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Reconstruction in architecture and monument preservation

Concept, history and types of reconstruction in architecture and monument preservation.

Reconstruction in the area of architecture is one of the numerous fields of activity of restorers. It refers to the attempt to restore the original appearance of a building that has been destroyed, demolished or severely altered by former reconstructions. The reconstruction can be realized by restoration or rebuilding.


The reconstruction of buildings is a controversial topic among experts and parts of the population. The debate includes the question of the value of historical buildings for the maintenance of one's own cultural history and their influence on the national consciousness. Therefore, we are dealing with a lively and emotional debate.

Background and history

Every era creates buildings of historical significance. The buildings, most of which are used publicly, bear witness to the aesthetic taste of the time and the artistry of their builders. At the same time, people associate buildings with historically significant events. The question of preserving or restoring destroyed buildings therefore arises at all times. The 20th century in particular, with its two world wars, presented both a great challenge and an opportunity for reconstruction projects. It is therefore not surprising that alongside a worldwide modernization movement, there was also a growing understanding of the need to protect historical monuments. At that time, the concept of reconstruction was rather associated with works of repair and conservation.

Towards the end of the 20th century up to the present day, more and more projects were realized that corresponded to a completely new construction or reconstruction. The decision in favor of such projects is often made when there is a strong national connection with the building in question. An example of this is the reconstruction of the Frauenkirche in Dresden between 1994 and 2005, which was also made possible by numerous donations. Even in this case, there were opponents who saw the preservation of the destroyed ruins as a greater reminder of the consequences of the Second World War. In the case of the reconstruction of the Reichstag building in Berlin, the historical significance was so sensitive that the decision was made against a faithful reconstruction. Modern construction forms - such as the glass dome - were integrated.

Types and possibilities

When carrying out a reconstruction, there are different ways to handle the issue. These depend on the degree of faithfulness to the original. At the same time, the source situation and the sensitivity towards the object determine the type of reconstruction:

  • For a faithful reconstruction, very intense scientific research is necessary. The intention is to build according to the same methods and with the help of materials that are as identical as possible. In most cases, preserved original parts are reused. This form of reconstruction is used for buildings of cultural and historical significance that are used for museum. This method was already applied in the 19th century for the abbey church in Altenberg or at the beginning of the 20th century for the reconstruction of the St. Mark's Campanile in Venice. The completion of Cologne Cathedral and the reconstruction of the facade of the Potsdam City Palace are also famous examples.
  • We speak of an imitated reconstruction when the data available from source research is limited. Often, only plans of the facade design or pictorial documents of the exterior view have been preserved. Further building details and the interior design are reconstructed with the help of comparative buildings. This form of reconstruction was particularly popular during the so-called historicism period (19th to 20th centuries): this includes all neo-forms of Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque. Mixed forms of different style epochs were also frequently created during this period. The remains of medieval castles and other sacral or secular buildings provided the basis for reconstruction. A famous building using this method is Hohenschwangau Castle.
  • The replicative reconstruction merely imitates the historical appearance and mostly gives the buildings a different function. There is no reference to previous buildings. This method is part of the so-called New Urbanism: urban residential and everyday buildings were built to inspire the spirit of their inhabitants. The Nikolaiviertel in Berlin is a famous example.
  • The so-called didactic reconstruction takes a special form. It is used in connection with archaeological work. Examples are reconstructions of historical settlements, city walls or temples. They serve the lively mediation of history and thus also have a value for current cultural mediation.
  • Another close relative of archaeology is experimental reconstruction. The construction of historical buildings according to ancient techniques and using materials used at the time allows the time and method of construction to be scientifically investigated. Preserved construction plans and documents of real existing historical buildings serve as models. This form of reconstruction also provides restorers with important information for their work.

What are the advantages and disadvantages?

Reconstruction is not a simple rebuilding measure or a mere repair. It is an examination of one's own history. Which buildings are meaningful for the national consciousness? In times of war, it is above all these highly symbolic buildings that were targeted for destruction, often with the intention of weakening the spirit of the population. Public buildings have this symbolic function. Decades of gaps in the cityscape are perceived as a blemish. The discussion develops between the modernists, who want to fill these gaps with new forms and materials, and those, who want to honor the achievements of earlier generations and try to restore their form and color. Thus, in every European city there are reconstructed buildings that are considered successful or unsuccessful. According to a recent survey, 80% of the population would like to see reconstructions based on originals (see Bundesstiftung Baukultur, Bevölkerungsbefragung zum Baukulturbericht 2018/19). It seems important that the discussion about reconstruction is conducted publicly and continues to be lively, because it determines the identification possibilities of current and future generations.

What is the value of reconstruction in historic preservation?

In compliance with the current building code, reconstruction constitutes new construction. Accordingly, a reconstructed historic building is not immediately listed. However, the decision for a mostly cost-intensive reconstruction of a historically significant building is always made out of the desire to permanently protect it for posterity and can thus be placed under protection. It is not uncommon for reconstructed buildings to even be included on the UNESCO World Heritage List. Examples of this are the Würzburg Residence and the reconstructed Old Town of Warsaw.

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