Collapse and Reconstruction

The Ethics of Preservation

The lecture was given at the Pittsburgh History & Landmark Foundation, on January 10, 2017

Using collapse as an extreme example of damage to buildings, this lecture presents different ways to save historic architecture in need of repair. We will analyze today’s best practices, and discuss the ethics of preservation projects, compared to traditional restoration. Guided by solutions from the nineteenth century to contemporary practices, we will understand the challenges of dealing with aging infrastructure, the consequences of our decisions as clients and designers, and the opportunities of working with the existing environment. This lecture will interest anybody who cares about historic and old buildings, yet looks to the future of our communities.

Following are some pieces from the original presentation I prepared, which was divided in nine chapters:

  1. Introduction

  2. A Game

  3. The Nature of Change

  4. Authenticity and Complexity in Architecture

  5. Restoration or Preservation?

  6. The US Standards

  7. Challenges

  8. Opportunities

  9. Conclusion

Excerpts from 'The Nature of Change'

The idea that architecture is an unchanging deep structure is a big misconception in the realm of architecture. Architect and clients alike tend to believe that.

Truth is: architectures change over time, usually because of mistakes made during construction. Then, there is the “new programming needs” chapter, which typically brings the most substantial changes.  Change is inevitable and the word “building” itself points to an object – the building- but also a verb, in its continuing form – to build.

The Duomo of Milano is a common joke in Italy, because it was started in 1386 and the facade was finished only under Napoleon. Then maintenance and cleaning started and keeps going on continuously, since it’s so big. Once you end one side, you have to move onto the other, and so on. It is indeed a build-ing by definition. (...)

Photo: Duomo of Milano

(c) Bea Spolidoro

Excerpts from 'Authenticity and Complexity in Architecture'

The formal authenticity is the initial idea, the first drawing, or the project as delivered from the artist, at the beginning of its artistic life. On the other hand, the material authenticity is what we see in front of us, here and now, after time has passed since the “zero” moment in time.

When more than one hand worked on a building, over time, the building is authentic just as if only one hand worked on it.  Moreover, changes accumulating over time are authentic nonetheless. Even if they might “offend the form" they are now material.


Reality is an addition of authenticities. It is complex, in the Latin sense which means “it embraces a lot of different things”, it tangles them together. It’s a whole composed of parts. It’s not impossible to understand, but need some extra effort, if you want to grasp the single parts. You cannot subtract “authenticity”, but only add more. It is wrong to respect one specific period in time, or single author, and remove any dissonant element, just because it differs from what we would like to see. Or because it offends our idea of authenticity. After a collapse, partial or total, the formal authenticity is lost, but the material authenticity is all there, unfortunately forever de-formed! (...)

Photos: Milano - Parish of Santa Maria Incoronata on Garibaldi

(c) Bea Spolidoro

Excerpts from 'Restoration or Preservation?'

Every sign of the past, even if incomprehensible to us, enriches our experience of the built environment. Only the authenticity of the material is real. It really happened, it really marked the material, whether we like it or not. Restorers think you can rebuild architectures, because the give importance only to the form. But this is “The Same Ax, Twice” paradox: one farmer had the same ax for his whole life. He only changed the handle two times and the head three. Does he have the same ax? 


Preservation looks at the present, and thinks of the future: how to consolidate, clean and protect the old buildings and what is left, in order to pass them onto the next generations sincerely. They will do the minimum work needed, in order to save the building. Truth, usually the building looks the same, after the work is done. And some clients are not very happy to pay.­­ (...)

Photo: Pittsburgh, Smallman Street

(c) Bea Spolidoro

Excerpts from 'Opportunities'

Opportunities arise when we focus less on the artistic message, and more on the historic message, which means: if we accept the progression of time.  If we mystify history, we loose an opportunity. Although the artistic message is important, and it’s what drives our learning, the historic message is the ”book” we are reading, and we cannot do without. We should not deny the natural progression of time, but put more energy in preserving what we have, and design appropriate new architectures, compatible with the past, but living in the present. As clients, we really need to understand that history lies in every brick, and while we are “in transit”, these buildings are supposed to last longer. 


After WWII and the physical losses of Italy, the shock was so great that reconstruction had to be both physical and moral. Asking a traumatized population to accept time passing in that way, was voted not okay.  Thus, many monuments in Florence, Milano, and other cities heavily bombed, were rebuilt in place, exactly as they were before the war. That time, though, was also the opportunity to look forward and plan accordingly, like Carlo Scarpa did in Castelvecchio in Verona. This is interpretation of history, elevating the past with a modern look, in order to deliver it to the future generations: an eye on the past, and eye on the future. (...)

Photo: Castelvecchio Castle and Museum by Carlo Scarpa in Verona.

(C) Bea Spolidoro

© 2017 Bea Spolidoro