“Instead of causing us to remember the past like the old monuments,” wrote the artist Robert Smithson in 1966, “the new monuments seem to cause us to forget the future.” The line, appropriated out of context (Smithson was writing about sculpture) captures something of historic preservation’s strange relationship to time. Though monuments designed as monuments (say, a triumphal arch) are self-evident in their purpose—to recall and celebrate a definite moment in the past through architecture—the non-monumental building designated as a monument has a less direct relationship to the past and to the future. To use the ever-relevant dialectic posed by the competing views of John Ruskin and Eugène Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc: Is a building supposed to evoke its age in patina, and through its decay remind the viewer of its future destruction in ruin? Or should a building be locked into the crystalline amber of perfect restoration, evoking a state that may have never existed in the past, and thus remain effectively outside of time?
Thordis Arrenhius’ The Fragile Monument: On Conservation and Modernity is written as a revisionist history of historic preservation theory, one that seeks to reexamine these familiar opposing conceits in an arc stretching back to the French Revolution. Arrenhius, a professor of architectural history and conservation at the Oslo School of Architecture and Design, argues that the beginning of modern historic preservation can be traced to the idea born in the late eighteenth century that it was “not the permanence or the presence of an object that identifies it as a monument, but rather its very fragility and remoteness that single it out”—the fragile monument of the book’s title. “Restoration,” Arrenhius writes, “threatened the integrity of the monument as an historical document on the one hand; on the other the absence of restoration threatened its very being as an historical object.” She argues that modern preservation begins with acknowledgment of this inherent and perhaps unresolvable contradiction.
The book is structured as four case studies. The most valuable are the two middle pieces, one on Ruskin and Viollet-le-Duc, the other on Alois Riegl’s famous (and in many ways never surpassed) 1903 essay “The Modern Cult of Monuments.” (By contrast, the final chapter, on Le Corbusier’s plan voisin, seems accessory to the book’s primary argument.)
The familiar antagonists Ruskin and Viollet-le-Duc anchor the book’s largest chapter, and Arrenhius provides a compelling historical rereading of their arguments, especially in their relation to the representational technology of the era: the new medium of photography. For Ruskin, the passage of time could not be arrested in the physical world—a building would cease to be a monument if restored—but the photograph could capture and preserve a crumbling monument for posterity. For Viollet-le-Duc, photography constituted a document of a present to be altered by the timeless form of restoration, one that could only be articulated through drawing and might even exist in better form there. Thus, for both Ruskin and Viollet-le-Duc—and this is Arrenhius’ most gripping observation—a building was often accessory to the act designed to preserve or restore it, since that act could more justly take the form of another medium.
This observation also highlights one of the book’s major weaknesses, as Arrenhius never really dips into the historiography of technical building conservation but instead stays entirely in the waters of historic preservation theory. Buildings do not stand—or remain standing—on ideas alone. Still, The Fragile Monument is a useful companion to the familiar texts of historic preservation, of interest to all those looking for a critical history of the field’s origins.