Nothing New Under The Sun

It’s already been established that a building can be considered a document in the same way that Briet’s antelope or Grenersen’s land forms can also be documents if they’re ‘consumed’ or ‘read’ in the right way.

While reading around about document theory and buildings in general, I came across an interesting concept called spolia, which essentially considers the recycling of old bits of building into new buildings.  And I got to thinking about how these old bits of building tell a story within the new building.  A bit like a compilation album — we all remember Dvořák’s “Hovis Symphony” and Grieg’s Nescafé Mood his Peer Gynt Suite.  And who can forget the “Old Spice” movement from Carl Orff’s masterpiece Carmina Burana or Khachaturian’s theme for BBC1’s The Onedin Line?

As Heard on TV

There are many examples of spolia in architecture and I don’t have the space to do it justice here.  I have a particular interest in the buildings of Beirut and want to use a couple of places I know of to highlight a couple of examples I thought were interesting, and look at how the concept impacts on how we read buildings.

Al-Omari Mosque

Beirut’s grand mosque was built in 1150 as the church of St John the Baptist, itself built on the site of one of the city’s old Roman baths: indeed, the blocks (or imposts) at the tops of the pillars supporting the arches are Corinthian capitals from the Roman thermae (baths).  As with many buildings, its use changed over time, and by the 13th Century, following the departure of the Crusaders and the arrival of the Mamluks the church was re-defined as a mosque, with a new entrance and Minaret added in 1350.  During the League of Nations-sanctioned Mandate for Syria and Lebanon (the ‘French Mandate’) between 1923 and 1946, the façade was redesigned again, this time by adding a riwaq, or arcade[1].  A comprehensive refurbishment in the early 2000s highlighted many of these aspects of the building’s history and cemented its future as a place of worship with the space originally occupied by the Christian altar at the east end of the building now a door, with an Islaic mihrab on the building’s qibla wall, and a second Minaret constructed on the north-west corner[2].  Thus the mosque tells a story of its entire history, from the earliest days of a structure on the site.

Beit Beirut

Sticking with the Lebanese theme, Beit Beirut is an apartment block turned into a living memorial to the war in Beirut.  The building has been left much as it was once the war ended in 1990, including scars from bullet holes and nearby explosions, but with un-adorned structural elements and bracing inserted to keep the damaged structure intact.  These elements are painted grey to both show how the building looked after its damage, but also in an attempt to help tell the building’s story.  Preservation architect Youssef Haidar describes this concept as keeping the “emotional triggers” instantiated in the building: a sniper’s firing embrasure, for example, accessed from inside the building exits through an old front door in a space less than six inches square.  Haider points out that people are afraid of tanks and soldiers, but are not generally scared by a house.  Through the adaptation of this space, Haidar states that those fighting turned the house into “a weapon, a killing machine”[3].  This is made all the more emotionally charged because the rooms in question are not behind glass or displayed out of their original context: the building is still easily recognisable as an apartment block, like any other in any city.  Ramirex describes Haidar’s treatment of the building as “like a body, like something that is still living… it’s un-flinching, it’s disturbing and it’s moving”[4].

Of course, it’s not just buildings (or indeed adverts) that make use of someone else’s work.  Palimpsests are objects made or worked upon for one purpose and later reused for another, in the same way as spolia is classified.  It is possible to take an x-ray of works of art by any number of artists from Picasso to da Vinci or Van Gogh[5] to see the artist’s previous works and read previous layers of the canvas.  But that’s a story for another day…

[1] Shwayri, R., 2016. Beirut on the Bayou: Alfred Nicola, Louisiana, and the Making of Modern Lebanon. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.
[2] Ramirez, J. & Sooke, A., 2018. Beirut: An Art Lover’s Guide. s.l.:BBC.
[3] Ramirez, J. & Sooke, A., 2018. Beirut: An Art Lover’s Guide. s.l.:BBC.
[4] Ramirez, J. & Sooke, A., 2018. Beirut: An Art Lover’s Guide. s.l.:BBC.



the same, but different

Over the course of history, countless buildings and artefacts have been destroyed.  In late 1954 during excavation works for a new office block, a 2,000 year-old Temple of Mithras (Mithraeum) was discovered in Central London between modern day Bank and Cannon Street stations.  In order not to disturb the new building too much, the Roman site was moved 500 metres away and reassembled for display to the public (MOLA, 2017, p. 85) while carvings from the temple were displayed in the Museum of London while other stones were lost (Lyon, 2007).  The public outcry surrounding the moving of the temple in the late 1950s led to new formal guidance on how archaeological remains should be treated (Kennedy, 2012).  The structure has been moved again, this time closer to its previous location, and resides under the Bloomberg’s new offices, with its own entrance for the public.  Sadly the 1960s reassembly used ‘modern’ concrete (Shepherd, 1998), which adds to the question of whether the moved Mithraeum is the same structure as the one completed by the Romans.

In April 2010, Tower Hamlets council announced that Alison and Peter Smithson’s brutalist Robin Hood Gardens estate was to be demolished and replaced with a new estate called ‘Blackwall Reach’.  London’s Victoria & Albert Museum purchased two flats from the top of the original block for removal and storage as part of the demolition process (Bingham, 2017).  Unlike the ‘new’ owners of London Mithraeum, the V&A are working with Muf Architecture and engineering firm Arup to build a scaffold to support the structure allowing visitors to experience the original architects’ “street in the sky” concept (Waldek, 2018).

Robin Hood Gardens during demolition (source: Dezeen)

Although the V&A-purchased section of Robin Hood Gardens and the London Mithraeum are arguably the same structure as when they were originally built, there remains a question over whether the change in their respective context has affected these structures so much that they should now be thought of as ‘new’ items for the purposes of consideration and study:

“Keeping a small section is by no means an adequate way of preserving all that is important about a great building, but…
some sense of the physical materiality of Robin Hood Gardens will endure.”

Catherine Croft, director at the Twentieth Century Society

Following their capture of Palmyra in Syria, terrorist group Da’esh (also known as ISIS) announced their intention to destroy “polytheistic” statues (those designed for the worship of or belief in multiple deities).  A month after the capture of the city, they announced the destruction of the 3.5m (11ft) high Lion of Al-lāt statue (BBC News, 2015a).  In late August 2015, Da’esh announced they had destroyed the 1st-century Temple of Baalshamin (AFP, 2015) followed a few days later by the destruction of the Temple of Bel (BBC News, 2015b) and the 2nd-century AD Tower of Elahbel (AP, 2015).

Temple of Bel, Palmyra; before and after destruction (source: ITV News)

Multiple photographs and other documentation concerning these and other destroyed buildings and artefacts exist (Cunliffe, et al., 2016, p. 20).  However, the question of whether or not these records and surveys are suitable alternatives to those which have been destroyed, or if any new structures could be considered as important as the original ones is open to debate.  Another significant question surrounds the ownership of the data created from scanned models: should this metadata be owned by local communities or national governments from where the scanned object resides, the company creating the scan, or perhaps another body such as UNESCO.  Whatever is decided in these situations, the information in these virtual models is perhaps now as vital as the buildings themselves once were (Peri/ V&A Museum, 2017 and Hunt, 2017).

  • AP, 2015. In latest round of destruction, ISIL reduces three ancient tower tombs in Palmyra to rubble [National Post] accessed 29 April 2018
  • AFP, 2015. Isis ‘blows up temple dating back to 17AD’ in Palmyra [The Guardian] accessed 30 April 2018
  • BBC News, 2015a. Islamic State militants ‘destroy Palmyra statues’ [BBC News Online] accessed 28 April 2018
  • BBC News, 2015b. Palmyra’s Temple of Bel destroyed, says UN [BBC News Online] accessed 28 April 2018
  • Bingham, N., 2017. Moving flats: Robin Hood Gardens comes to the V&A [V&A Blog] accessed 01 May 2018
  • Cunliffe, E., Muhesen, N. & Lostal, M., 2016. The Destruction of Cultural Property in the Syrian Conflict: Legal Implications and Obligations. International Journal of Cultural Property, 23(1), pp. 1-31.
  • Hunt, T., 2017. Opinion: The real work of art in the age of reproduction. Financial Times, 1 December, 2017.
  • Kennedy, M., 2012. Temple of Mithras comes home [The Guardian] accessed 29 April 2018
  • Lyon, J., 2007. The Temple of Mithras: changing heritage values in the City of London 1954-2006. Conservation and Management of Archaeological Sites, 9(1), pp. 5-37.
  • Museum of London Archaeology (MOLA), 2017. Archaeology at Bloomberg, London: MOLA.
  • Peri Charitable Foundation/ V&A Museum, 2017. V&A launches global programme exploring reproduction of cultural heritage in digital age [V&A Press Release] accessed 28 April 2018
  • Shepherd, J. D., 1998. The Temple of Mithras, London: Excavations by W.F. Grimes and A. Williams at the Walbrook. London: English Heritage.
  • Waldeck, S., 2018. The V&A Museum Will Recreate a Demolished Social Housing Complex for the 2018 Venice Biennale [Architectural Digest] accessed 20 April 2018

can buildings be documents?

The question of what constitutes a document has sparked significant debate among academics and others. Indeed, the concept of ‘a document’ includes entities as diverse as animals (Briet, 1951), museum objects (Latham, 2012), land forms (Grenersen, 2012) and even religious icons (Walsh, 2011).

Buckland (2013) takes this further and highlights work by Paul Otlet and Henri La Fontaine and their founding of the International Institute for Bibliography in 1895 (Wright, 2014; Battles, 2004) and their work on the Mundaneum in early 20th Century Belgium. Buckland highlights that once one “accepts the notion of documents as objects from which one may learn, then there is no basis for limiting the scope to text recorded on two-dimensional, flat surfaces” (ibid., p. 5). Buckland continues to theorise that museum objects such as sculptures and specimens can be considered documents under one or more of his three classifications:

  • Conventional, material view
  • Functional view
  • Semiotic view

In the construction industry, the word “building” widely used to mean any built asset, such as houses and schools, libraries and hospitals, roads and railway lines or bridges and ports. Following work by Latham (Museum Object As Document [2012]) and the publication of Buckland’s Document Theory; An Introduction (2013) it stands to reason that buildings can also be considered documents.

Often before a building is constructed, a physical model is made to display the concept, with many clients and architects believing that a physical representation is the best way to showcase their design. London’s Victoria & Albert museum, for example, has a permanent architectural exhibition devoted to drawings, models, photographs and associated artefacts while organisations such as RIBA, Historic England (formerly English Heritage), the National Trust and a variety of local and national government bodies also manage substantial libraries of drawings, models and other items relating to the built environment.

For example, Balfron Tower in Poplar, east London is represented by a scale model in the V&A’s architecture gallery, original elevations and plan drawings in RIBA’s (Royal Institute of British Architecture) archive and a number of photographs.

Original architectural model showing Rowlett Street Housing Block A & Block B [later Balfron Tower & Carradale House respectively] (source: IanVisits/ V&A Museum)

The building’s story is also told through other associated documents such as Historic England’s (formerly English Heritage) listing summary and Tower Hamlets Council’s local conservation area report. And finally the building itself tells its own story – the lift shafts contain evidence of an earlier oil leak which rendered the lifts unusable for a number of weeks (Roberts, 2006); some of the pre-cast concrete balconies have been painted by previous tenants and rust from the metal windows and reinforcing steel rods in the concrete is evident on the concrete itself.

NW Corner Perspective: Block A [subsequently Balfron Tower] Service Tower (source: Goldfinger/ RIBA)

Balfron Tower is currently undergoing a comprehensive redevelopment which will see its mechanical and electrical services upgraded for the first time since the building was constructed in 1967, as well as replacement of windows and doors, and the upgrade of fire prevention and protection services. While it is anticipated that much of the character of the original building will be retained, questions remain about whether the building will be the same as the one designed by Ernö Goldfinger in the 1960s.

  • Battles, M., 2004. Library: An Unquiet History. New York, NY: WW Norton & Co.
  • Wright, A., 2014. Cataloging the World: Paul Otlet and the Birth of the Information Age. New York, NY: Oxford University Press
  • Briet, S., 1951. Part I: A Technique of Intellectual Work. In: R. E. Day, L. Martinet & H. G. B. Anghelescu, eds. What is Documentation?: English Translation of the Classic French Text. Paris, France: Scarecrow Press, pp. 9-19
  • Buckland, M., 2013. Document Theory; An Introduction. Records, Archives and Memory: Selected Papers from the Conference and School on Records, Archives and Memory Studies, University of Zadar, Croatia, May 2013, 223-237
  • Grenersen, G., 2012. What is a document institution? A case study from the South Sámi Community. Journal of Documentation, 68(1), pp. 127-133
  • Latham, K. F., 2012. Museum object as document: using Buckland’s information concepts to understand museum experiences. Journal of Documentation, 68(1), pp. 45-71
  • Roberts, 2006. Balfron Tower: A Building Archive [Online] accessed 30 April 2018]
  • Walsh, J. A., 2011. “Images of God and friends of God”: The holy icon as document. Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology, 63(1), pp. 185-194