Anti-Restoration: Learning from Ruskin

建築修復的反思.向约翰.拉斯金學習

Donald Choi 蔡宏興

這篇文章旨在闡明約翰·拉斯金在 1849 年出版的《建築的七盞燈》中關於修復歴史建築的挑釁性聲明。在第六章《記憶之燈》中,拉斯金明確地對修復建築表示反對及不满。有鑒於香港近年頻繁出現歷史建築的項目,拉斯金的反修復方法作為一種務實的保障措施可能具有相關性,以防止我們無意中破壞香港的歷史建築,以便後代能夠對我們城市的歷史有更真實的建築敘事。


This short essay is to shed some light on John Ruskin’s provocative statement on restoration in his 1849 publication, The Seven Lamps of Architecture, which was briefly mentioned during the 3 July 2021 HKIA Journal Symposium. Under Chapter VI, The Lamp of Memory, Ruskin’s passionate plea and abhorrence on restoration was made clear:

It is impossible, as impossible as to raise the dead, to restore anything that has ever been great or beautiful in architecture. That which I have above insisted upon as the life of the whole, that spirit which is given only by the hand and eye of the workman, can never be recalled. Another spirit may be given by another time, and it is then a new building; but the spirit of the dead workman cannot be summoned up, and commanded to direct other hands, and other thoughts…. We have no right whatever to touch the buildings of past times. They are not ours. They belong partly to those who built them, and partly to all the generations of mankind who are to follow us. 1

I don’t know if it is a curse or a blessing when I was introduced to the thinking of John Ruskin when I studied architecture. David Watkin was one of the two visiting teachers 2 who I took special interest in 1980 RISD and thru through his lectures on his then controversial book, Morality and Architecture published in 1977, I learned about Pugin, Viollet-le-Duc, and Ruskin. The idea that Architecture could involve some notions of ethical truth and be used as an index of social values left a lasting mark on me. The attentive study of our architectural past would enable us to objectively understand human progress along a historical path of destiny appeared to be so natural back then given the indoctrination from the art-historical approach of Johann Winckelmann (1717-68) and Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831) to the Zeitgeist modernism with its ‘spirit of the age’ architectural concept promoted by protagonists like Nickolas Pevsner (1902-1983), Siegfried Giedion (1888 -1968), and Le Corbusier (1887 -1965). The heated debates between modernist rhetoric and postmodern reality spearheaded by Robert Venturi (1925 – 2018) 1966 book, Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture, and the proliferation of architectural discourses under the Institute for Architecture and Urban Studies (IAUS) journal, Oppositions, brought architectural history back to RISD design studio despite the modernist’s stranglehold on the pedagogy of 20th century architecture. along a historical path of destiny appeared to be so natural back then given the indoctrination from the art-historical approach of Johann Winckelmann (1717-68) and Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831) to the Zeitgeist modernism with its ‘spirit of the age’ architectural concept promoted by protagonists like Nickolas Pevsner (1902-1983), Siegfried Giedion (1888 -1968), and Le Corbusier (1887 -1965). The heated debates between modernist rhetoric and postmodern reality spearheaded by Robert Venturi (1925 – 2018) 1966 book, Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture, and the proliferation of architectural discourses under the Institute for Architecture and Urban Studies (IAUS) journal, Oppositions, brought architectural history back to RISD design studio despite the modernist’s stranglehold on the pedagogy of 20th century architecture.

My view on architectural conservation and restoration has evolved since my time at RISD,. However, by showing the thread above, explaining the kinds of values embodied in my formative years, I hope readers would understand why I consider improper restoration as a threat to the preservation of the cultural heritage and historic values of buildings. My intention here is not to argue about the advantage and disadvantage of the seemingly opposite architectural restoration theories of Eugene-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc and John Ruskin since abundant scholarly publications are readily available.

In 1994, the building’s front bay facing Des Voeux Road Central was demolished to make way for the construction of the Central Escalator Link and the western part of the second floor was converted into a shopping arcade. Despite this, Central Market remained a milestone in the development of markets in Hong Kong and a rare example of a pre-war market with its major façade and layout still intact. What I want to share in this short essay is the possible relevancy of Ruskin’s anti-restoration approach as a pragmatic safeguard to prevent the careless unconscious destruction of historic architecture in Hong Kong so the future generations can have a more authentic architectural narrative of our city’s history.to argue about the pros advantage and cons disadvantage of the seemingly opposite architectural restoration theories of Eugene-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc and John Ruskin since abundant scholarly publications are readily available. What I want to share in this short essay is the possible relevancy of Ruskin’s anti-restoration approach as a pragmatic safeguard to prevent the careless unconscious destruction of historic architecture in Hong Kong so the future generations can have a more authentic architectural narrative of our city’s history.

My premise starts with architecture can be a signifier of human activities. The role of intentional monument or architectural landmark is to create a specific physical entity for the purpose of keeping the memory of the specific activity memorable for future generations and according to Ruskin “it is as the centralization and protectress of this sacred influence, that architecture to be regarded by us with the most serious thought. We may live without her, and worship without her but we cannot remember without her.”3

In adaptive reuse, the architect could create new values for the society in old building, intentional monument, or architectural landmark by adding to or changing the existing utilitarian and commemorative function. Adaptive reuse is reusing old premises for a new function other than the original designed function. However, regardless of how successful the architectural heritage has been preserved in an adaptive reuse project, it is not and cannot be a historical continuity of the original intention. The resulting work serves a different purpose separated from the original and cannot avoid the influence from present-day practice.

A demonstrative example is Carlo Scarpa’s mastery intervention of Castelvecchio in Verona. Scarpa was aware of Ruskin’s view on anti-restoration as Scarpa had given a lecture in 1947 about Ruskin’s fondness of the authenticity in Veneto cities. 4 In the remodeling of the medieval castle built around 1354 – 1355 by the Della Scala family that ruled Verona in the 13th and 14th century, Scarpa deliberately designed a discontinuity from the historical past by selective demolition, reconfiguring the space around the moat and courtyard, and experimenting with polyphonic design composition of the new and old. His expressive architectural intervention has created a totally new cultural experience and additional values for the historic monument by telling an updated story of the castle. It is a new narrative with selected layers of history left out 5 and Scarpa, adding his own artistic value to Castelvecchio, had no intention to restore the building to its previous completeness.

Restoration means returning a place to a known earlier state by removing accretions or by reassembling existing elements without the introduction of new material.

Furthermore, the following restoration requirement under Article 9 of The Venice Charter, 1964, accepted by the International Council on Monuments and Sites in 1965, makes it clear that restoration is about respecting the past and there are two explicit values, the aesthetic and historic, in the architecture that require preservation.

The process of restoration is a highly specialized operation. Its aim is to preserve and reveal the aesthetic and historic value of the monument and is based on respect for original material and authentic documents. It must stop at the point where conjecture begins, and in this case moreover any extra work which is indispensable must be distinct from the architectural composition and must bear a contemporary stamp. The restoration in any case must be preceded and followed by an archaeological and historical study of the monument. 7

I have no qualms with the above definitions of restoration. However, I consider genuine restoration is very difficult to achieve in our time because of the scarcity or unavailability of past material and bygone era craftsmanship as well as there is no stopping of time, the passing of time means the past can return only as historical evidence rather than an ongoing occurrence. Hong Kong has seen many misleading “restoration” and carefree use of the term ‘restoration’. For example, the former Central Ordnance Munitions Depot retrofitting to wine cellar in Deep Water Bay was promoted by the Hong Kong Heritage Center as a restoration work with an introduction starting with: “After restoration [my emphasis], it has become wine cellar…”8 Another example is the re-erected Murry House as described below in a promotion by the Hong Kong Tourism Board.

Experience Hong Kong seaside dining at the famous Murray House, a 160-year-old restored colonial building that was dismantled and moved to the Stanley market waterfront from Central, Hong Kong. 8

Restoration is different from adaptive reuse. It has a responsibility to ensure the continuity of the original architectural function and aesthetics as well as accountable to the preservation of all embedded historic values. Unlike adaptive reuse or other conservation effort with a priority to extend the lives of buildings and could allow the latest intervention to dominant, restoration is about preserving the authenticity of the original work in totality. Restoration is to save the past for the future in an unmediated way with all pertinent information remains intact and being reflected in the architecture as part of the documented record. At the same time, there is an obligation to accurately record the ongoing activities with the architecture as text. Ruskin was against restoration because he saw the damage a deceitful restoration could do and the ease of distorting historical knowledge of human activities through a purposeful or unintended making of fraudulent architecture of the past. In a future point of time, it would be difficult to differentiate the ‘fake’ from the ‘genuine’ as they both become historical truth with the passing of time which could lead to a wrong reading of the past. Furthermore, the restoration of the building does not guarantee the previous human activities of the restored building could be reinvigorated or reintroduced to the building. For Ruskin, restoration is a lie as one cannot give life back to a corpse.Do not let us talk then of restoration. The thing is a Lie from beginning to end. You may make a model of a building as you may of a corpse, and your model may have the shell of the old walls within it as your cast might have the skeleton, with what advantage I neither see nor care: but the old building is destroyed, and that more totally and mercilessly than if it had sunk into a heap of dust, or melted into a mass of clay: more has been gleaned out of desolated Nineveh than ever will be out of re-built Milan. But, it is said, there may come a necessity for restoration! Granted. Look the necessity full in the face, and understand it on its own terms. It is a necessity for destruction. Accept it as such, pull the building down, throw its stones into neglected corners, make ballast of them, or mortar, if you will; but do it honestly, and do not set up a Lie in their place. And look that necessity in the face before it comes, and you may prevent it. 10

Hong Kong has seen a surge of interest in restoration, however, in our zeal to preserve the past and incorrectly consider everything is restorable and can be made ephemerally anew, by manufacturing counterfeit without knowing it, we often eradicate or marginalize the long-term historic and authentic values of what we want to preserve in the building. The re-erected Murray House mentioned above is a case in point and we may well take Ruskin’s anti-restoration advice as a pragmatic safeguard to prevent the destruction of our historic building through our devastating intrusion on the original work. To address the necessity of restoration, if we really care about preserving our city heritage, we need to provide adequate resources to carry out proper repair and maintenance to our buildings. We must remember building will age and that the passing of time completes the architecture. It is better and cheaper if we can avoid the need of restoration by preventing the deterioration of buildings into a dilapidated state.

The preservation of buildings is only a means and not the goal. It is the humanity, the human activities, and the time in passing that we shall treasure. What Ruskin wrote below is as valid today as it has been in the past: the greatest glory of a building is not in its stones, nor in its gold. Its glory is in its age, and in that deep sense of voicefulness, of stern watching, of mysterious sympathy, nay, even of approval or condemnation, which we feel in walls that have long been washed by the passing wave of humanity. 11

Historic value comes from the unity of the architectural artefacts with the associated human activities being perceived and remembered together. Each successive layer of history depends on the preceding unity of human intellect and the collective work with the passing of time. The ability of architecture to record such endeavors is why so many architects and laypersons alike find architecture fascinating. Vernacular buildings and iconic buildings both mark the passing of time and tell a story about human activities and their social life. With time doing its work, the everyday ordinary vernacular building can become the unintended monument with historic value just like the intended iconic monument. We owe it to our future generations to maintain and preserve our buildings, we should not carryout mindless restoration of historic buildings by erasing the evidence of the passing of time, and we shall do no harm to our environment.

In closing, I like to share the following prophetic insight by Ruskin as I was enthralled by it when I first read it decades ago and I still feel it as a battle call to action for all architects to preserve our architectural heritage and protect our environment.

God has lent us the earth for our life; it is a great entail. It belongs as much to those who are to come after us, and whose names are already written in the book of creation as to us; and we have no right, by any thing that we do or neglect, to involve them in unnecessary penalties, or deprive them of benefits which it was in our power to bequeath.

Donald Choi is the President of The Hong Kong Institute of Architects and The Hong Kong Institute of Urban Design. He has taught at the University of Hong Kong.
蔡宏興是香港建築師會和香港城市設計學會會長。他既是香港大學建築學院的客座教授。

¹ John Ruskin, The Seven Lamps of Architecture, Century Hutchison National Trust Classics 1988 edition, pp194-197.
² The other teacher was Colin Rowe who co-taught a course with Jorge Silvetti at The Rhode Island School of Design in the Spring Term of 1980. His elaboration on the 1947 article in The Architectural Review, The Mathematics of the Ideal Villa: Palladio and Le Corbusier compared, showing the congruence between Palladio’s Villa Malcontenta and Le Corbusier’s Villa Stein, reconnecting the 20th century modern architecture with the classical past, was a tour de force in scholarship. But it was his discussion of Collage City, a book co-authored with Fred Koetter in 1978, that led me to reject a single utopian vision in architecture and city design.

³ Ruskin, op. cit., p178.

⁴ Crippa, M.A., Carlo Scarpa: Theory, Design, Projects, MIT Press, 1986. pp.41 – 42.

⁵ For example, Scarpa removed the staircase and barracks built under French occupation during the Napoleonic war and where Mussolini, in 1944, trialled Galeazzo Ciano, his son-in-law and Minister of Foreign Affairs along with five other members of the Grand Council of Fascism who plotted to remove Mussolini. The demolition of the Napoleonic staircase and barracks removed any reminder trace of the Italian defeat and fascist past.

⁶ Article 1.7, the Burra Charter, ICOMOS Australia 2013, http://openarchive.icomos.org/id/eprint/2145/1/ICOMOS-Australia-The-Burra-Charter-2013.pdf

⁷ Article 9, The Venice Charter 1964, ICOMOS, https://www.icomos.org/charters/venice_e.pdf

⁸ Hong Kong Heritage Discovery Centre, Field Visit I: Former Central Ordnance Depots / Little Hong Kong, https://www.amo.gov.hk/en/education_oct_2009_public_3.php 

⁹ Murray House advertisement from Hong Kong Tourism Board, https://www.discoverhongkong.com/ca/interactive-map/murray-house.html. The re-erection of Murry House, from an original government/army building into a commercial complex, is a sad story to tell and shows how far the city has erred in valuing its heritage; see article by Choi Wun Hing Donald, “A Preliminary Inquiry into the Destruction and Conservation of Hong Kong Built Heritage: The Case of Victoria City”, Architecture Blueprint, ed. HKIA 50th Anniversary Commemorative Book, HKIA, 2006, pp249-257.

¹º Ruskin, op. cit., p196.

¹¹ Ibid, pp186-187

¹² Ibid, pp185-186

Castelvecchio, Verona (Thomas Nemeskeri/ Flickr).

Giant yet tight steps of Scarpa’s concrete staircase with angled treads to emphasize the narrowness, Castelvec chio (by author).

Sketch of railing details, Castelvecchio (by author).

(overleaf) Exterior of the museum ‘first’ room with the Sacellum protrusion into courtyard, Castelvecchio (by author).