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.


 

 
 
 
 

Older people need better homes – but then, so does everybody else

Colne, Lancashire. Image: Getty.

Towards the end of last year, I started as an associate director at the Centre for Ageing Better, working particularly on our goal around safe and accessible homes. Before I arrived, Ageing Better had established some ambitious goals for this work: by 2030, we want the number of homes classed as decent to increase by a million, and by the same date to ensure that at least half of all new homes are built to be fully accessible.

We’ve all heard the statistics about the huge growth in the number of households headed by someone over 65, and the exponential growth in the number of households of people over 85. Frustratingly, this is often presented as a problem to be solved rather than a major success story of post war social and health policy. Older people, like everyone else, have ambitions for the future, opportunities to make a full contribution to their communities and to continue to work in fulfilling jobs.

It is also essential that older people, again like everyone else, should live in decent and accessible homes. In the last 50 years we have made real progress in improving the quality of our homes, but we still have a lot to do. Our new research shows that over 4 million homes across England fail to meet the government’s basic standards of decency. And a higher proportion of older people live in these homes than the population more generally, with over a million people over the age of 55 living in conditions that pose a risk to their health or safety.

It shouldn’t be too difficult to ensure all our homes meet a decent standard. A small number of homes require major and expensive remedial work, but the overwhelming majority need less than £3,000 to hit the mark. We know how to do it. We now need the political will to make it a priority. Apart from the benefits to the people living in the homes, investment of this kind is great for the economy, especially when so many of our skilled tradespeople are older. Imagine if they were part of training young people to learn these skills.


At a recent staff away day, we explored where we would ideally want to live in our later lives. This was not a stretch for me, although for some of our younger colleagues it is a long way into the future.

The point at which the conversation really took off for me was when we moved away from government definitions of decency and accessibility and began to explore the principles of what great homes for older people would be like. We agreed they needed light and space (by which we meant real space – our national obsession with number of bedrooms as opposed to space has led to us building the smallest new homes in Europe).

We agreed, too, that they needed to be as flexible as possible so that the space could be used differently as our needs change. We thought access to safe outdoor space was essential and that the homes should be digitally connected and in places that maximise the potential for social connection.

Of course, it took us just a few seconds to realise that this is true for virtually everyone. As a nation we have been dismal at moving away from three-bed boxes to thinking differently about what our homes should look like. In a world of technology and factory building, and as we build the new generation of homes we desperately need, we have a real chance to be bold.

Great, flexible homes with light and space, in the places where people want to live. Surely it’s not too much to ask?

David Orr is associate director – homes at the Centre for Ageing Better.