The Visible Past




lavra layers

Originally uploaded by vincusses.

Another thought from my recent journey in the Ukraine. On my first night there, I took the subway (more crowded than Shanghai) to the center with Professor Piotr Krasny and wandered around St. Sophia cathedral. There I noticed that in portions of the walls of the church, the stucco or render was left off, revealing the stone and brick construction beneath. Krasny said it was something they did there. I saw it again on my last morning in Kyiv, at the Pechersk-Lavra monastery, on the recently rebuilt Church of the Dormition. It is like peeling back the layers of construction, or perhaps of time.
The revealed segments of Kyiv churches are a kind of interpretation that makes the past visible. These reveals tell us immediately that the building is not new, and they hint at its history. These subsurface reveals in Kyiv churches seemed to me like an inverse plaque that you put on the building to landmark it. Given that most of the signs are in Cyrillic, which I can’t read, I want to be able to understand these reveals in the same non-linguistic way one knows that the pebbles in the mortar at a Mayan or Hellenistic site signify anastylosis (that it where you put the crumbled bits of a ruin back together).
But even these reveals, where they expose a portion of the original surviving building, still make choices about which periods of history and construction. According to a UNESCO report:

To define the fragments which should be exhibited, the construction evolution of the building
was analyzed and the most characteristic stages of it were defined, represented by the
remaining parts. After that the fragments to be exhibited were defined.

As in my previous blog, the danger is that current political issues reframe history into heritage. Let me rephrase that: The danger is that current political issues reframe history into heritage too much – we can never escape the occluding lens of presentism, only limit it.

Next semester I am teaching a graduate seminar on interpretation of historic sites, a topic I formerly explored in undergraduate classes. We will discuss how we make the past visible, and I will use the examples from Kyiv, along with many others. After all, one of the reasons we save old buildings is to make the past visible.
Preservation is in itself a kind of interpretation – the mere fact of a thing begs the viewer to ask why this remnant of the past is still there. It suggests that it is significant.
We do the opposite as well: we mark things that are long gone. (Heck, in Ukraine they rebuild them.) Perhaps one project would be to mark the 115 sites in Chicago where a Louis Sullivan building was demolished.
Over the last 20 years interpretation has gone way beyond plaques – the opening of the Jorvik Center in York, England in 1985 was one of the first salvos in a pair of decades that has brought us the rise of heritage areas, the rekindling of archaeology and the populism of preservation. There are projects that restore, and some that actually distress a building or allow parts of it to reveal aging and decline; to interpret the passage of time rather than to attempt – a usually futile venture – to take you back to a specific period.

I always liked the idea of peeling back layers of history on buildings – if you go into the Rookery light court in the Loop, you can see a patch of floor and a portion of a column that hint at the original 1886 Burnham and Root design – buried in a rehab 19 years later by Frank Lloyd Wright. At the Monadnock Building floor panels allow a view of the original tile floor, sunken several inches below the surface. In Vienna’s Michaelerplatz or Paris’ Notre Dame you can see the archaeological layers beneath the surface.

And I liked seeing the little bits of back wall on the Church of the Dormition that had somehow survived the Soviet destruction (if it was the Soviets, and from a heritage point of view, it was) and even the old Byzantine layers on St. Sophia that let you know it is not simply a Baroque composition. I like the messy layering of history and attempts to make that chaos visible, and permanent.

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