Ruining a ruin: what makes a good restoration project?

The controversy stirred up by the recent restoration of Matrera Castle in Spain is a reminder of the fine line between success and failure when it comes to our historic buildings. Chris Lo asks what makes a truly successful restoration project, and why do well-intentioned attempts fall flat?


What is the best way to conserve our built heritage? There is near-unanimous agreement that protecting historic buildings – the physical embodiment of often-fascinating periods of human history – for the edification of generations to come is a noble goal, but despite this consensus, there is no widely accepted approach from a design and construction perspective on how best to achieve this objective.

This is especially true when it comes to restoring historic buildings that have fallen into ruin. Unlike repair and maintenance work, these larger-scale restoration projects throw up aesthetic and cultural questions to which there are no clear answers. After the Second World War there was a surge of restoration throughout Europe as the continent worked to pick up the pieces of its war-ravaged cities.

“Across post-war Europe there was much reconstruction as a matter of national pride,” says Nick Molyneux, West Midlands principal inspector of historic buildings and areas for Historic England, the public body charged with protecting England’s historical environment. “The classic examples include Dresden in Germany, where the key historic buildings in the town centre were re-created from the rubble. Similarly, the reconstruction of the centres of a number of European cities, such as Warsaw in Poland, was about iconic cultural places.”

In more recent years, historic building restoration projects have been known to stir up huge controversy, and represent something of a minefield for the architects tasked with bringing the ruined relics of the past back to life.

Matrera Castle: “heritage massacre”?

The most recent demonstration of the perils of restoring historically-significant ruins comes from Spain, the country where, in 2012, elderly parishioner Cecilia Giménez became an overnight pop culture icon with her unsanctioned amateur ‘restoration’ of an 80-year-old Catholic fresco of Jesus Christ, which one observer described as resembling a “crayon sketch of a very hairy monkey in an ill-fitting tunic”.

The public reaction was noticeably less charitable when Spanish design firm Carquero Arquitectura unveiled its restoration of Matrera Castle, a ruined 9th century hilltop fortress in the province of Cádiz. The ruins of the castle had been under threat since they were damaged by heavy rain in 2013. Carquero Arquitectura, which is local to the town of Villamartín where the castle is located, was tasked with preventing the wholesale collapse of the castle and safeguarding its remaining original elements.

The local firm, led by architect Carlos Quevedo Rojas, reinforced the castillo’s period stonework using white concrete, creating an approximation of its original silhouette and physical presence while insulating its authentic facade in modern construction materials.

"Like we say round here, they’ve cocked it up."

But the result struck a discordant note with many locals, heritage groups and foreign observers, who have been outspoken about its shortcomings. “They’ve got builders in rather than restorers and, like we say round here, they’ve cocked it up,” one local resident told Spanish channel laSexta, while national heritage conservation group Hispania Nostra was equally damning.

“The ‘consolidation and restoration’ – as the architects involved call it – [is] truly lamentable and has left locals and foreigners deeply shocked,” the group said in a February 2016 statement. “Comments aren’t really necessary when you’ve seen the photographs. Foreigners have written to us saying they can’t understand why these follies – better described as heritage ‘massacres’ – still go on. And that is indeed what they are.”

Defending Matrera Castle: consolidation, not imitation

The vehemence of the reaction has raised some interesting questions – to begin with, if one of Spain’s foremost heritage groups has condemned the restoration of Matrera Castle and claimed that the photos are evidence enough to do so, how did the project go ahead in the first place?

The Izquierda Unida political coalition has promised to bring the case to the culture committee of the Regional Government of Andalusia, which approved the restoration’s design, to ask if the Matrera Castle project’s result matched the expectation of the commissioning body. But regardless of the outcome or any subsequent finger-pointing, it is important to consider the legal circumstances and restoration trends that fed into the project’s execution.

Although for many members of the public, historic building restoration means restoring a ruin to as close an impression of its original state as possible, as the field has evolved this no longer necessarily holds water. In many countries, purely imitative restoration – trying to copy the original structure and materials – has fallen away in favour of ‘anastylosis’, a reconstruction technique that attempts to restore the fallen original materials of a ruin while using modern materials for sections that cannot be rebuilt using authentic components.

This philosophy – that the restoration process should cradle the surviving historic fabric rather than pretend that there’s no difference between old and new sections – has resonated so strongly in Spain that it has been enshrined in law through the Historical Heritage law of 2007, which stipulates that restorations cannot be imitative and must use materials that are distinguishable from those of the original structure. This is the legal requirement that Carquero was following with its Matrera design, as outlined by Rojas.

“This intervention sought to achieve three basic objectives,” he said. “To structurally consolidate the elements that were at risk; to differentiate the additions from the original structure – avoiding the mimetic reconstructions that our law prohibits – and to recover the volume, texture and tonality that the tower originally had. The essence of the project is not intended to be, therefore, an image of the future, but rather a reflection of its own past, its own origin.”  

Context is king

Despite any justifications or mitigating factors, it’s important to acknowledge the widespread negative reaction to the Matrera Castle restoration. Regardless of the finer details of restoration theory and Spanish conservation law, the project can hardly be considered a success if local people are describing it as a cock-up.

So the success or failure of a restoration project lies less in the theory behind it and more in the execution of each individual project – and here, context is king.

“Our efforts are focused on the retention of as much significant historic fabric as possible,” says Molyneux of Historic England, which advises council planners and the government on alterations to listed buildings and ancient monuments. “That does not equate to a ‘preserve in aspic’ approach; we espouse the philosophy of constructive conservation, but that does not require the restoration of lost elements of buildings as a matter of principle…It very much depends on the case. I have only seen a few images of Matrera Castle and don’t understand enough about the circumstances as to how that particular approach arose. Certainly the end result is rather striking in its effect.”

Molyneux picks out Astley Castle, a 16th century fortified manor house in North Warwickshire, which had stood decrepit since the building was gutted by fire in 1978, as an excellent recent example of sensitively-applied restoration work and what it can do to breathe new life into at-risk historic buildings. The restoration project, which kicked off in the early 2000s under the design direction of Witherford Watson Mann Architects and was completed in 2012, adopted an anastylosis approach much like Matrera Castle, with clear material demarcation between the historic structure still standing and the modern core that holds the building together.

“The process of ruination of that part of the [Astley Castle] site was sufficiently recent for the on-going loss of historic fabric to be severe and the scheme included a substantial element of conservation of the standing fabric at the same time as introducing a good long term management regime for the whole site,” Molyneux says.

Fine line between success and failure

The restored Astley Castle was awarded the Stirling Prize by the Royal Institute of British Architects in 2013 and, beyond a few historical purists, has been universally praised. So, given that the Astley Castle and Matrera Castle restorations adopted a similar approach, why did the former succeed while the latter became a punching bag for critics?

Astley Castle was lauded for the seamlessness with which it joined old and new in terms of colour and shape, while the criticism of Matrera Castle mostly stems because it created the opposite effect in terms of fusing the original stonework with the cement cladding that reinforced it. In fact, The Guardian newspaper’s architecture critic Oliver Wainwright has speculated that perhaps the Matrera team took inspiration from David Chipperfield’s model of his proposed restoration of Milan’s 15th century Sforza Castle, which also presented blank modern facades to fill in the ruined walls, but these facades are intended to be coloured in a way that fits with the tones of the building, which is perhaps where the Matrera Castle project stumbled.

"A one-size-fits-all approach is destined to fail."

Whether or not the newly-restored Matrera Castle has a chance at reappraisal in the court of public appeal, for now it’s certainly emblematic of the razor-thin separation between success and failure in the restoration game. A one-size-fits-all approach is destined to fail, and given the historical stakes involved, it’s not surprising that architects have been moving towards more respectful blending of the past and present, as well as softer techniques in general. And of course, sometimes a ruin is best left undisturbed.

“There are many ruins where leaving them alone seems like a good idea,” says Molyneux. “For example, one of the great abbeys [Tintern Abbey, which is] lauded for its romantic location. When that was repaired [in the 1920s] the works were very extensive and many of the columns in the church are in fact supported on steel work. We would not engage in such radical work today but would seek a softer solution. There have been considerable advances in the way we conserve ruins, particularly through the use of soft capping – appropriately managed green solutions, after the removal of the damaging massive plant growth – exemplified by Wigmore Castle in Herefordshire.”