Restauratio and Reuse: The Afterlife of Roman Ruins
By Philip Jacks
Places Journal, Vol.20:1 (2008)
Introduction: As sustainability becomes ever more critical to the architectural profession, it is worth noting that the practice of recycling has a long history. Perhaps nowhere is this so richly documented as in Rome—both for the abundance of its classical ruins and the fact that over many centuries it was really two cities—one pagan, the other Christian.
As the institutions of imperial Rome gradually gave way to the urbs sacra, their physical vestiges had to be reappropriated. At times, this process occurred with little thought as to symbolic meaning; at others, the effect was quite conscious.
Only by the sixteenth century, however, did something approximating “adaptive reuse,” grounded in a set of design criteria, appear. Renaissance architects did not look upon classical antiquities solely as models for imitation. Their objective was to critically analyze these remains and assimilate their forms into new typologies. Their projects—some executed, some known only from drawings—hold many lessons for contemporary designers seeking to reuse and recontextualize the architectural forms of modern cities.
One of the earliest and most celebrated instances of recycling sits on the Akropolis, in Athens. After the Persians laid siege to the city in 470 BC, citizens salvaged the charred column drums and metopes from the Parthenon, then in its early stages of construction. Eventually, the blocks of that older temple became the matrix for the one we know today. The genius of Iktinos was to retrofit old with new into a single proportional system so refined that it eluded the notice of archaeologists until the last century.
In late republican Rome (123 to 23 BC), the scavenging of building material was likewise a thriving business. Cicero once reproved his friend Verres for faultily restoring the Temple of Castor and Pollux in the Forum with stones redressed from the original structure. New marble was preferable, he argued, and the old blocks would have been better discarded, given to the contractors as compensation. One consequence was a market in recycled materials that made older habitations prime targets for demolition. This became such a problem that two farsighted consuls, Hosidianus and Volusianus, pleaded before the Senate in 44 AD to outlaw the buying and selling of property by third-party speculators.