Colour photo of the porch of Coventry Cathedral with the ruins of the old cathedral behind and to the left.
The historic Coventry Cathedral, damaged by bombing during WWII, was consolidated without reconstruction or restoration as an historical symbol of the destructive impact of war, and a new Cathedral was built alongside between 1956 and 1962 as a symbol of rebirth, reconciliation and peace. Copyright Historic England © Historic England Archive. John Laing Collection jlp01-12-061 More about the John Laing Photographic Collection
The historic Coventry Cathedral, damaged by bombing during WWII, was consolidated without reconstruction or restoration as an historical symbol of the destructive impact of war, and a new Cathedral was built alongside between 1956 and 1962 as a symbol of rebirth, reconciliation and peace. Copyright Historic England © Historic England Archive. John Laing Collection jlp01-12-061 More about the John Laing Photographic Collection

Reconstruction: Background and Issues

There may be convincing reasons to undertake reconstruction. Such a decision needs to be based on a clear understanding of the significance of the heritage asset. Once you have that, you can give careful consideration of any harm and benefits of reconstruction to this significance.

Whilst this is true of every decision made in the positive management of the historic environment, reconstruction raises particular issues for the authenticity (see below) of the asset.

Definitions

  • Reconstruction: ‘Returning a place (or part of one) to a known earlier state. This is distinguished from restoration because it will usually require the introduction of new material.’
  • Restoration: ‘Returning a place (or part of one) to a known earlier state by removing built fabric, or by reassembling existing elements without the introduction of new material.’

The definitions for ‘Reconstruction’ and ‘Restoration’ used on this webpage are based on the 2013 version of the Burra Charter.

  • Re-creation: Defined here as the in situ creation of a presumed earlier state on the basis of surviving evidence from that place and other sites and on deductions drawn from that evidence, using new materials.
  • Replication: The construction of a copy of a structure or building, usually on another site is not dealt with in detail here.
  • Heritage asset: This webpage uses the definition of the term heritage asset in the National Planning Policy Framework for England – 'a building, monument, site, place, area or landscape identified as having a degree of significance meriting consideration in planning decisions, because of its heritage interest. Heritage asset includes designated heritage assets and assets identified by the local planning authority (including local listing)'.

Reconstruction in England

Since the 19th century, England has generally taken a conservation-based, rather than a restoration or reconstruction, approach to the management of heritage assets such as ancient monuments and historic buildings.

This approach emerged partly through trial and error before becoming formalised over time in government policy. In English policy and practice there remains a well-founded resistance to restoration and reconstruction work. In particular there’s a reluctance to carry out restoration work which removes 'accretions' at the cost of fully understanding the heritage asset. Opposition to reconstruction work also crops up where there is not enough evidence for the reconstructed heritage asset to have credibility.

This has been tempered by the concept of relative significance that is set out in current planning guidance in England. The concept recognises that not all parts of a heritage asset are of equal value in understanding its history and development. It also recognises that change which conserves or enhances the most significant elements, while allowing the loss of components that do not contribute to significance, is desirable.

Significance

In England decisions about whether or not to reconstruct are usually made on the basis of the heritage significance of the asset. This significance lies in the heritage values attached to the asset as set out in Historic England’s Conservation Principles.

It is important to recognize that restoration can have both positive and negative impacts on these values.

In an extensive heritage asset like a historic town, restoration and in some cases reconstruction of architectural features can often enhance heritage values. The kind of features that could achieve this might be traditional windows and doors and the re-creation of the public realm.

However in the case of individual monuments or buildings, reconstruction can enhance some values whilst harming others. The reconstruction of battlement detail in a medieval defensive structure is an example where works might enhance some heritage values, such as the aesthetic but harm authenticity (see below). Once reconstructed, some 'new' heritage assets can derive high levels of significance by ensuring the events that resulted in the destruction of the original place are not forgotten. They can also act as a symbol of renewal and reconciliation. Warsaw’s inscription as a World Heritage Site is an example where this has been recognised and highlighted in the Statement of Outstanding Universal Value.

So, decisions on reconstruction involve finding a balance between the potential impacts, whilst also considering the environmental, social and economic benefits that a proposal might produce.

Reconstruction also needs to be based on clear and sufficient evidence if it is to be fully meaningful. The aim is to avoid creating something that never existed in that form and make it clear what has been newly rebuilt.

While there has been successful reconstruction where this principle has not been followed fully, the concept of authenticity is now essential to any consideration of reconstruction.

Authenticity

Authenticity is defined in Nara + 20 as a 'culturally contingent quality associated with a heritage place, practice, or object that conveys cultural value; is recognized as a meaningful expression of an evolving cultural tradition; and/or evokes among individuals the social and emotional resonance of group identity'. So, we can apply the concept of authenticity to the materials and craft processes used in reconstruction. Depending on the context, the term ‘authentic’ can refer to the use of materials and methods that are similar to those used to produce the original, or to the re-creation of its intended appearance.

While, in many cases, traditional forms of construction appropriate to the cultural context of a heritage asset will be the preferred option, in practice the choice of materials and construction methods may be limited by factors such as the availability of the necessary materials, skills and, sometimes, cost.

Further considerations might include the need to comply with building codes, or to increase the resilience of a reconstruction against future threats such as fire, flood, or earthquake.

It’s also important to consider authenticity in cases where a heritage asset was constructed over several different periods, sometimes by different cultures. The asset may even have been reconstructed in the past. Such cases require careful thought and balance - should all component parts of such a heritage asset be reconstructed, or should relative significance be more of an influence?

There may also be cases where previous phases of work have been structurally defective. Sometimes we find past re-creation work has resulted in fabric that does not reflect what was there before, but which reflects the thinking of the era in which it was re-created. Even where there is a good record of this physical evidence, it is possible to undertake a reconstruction that is technically accurate, but may still lack strict authenticity.

In these instances a full understanding of how the place developed, the clear definition of its heritage values and significance, and the impact of the proposal on these values can be used to provide the evidence and the rationale for decisions on which approach to take.

Conflict and deliberate destruction

In conflicts, deliberate destruction of heritage assets attacks the cultural values of the communities for which they have significance. Reconstruction can be a powerful symbol of renewal in populations which have been ravaged by conflict.

Stone bridge crossing between town buildings either side of a river

Stari Most Bridge, Mostar, was reconstructed in 2004 following its destruction during the 1990s conflict in Bosnia Herzegovina © BáthoryPéter via Wikimedia Commons | More information

For example the destruction of the historic bridge at Mostar during the conflict in what is now Bosnia Herzegovina in the 1990s was a huge blow to the resident communities and its reconstruction was significant.

As the Statement of Outstanding Universal Value adopted by UNESCO says of this World Heritage Site 'the reconstructed Old Bridge and Old City of Mostar is a symbol of reconciliation, international co-operation and of the coexistence of diverse cultural, ethnic and religious communities'. This is not to say that these aspirations have been fully realized following such deeply traumatic events but such a statement of ambition has aspirational value.

Natural disasters and accidental damage

In cases where natural disasters have destroyed heritage assets, the same issue of impact on identity can potentially provide support for decisions to reconstruct an asset.

In England, heritage assets which have been severely damaged by accident have sometimes been the subject of reconstruction and restoration programmes. Uppark House in Sussex is a good example. After suffering extensive damage during a fire in 1989, research and meticulous archaeological recording enabled the accurate reconstruction of this late 17th century mansion.

Large brick three-storey mansion building with expanse of lawn in the foreground.

Uppark House following reconstruction © Michael Parry. Source Historic England Archive

Wider potential heritage benefits of reconstruction

Reconstructing a heritage asset can have value as a learning experience, as well as benefiting the physical fabric of the asset itself. The knowledge gained can help us to understand more about how the asset was originally constructed and changed over time, adding to our understanding of its significance.

The practical knowledge gained of construction problems and solutions can help with the success of future projects. So sharing new knowledge widely and keeping good records of reconstruction initiatives is an important element of any such project.

Reconstruction of archaeological remains can also be a very powerful tool for the interpretation and understanding of this type of asset. However, such proposals often require a level of speculation, meaning that they should usually be regarded as re-creation, and risks creating a false impression of certainty about the form of the original heritage asset. This, together with concerns about authenticity and impaired ability to adapt to subsequent advances in knowledge, explains why, although each proposal must be judged on its merits, there is a general presumption against in-situ reconstruction of archaeological remains in national and international guidance.

Was this page helpful?
Back
to top