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Old into New: The living, the dead and the unborn

London mithraeum museum opening architecture cultural dezeen 1704 col 3

The intertwined relationship between old and new, architecture, archaeology and curatorial interpretation, has long been an essential part of how architecture appeals to intellect and emotion

In 1523 the young heir to Burgundy, Spain and Austria, Emperor Charles V, sanctioned the construction of a new cathedral nave in the magnificent Great Mosque at Córdoba, already then nearly three quarters of a millennium old. After many discussions between the emperor, Bishop Manrique and architect Hernán Ruiz, it was decided to place the cathedral almost in the centre of the great forest of columns and arches blocking the critical view to the mihrab and cutting the aisles that directed Muslim worshippers to the qibla. It rose through the mosque’s low wide roof to dominate the skyline. 

It is hard to think of a more devastating example of inserting ‘new into old’. Charles later expressed regret, saying ‘they have taken something unique in all the world and destroyed it to build something you can find in any city’. But it was a deliberate act to assert the values of the Reconquista, the long process of expelling Muslims from Spain that had begun in the 12th century and was finally completed by Charles’ grandparents, Ferdinand and Isabella. 

Mezquita de córdoba desde el aire (córdoba, españa)

Mezquita de córdoba desde el aire (córdoba, españa)

Following on from the Reconquista in Spain and the expulsion of Muslims, 1523 saw Córdoba’s Great Mosque implanted with a cathedral nave. Photograph by Toni Castillo Quero

The story has many layers. Córdoba was actually ‘reconquered’ in 1236, nearly 300 years before the new cathedral was built. Almost immediately, Christian features began to creep into the mosque. The mosque itself had elided a Christian church and taken stones from a Roman temple. There are few better examples of what the ancient historian Bettany Hughes described as ‘walking through many layers of time’. Hughes was talking in relation to the London Mithraeum Bloomberg, an extraordinary, multi-tiered example of placing old into new, in this case a reconstructed third-century temple to Mithras beneath the Foster-designed Bloomberg London HQ. Forgotten for nearly two millennia, the temple on the banks of Walbrook was uncovered in 1954 during redevelopment after Second World War bombing. Even then it excited enormous interest, and yielded some extraordinary finds including the finest Roman sculpture found in the UK, now in the Museum of London.

The first reconstruction in the ’50s moved it 100m to a site on Queen Victoria Street. Traffic-blighted, moss-covered and with crazy-paving that the site owner Standard Life’s managing director thought ‘the Romans must have had’, it exuded nothing of its real excitement and significance. Even that excavation’s director, William Grimes, felt it fell ‘short of what it ought to have been’. When the site came up for redevelopment a decade or so ago, the City of London Corporation made its reconstruction a condition of planning consent. Foster and Bloomberg embraced the challenge, appointing curators, designers and artists to reposition it in the context of contemporary London.

London mithraeum museum opening architecture cultural dezeen 1704 col 3

London mithraeum museum opening architecture cultural dezeen 1704 col 3

Beneath Bloomberg’s new London HQ, designed by Foster + Partners, lies a third-century Roman temple to Mithras. Reconstruction was a condition of planning consent for the new development being granted. Photograph by James Newton

Visiting it is an extraordinary experience. You descend 7 metres below Bloomberg’s HQ to Roman-era ground level, passing a timeline and a note of where ground level was at various points in the last 2,000 years. Then you enter a dark chamber where you can just make out the base of its walls, columns and apse. As the light gradually changes, simulations of the column capitals become apparent and sounds that might have been heard in the Mithraeum – blown horns, chants and cries derived from graffiti found in various Mithras temples – fill the space. The light mutates and you see more clearly the reconstructed form, complete with wooden benches and other fragile artefacts preserved because the Walbrook kept the ground damp, along with an oyster shell, pilfered by a young visitor in 1954 who returned it during an oral history project organised as part of the reconstruction.

Much of this is enabled by new technology and modern archaeological techniques, but in the entrance room is a wall with a small sample of the 14,000 artefacts that the recent dig uncovered. They include items that predate the temple, including the earliest example of writing in the UK, a wax tablet dated to 8 January AD 57, which is, to Mr Bloomberg’s delight, a financial transaction.

The effect of this project is far richer than a simple insertion of new into old, or replacing the old back into the new. As the wax tablet – dating from about a decade after Romans founded Londinium – shows, finance has long been a part of London’s life. Mithras was popular with merchants and the army, people who travelled across the Empire. The way in which transactions are closed and recorded may differ but the basic activity remains the same.

Daily mail cover

Daily mail cover

The original excavation of the Bloomberg site took place in 1954 when the temple was discovered during postwar redevelopment of the bomb-struck area. Photograph courtesy of Daily Mail

This raises questions for architecture in its relationship to ‘old and new’ or the passage of time. For those Modernist thinkers who privileged programme above form (whom we call Functionalists), use was the defining characteristic of architecture. As Sandy Wilson paraphrased Ludwig Wittgenstein, ‘meaning lies in use’. When use changes, the implication is that meaning does too: if architecture is a combination of meaning and function expressed through form, it is only necessary to introduce a new activity into a building to change its meaning, and so alter the balance of its architecture. No physical intervention is needed. 

Hardcore Functionalists may have sought a perfect fit between one type of use and the form they designed – this underlies Cedric Price’s view that buildings should have a fixed life to coincide with the period for which their original use would last to prevent such confusion – but in reality uses evolve almost continually. Each evolution more or less subtly modifies meaning until, over a long period without any radical individual shift, the concept of use associated with any particular building is itself a historical record and cultural phenomenon. 

Aldo Rossi had a particular understanding of this relationship between use and time. The persistence of certain forms – common in the Italian cities that were his reference points – carried elements of the past into the present, even when their use was completely transformed. He enjoyed the mutation of Lucca’s amphitheatre into the city’s main public space, and something similar happened with the Stadium of Diocletian in Rome, around which the Piazza Navona was moulded. In both cases, you can trace the passage of time without partaking in the original functions.

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50a3a494cb4deec249c844f164371db4 lucca italy toscana italy

The shape of the Piazza dell’Anfiteatro in Lucca reflects the shape of the amphitheatre that once stood in its place

These two examples share with the London Mithraeum an interweaving of layers of time: they may be represented literally, but how they intermingle becomes part of the experiences they offer. It is a point of futile Jesuitical nicety to try to ascertain, for instance, whether any hard distinction can be made between new and old over a second-century comb displayed in a 21st-century case, which exists to show ancient artefacts as part of an interpretation of recently recovered relics. Hughes’ characterisation of many layers of time being experienced simultaneously, however impossible in literal terms, is far better reflection of how our imaginations work when confronted with the insights they offer.

The ability to enhance such time-warping experiences is one point where architecture departs from history. Historical research has to define chronologies and identify causes and effects. It may use all sorts of imaginative and intellectual techniques to do so, but it cannot depart from the basic script. Architecture can start with an appeal to the emotions, and once it has solved the little issues of gravity, cost and client wishes, it can make of chronology whatever it will. 

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P 02

The Market Gate of Miletus dating from the second century. Photograph courtesy of Gregory Dyer

This has both positive and negative outcomes. The ability of architecture to transcend normal time can create all sorts of undesirable associations, such as those between princes of Muscovy and Soviet leaders, Mussolini and Roman emperors and all sorts of Imperialist usurpers. Each absorbed features of the architecture used by the predecessors to claim legitimacy for their rule. 

Strongest of all among these redefinitions of normal relations between time and space that architecture can engender are found in museums, one of the most powerful being the Pergamon Museum in Berlin. Built to house the ‘old’ altar to Zeus from Pergamon in Asia Minor in a new northern European building, its confusion of time and place continues with the reconstruction of the Roman gateway to Miletus, also in Asia Minor. Pass through that gateway and you emerge through Babylon’s Ishtar Gate into a gallery that amounts to a timeline of ancient artefacts where each pace through space translates into about a century. So powerful is the sense of time travel that it probably does more to encourage engagement with the past than any conventional study could. Separated by hundreds of miles and centuries of time, these exhibits were forced together by the architecture, economics and politics of the early 20th century. 

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H 20016856

Ishtar Gate was reconstructed  in 1930 and can now be seen in the Pergamon Museum, Berlin. Photograph courtesy of bpk

The rise of museums in the 19th and 20th centuries marks an important evolution in the relationship between new and old. As it became increasingly common to house ancient artefacts in new buildings, the idea of authenticity came to the fore. It was increasingly believed that exhibits should be ‘authentic’ – hence the decline of displays of plaster casts – because the buildings could not be. That led theorists to put forward a whole range of definitions of ‘authenticity’ in architecture. If buildings could not be authentic in the sense that their contents were, they could at least be ‘authentic’ in a different sense. 

Often those definitions of ‘authentic’ revolve around tectonics: the use of materials had to be ‘authentic’ in a self-referential way, to themselves and their own nature. The visceral confrontation between old and new at Córdoba is an early example, but up to William Morris and the adoption of his un-nuanced views about old and new, the relationship between the two was nearly always presented as abstract: new ideas could be placed inside, outside or alongside old ideas. In an attitude that derived from Plato, the physical form was only an unsatisfactory manifestation of the idea and so could be chopped up, replaced or otherwise abused with impunity. 

Tectonic authenticity can also be used to license otherwise unprecedented new buildings. London’s Paternoster Square developers, for example, believed they were adding legitimacy to their plans because they reconstructed Wren’s Temple Bar, which had marked the boundary of the City of London Corporation on Fleet Street before being rebuilt as entrance gate to a Hertfordshire country house. Tectonic authenticity here trumps any sense of authentic location or purpose in the relation between new and old. 

Riba14197

Riba14197

Authenticity is brought into question in this historic photomontage that shows how Wren’s Temple Bar, the only surviving gateway to the City of London, would look if re-erected at the bottom of Ludgate Hill. Photograph courtesy of RIBA Collections

This privileging of tectonic authenticity lies at the root of why we now think about old and new almost entirely in terms of physical interventions in physical structures. It poses more complex questions than reconstructing 17th-century city gates; for example, the proposal for a Holocaust Centre on Victoria Tower Gardens alongside London’s Houses of Parliament. Here, a team including David Adjaye and landscape architects Gustafson Porter + Bowman have to create a memorial to a horrendous tragedy, which has no direct connection to the site and whose decisions and actions happened hundreds of miles away. Its representative mode will have to be an entirely new fiction to depict historic events.

What projects like the Mithraeum show though, with its intertwined relationship between old and new, architecture, archaeology and curatorial interpretation, is a far broader set of interactions than the purely tectonic. It suggests that architecture has much in common with Edmund Burke’s famous characterisation of society as a contract ‘not only between those who are living but between those who are living, those who are dead and those who are to be born’. In this formulation, architecture is necessarily an admixture of new and old, past, present and future. Any other approach leads inevitably to Adolf Loos’s nihilistic conclusion that architecture should only concern itself with monuments and tombs, or meanings which are fixed and purposes that are immutable.