The Greeks Did It, We Still Do it: The Human Nature of Preservation

In September of 480 BCE the Parthenon—the most monumental religious and cultural icon of Athens—was sacked in an aggressive Persian strike against the city. Athens found itself devastated yet managed to muster the manpower and desire to return to battle and in turn conquer the Persians. 33 years later in this Athenian ground zero a new Parthenon was built the one we all know of and consider the great architectural work of Iktenos and Kallikrates and the steadfast symbol for the nation of Greece. This reconstruction incorporated elements of the original Parthenon in its retaining walls as they physically supported segments of the plateau upon which the building stands. Preservation and heritage conservation were clearly part of the Greek ethos and remained part of the foundation of western society of which the Greeks dispensed upon the world.

Similarly, in September 2001, the Twin Towers—symbols of New York metropolitan ambition and life—were destroyed in terrorist attacks, and in their place a new tower, eclipsing the Manhattan skyline was constructed. Though these tragic events of Athens and New York City are separated by 2,481 years they both had similar effects on the collective memories of their civilizations and posed a likeness in preservation questions. Both sites saved elements of the original destruction but have preserved their memory for different reasons through these monumental new structures wile simultaneously eclipsing their predecessors.

As Miles Glendinning believes, the Greek reconstruction of the Parthenon stems from a religious respect and awe for past times and pays homage to the substantial site upon which it was destroyed. Conversely, the Freedom tower was partially built as an outright expression of dynamic nationalism, and the elements from the tower were saved to perpetuate the memory of the event and the lives lost, rather less as an expression of religion.

The notion of restoration and heritage conservation as a means of religious expression is a well –documented idea as the Romans exercised this with sites and Christian churches habitually restored and rebuilt themselves just as Viollet-le-Duc did as “Europe’s Premier Restorer” repairing and restoring a myriad of Europe’s best and most famous churches and Cathedrals. Similarly, preservation as a civic engagement became a proud practice throughout Europe as can be exemplified through the planning and preservation efforts of Patrick Geddes in Edinburgh.

In the contemporary realm of preservation there has been an increased focus on civic architectural conservation done to create and retain a nationalistic identity as opposed to religious reconstruction done as an expression of piety and devotion.  Though differing in the means and reasons for preservation it is interesting to note that the practice has existed and has been considered important enough for many civilizations since the creation of democracy to actively practice, and seemingly implies that the values necessary to appreciate preservation are inherent within the human race–not just to our 21st century collective understanding.

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