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"Wardens of Civilization"
Conservation and Diplomacy at the 1931 Athens Conference
A commemorative photograph, dated October 25th, 1931, captures the event where monuments first entered into the agenda of an international organization (figure 1.1). Seven scholars, in dark suits, pose amiably on the steps of the Erechtheion, an ancient Greek temple built on the north side of the Athenian Acropolis in the fifth century BC. They are not dressed for digging, or tourism. They have come to Athens as cultural diplomats, delegated by the League of Nations to host the first international conference devoted to "the conservation of historic and artistic monuments." The group sits off-center, sharply delineated against a vast backdrop of gray skies and stones. Towering behind them, four armless caryatids carry the temple's architrave atop their heads, bearing the seams of a recent archaeological re-constitution. Below, new marble has been added to hold up the assemblage, sharp-edged and smooth-faced pieces that stand in proud contrast to their weathered neighbors. This committee was not the first to pose for the camera on the Acropolis; a steady stream of congresses had convened in Athens since the turn of the twentieth century and been photographed among the Acropolitan monuments. But there is something unique in the way this photograph is grandly framed as both a portrait of a committee and a picture of a monument. Observe in contrast how two years later another group of internationalists, the architects of the Congrès internationaux d'architecture moderne (CIAM), assembled in the same spot, for a crowded snapshot where the monument barely appears. One of them is even aiming his camera lens at us (figure 1.2). While modern architects seem to blur out the past as they look toward a modernist future, the cultural diplomats exude a different attitude towards time, a different kind of synchronicity. Like new stones paired with old, they proudly embody the double nature of modern heritage: the idea that monuments are objects from the past, whose conservation in the present is also an event worthy of commemoration.
The event where this photograph was staged, the Athens Conference, has come to be seen as a landmark in the history of international heritage production and protection. Its seven-part conclusions were published in four languages in 1933, and have retroactively been named the first international "Charter" of preservation. This renaming has elevated the profile of the Conference, inviting historic architecture into the evidentiary cabinet of modern intellectual history, notably to illustrate the rise of "presentism" as a cultural attitude characteristic of the twentieth century. But it has also set up a dichotomy between two architectural expressions of modernity, one modernist and one conservationist, further reinforcing the self-differentiation of these two opposing architectural camps.
Yet as an event, the Athens Conference remains a mystery. Little has been written about how it unfolded, and the ambitions of its organizers. The relationship of its textual legacy with the political and diplomatic program of international organizations in the 1930s remains to be parsed. Even a cursory investigation shows that there is more to the ten October days — four in Athens, the rest on a boat tour of Greek sites — than these facile dichotomies. Why, for instance, did the League diplomats not pose in front of the infinitely more famous Parthenon? For much of the 1920s this building had been partly hidden behind a massive scaffold, during the extensive rebuilding program that the French-trained, Greek government-sponsored, and internationally sanctioned architect Nicolas Balanos had been managing at the site since 1895. In 1930, Balanos had completed the "repair" of one of the Parthenon's colonnades and re-inaugurated the building in an official ceremony. But when the Athens Conference met, the second phase of his works was in full swing. In other words, the Parthenon that was visited by this group was a construction site. The Erechtheion, in contrast, had been an earlier project of Balanos, and was now completed. In fact, by the time the CIAM arrived in 1933, modern struts would reappear there too, one between each caryatid, to help them carry their load. So whether staged as ancient or modern, the Greek monument was in no way to be pictured, or understood, as under construction.
In this chapter, I hope to recover the institutional and intellectual scaffold that made the Athens Conference possible, and that, like Balanos's scaffolding on the Acropolis, has apparently dissolved into a historical vacuum. The architectural historian Can Bilsel has interpreted the Athens Conference in performative terms, as a yardstick event that not only "resacralized" the site of the Acropolis but also inaugurated an international regime he evocatively names "the bureaucracy of the authentic." Building on this insight, I emphasize less the conclusive triumph of authenticity than the difficult birth of an international bureaucracy.
The legacy of the Athens Conference is mostly paperwork, but as Ben Kafka has suggested, paperwork must be taken seriously as a "medium of bureaucracy" that disciplines its practitioners in very specific ways. The object of my inquiry is the relationship between monuments and documents that was established in Athens to fit monuments conservation into the League of Nations as a bureaucracy. As Susan Pedersen and other historians have argued, despite its failure in high politics, the League pioneered the diplomatic rhythm and institutional blueprint that would continue to define international politics for the rest of the century, notably by creating lasting "technical" successes in specialized fields. The Athens Conference, I argue, sought to make architectural conservation one such specialized sphere, setting a course for technical achievements despite possible legislative and political failures.
The chapter moves in three broad strokes. I begin by reading the conference's conclusions through the lens of intellectual cooperation as branch of the new diplomacy. I then reconstruct the disciplinary snapshot that was offered to conference attendees, by recounting the three contexts — the law, the laboratory, and the city — where monuments work was becoming increasingly and avowedly "technical." Finally, I revisit the last session of the Conference on the Acropolis, where new forms of international authority encountered existing channels of cultural diplomacy, including the competing ones of German archaeology and American philanthropy. More than revealing lingering frictions between the new diplomacy and the old, this encounter must be read as multiplying the means through which to blur the distinction — in architecture as in politics — between old and new.
Monuments at the League: Concrete Testimonials
By the time the Athens Conference was convened in 1931, monument conservation had already been an object of interest among the "reformist nebula" of architects, urban planners, and art historians who met periodically in international congresses and world fairs across Europe and the United States in the first third of the twentieth century. But the Athens Conference was the first formal meeting of experts convened exclusively around monument conservation. Over a hundred participants from seventeen nations were invited, and from the beginning, the League's organizers were adamant that this was not to be yet another academic event or professional congress. "Even when we concern ourselves with a specialized topic such as monument restoration," explained the Conference president Jules Destrée in his opening speech, "we must be mindful to elevate ourselves to a higher level, to a better understanding between peoples, a bringing together of nations, and towards anything that may one day establish solid foundations for peace." Destrée had been one of the founding members of the CIC and, to elevate the professional meeting into a peace-building event, he asked participants to speak in a kind of disciplinary shorthand (parler à demi-mots) and leave time for broader discussion. This was the trademark method of "intellectual cooperation," a kind of discourse where technical issues were brought up but not fully explored, and it explains the signature disjuncture that exists in the textual legacy of all CIC events: a gap between the agendas of conferences, the transcripts of discussions, and the volumes published in their aftermath.
In the case of the Athens Conference, the agenda had been prepared by Destrée in Geneva and was driven by internationalist concerns (such as collective ownership of heritage, international legislation of monuments, and education reform). But the discussions over the four days in Athens were structured to reinforce internal debates among preservationists, foremost among them the famous debate between "restoration" and "conservation" that had staged itself across the English Channel since the mid-1800s, pitting followers of Viollet-le-Duc in France against those of Ruskin and, later, William Morris in England. These two aesthetic sensibilities approached the question of architecture's completion from opposite ends — one wanting to rebuild monuments to an ideal state, the other seeking to barely touch the material object, hoping at most to manage its inevitable ruination and decay. Despite the many subtleties that had come to moderate these two positions, "to conserve or to restore?" was made into the discipline's official question in Athens. Speakers were "invited to explore two positions," renamed "architectural or archaeological" but clearly referring to the two long-established camps. As a Swiss observer remarked, from the perspective of this long-standing controversy, the conference did not "pose new questions" but rather "reinforced existing convictions."
However, when the conference's proceedings were edited for publication in a massive tome in 1933, this duality was both forefronted and overlain with a layer of diplomacy. Expositions of "doctrine" and "principle" were placed first (even though they had not been given such prominence in the event itself), and some of them were submitted after the fact, as if to even out the two positions. In contrast, the language used to craft the conclusions was conciliatory. Conclusion I reframed ongoing discussions as a kind of diplomatic dynamic. "The conference," it read, "endorses the general tendency to abandon restorations in toto and to avoid the attendant dangers by initiating a system of regular and permanent maintenance calculated to ensure the preservation [in French: conservation] of the buildings." This recommendation appears at first glance merely to instantiate the consensus that, in Paul Léon's words, "conservation ha[d] replaced restoration." But its phrasing also signals the influence of diplomatic thinking. As an international agenda, to "initiate a system of regular and permanent maintenance" was to apply the temporal mindset of the new diplomacy to monumental objects. Just as the League would regularize international relations, so the Athens Conference would regularize monument maintenance and create appeasement. Similarly, Conclusion II asked conservators to act "in keeping with the trend of public opinion" and determine projects that would attract "the least possible opposition." Just as the new diplomacy was meant to supersede an ad-hoc system of state relations that gave rise to wars, the Athens Conference would interrupt the tendency for restoration projects to attract controversy and be trailed by seemingly endless debates.
What kind of document was this, then? The Athens Conclusions were never titled a charter as such and their preface announced that the intent was not "to offer a treatise of conservation." Using the terms of international political theory, we could say that this document was supposed to have regulatory, not constitutive power. Certainly the idea of a government-issued "charter of conservation" was already in vogue in 1931. As we will see later in this chapter, the head of the Italian delegation, Gustavo Giovannoni, had just finished authoring one such national charter, La Carta del Restauro, which was exactly what the League's conclusions were not: an architectural constitution for the Fascist regime, a manifesto full of formal prescriptions for the country's architects to follow. Italian historians have pointed out that many of Athens's so-called technical recommendations closely resemble the principles of this charter. But if in Italy conservation was an architectural practice subject to government control, the League had no architects in its ranks. While the Athens Conclusions do offer a set of general principles, they are written in clauses that follow the term "recommend," and where the active verb is about accommodation, not design: respect, maintain, empower, adopt, i nitiate, allow, and the list goes on.
If the designation "charter" has stuck, then, it is partly because a charter is a kind of document that has historico-political power more generally. Another use of the word "charter" in the Athens discussions makes these stakes clear: Paul Léon, Giovannoni's counterpart as the head of the French delegation, refered to the monument itself as a charter. In his presentation he tied the development of modern restoration in France to the rise of history-writing. "The idea of monumental restorations," he wrote, "is linked to the birth of history. Monuments became historical: a testimony to the mores, ideas, and lives of the past. They are documents of the same order as a historical charter (charte) or a treaty (traité)." Several French historians have singled out Léon's description of a documentary turn in conservation as equivalent to its modernity and argued that it is the broader lesson of the Athens gathering. French government-sponsored preservation doctrine had advanced by a kind of bureaucratic writing; Léon even spoke of monuments as "great archives of stone." This French conception was clearly influential on the CIC, whose subcommittee for Arts and Letters was headquartered in Paris. When a preparatory subcommittee met there in October 1932 to construct an agenda for the Committee on Historical Monuments (the one that never met), it accomplished one piece of business: to define a monument, by paraphrasing a 1913 French law, as "an edifice the conservation of which is of interest to the community, generally for reasons of history or art." This definition presumed regular maintenance first, and then named the monument as its object.
But if, in France, monuments were a kind of internal official historical document, in contrast, the international system owned no objects. How then would the archival capacity of monuments be activated? This problem provoked some of the most creative language in the Conclusions. For example, Conclusion VIIa leveraged a notion of guardianship: "The question of the conservation of the artistic and archaeological property of mankind," it read, "is one that interests the community of the States, which are wardens of civilization." This clause became an important precedent in the development of international legal protections, surviving successive edits as the Athens Conclusions traveled up the League's channels to the General Assembly. Here, diplomatic language and heritage discourse were hybridized, mixing two claims of belonging: first, that architecture belongs to "mankind" (a claim cultural agents had been making since the Enlightenment) and second, that civilization belongs to "the community of states" (a legitimizing tenet of the League of Nations, borrowed from British trust law.) To disseminate this principle of a "trust," or "tutelage," then, all participating nations were asked to "publish an inventory" of their monuments. The League also resolved to dedicate a special section of its own publications to building up what it called an "international documentation" of monuments.
The Conclusions also took a radical step further, implying that the monument would itself become a kind of mass medium, capable of constituting its own public through an act of witnessing. Buildings were "concrete testimonies of all ages of civilization," and it was the public reception of this testimony — "the respect and attachment of the people themselves" — that was the "best guarantee" that these objects might be conserved. Therefore, the resolution passed by the Committee on Intellectual Cooperation in the wake of Athens asked that "the general public" be educated "with a view to associating the latter in the protection of the testimonies (témoignages) of any civilization." Note the circular reasoning: monuments were powerful enough to catalyze public opinion, but the public then needed to be educated about how to understand them in a new way, as universal rather than national heritage. The public, then, must be taught the power of the monument in order to "associate" itself upon "witnessing" it. The imperative to create new associations was the third problem to taking national monuments administration as a model: not only did the international system own no objects, and employ no architects; it also had no directly governable constituency. This was resolved by suggesting that children should be taught to "respect" monuments, and that the League could help provoke an educational reform. The apparently anodyne addition of children as vectors of monuments conservation is crucial. To begin with, it implies that the League was willing to wait a generation for its program of monument conservation to take effect. Secondly, it offers a clue that the monument was a medium that had a creative, forward-looking potential — that rather than being a passive archive of past experiences it was a kind of incubator of future value.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Designs of Destruction"
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Table of ContentsIntroduction: Monument Survival 1. “Wardens of Civilization”: Conservation and Diplomacy at the 1931 Athens Conference 2. “Battles Designed to Preserve”: The Allies’ Lists of Monuments in World War II 3. Unwitting City Planning: Maps of Monuments and the American Bombing of Europe, 1943-1945 Bridge: Let’s Visit UNESCO House 4. “Stones Also Die”: UNESCO and the Decolonization of Museums, 1960-1975 5. Integrities: The Salvage of Abu Simbel, 1960-1980 Coda: Viscosities Acknowledgments List of Acronyms List of Archives Notes
What People are Saying About This
"Designs of Destruction brilliantly intertwines and so profoundly reconfigures heretofore separate histories of both modern architecture and monument preservation. Themes of internationalism and bureaucracy connect deeply-researched chapters on World War II bombing protocols, postcolonial African museum design, and other subjects. One of the most original books to appear in years, Designs of Destruction is for historians of architecture and heritage, plus specialists in cultural studies, technology and society, and international relations."
"Lucia Allais has written an extraordinary book, an account of monuments in modernity as they are laboriously assembled and then bombed into smithereens. Targeted and preserved, conceptualized, revered, disdainedAllais shows just how polymorphic these perverse stones can be. Interested in collective memory, recent architecture, international culture or public art? Read this."
"What is a monument? Whereas the nineteenth century raised this issue at a mostly national level, the twentieth century addressed it on a more global scale. In Lucia Allais’s remarkable study, cultural exchanges, international diplomacy, and above all conflicts play an essential role in reshaping a category clearly constructed at the intersection of architecture and politics. Her book is not only commendable for its in-depth analysis of key episodes such as the role played by monument preservation in World War II bombing strategies. It explores new ways to write architectural history as genuinely political and social."
"Allais pulls back the curtain to expose the teeming network of anonymous bureaucrats and internationalist elites who, during the darkest hours of the twentieth century, re-invented ancient buildings into unifying symbols of common humanity. This critical exposé of how monuments, and the political sausage they flavored, were made is eye-opening. As Allais cleverly points out, monuments were recast to justify as much the destruction of the old 19th century world order around them, as to create the material evidentiary support for a new postwar geopolitical regime based on 'universal values.' A must read."