactless tap. This is where Starbucks, Pret and Costa come in. Many of us find an alternative in freeloading off their services: a place to sit, free wifi when your data is low, or an easily accessible toilet when you are about in the city. It feels like a passive-aggressive middle-finger to the hole in my pocket, only made possible by the sheer size of these companies, which allows us to go about unnoticed. Like a feature on a trail map, it’s not just that they function as public spaces, but are almost universally recognised as such, peppering our cityscapes like churches or parks.

Shouldn’t these services really be provided by the council, you may cry? Well ideally, yes – but also no, as they are not under legal obligation to do so and in an era of austerity politics, what do you really expect? UK-wide, there has been a 13 per cent drop in the number of public toilets between 2010 and 2018; the London boroughs of Wandsworth and Bromley no longer offer any public conveniences.  


For the vast majority of us, though, this will be at most a nuisance, as it is not so much a matter of if but rather when we will have access to the amenities we need. Architectural historian Ian Borden has made the point that we are free citizens in so far as we shop or work. Call it urban hell or retail heaven, but the fact is that most of us do regularly both of these things, and will cope without public spaces on a day to day. But what about those people who don’t?

It is worth asking exactly what public spaces are meant to be. Supposedly they are inclusive areas that are free and accessible to all. They should be a place you want to be, when you have nowhere else to be. A space for relaxation, to build a community or even to be alone.

So, there's an issue: it's that big-chain cafes rarely meet this criterion. Their recent implementation of codes on bathroom doors is a gentle reminder that not all are welcome, only those that can pay or at least, look as if they could. Employees are then given the power to decide who can freeload and who to turn away. 

This is all too familiar, akin to the hostile architecture implemented in many of our London boroughs. From armrests on benches to spikes on windowsills, a message is sent that you are welcome, just so long as you don’t need to be there. This amounts to nothing less than social exclusion and segregation, and it is homeless people that end up caught in this crossfire.

Between the ‘POPS’ and the coffee shops, we are squeezed further by an ever-growing private sector and a public sector in decline. Gentrification is not just about flat-whites, elaborate facial hair and fixed-gear bikes: it’s also about privatisation and monopolies. Just because something swims like a duck and quacks like a duck that doesn’t mean it is a duck. The same can be said of our public spaces.