The Preservation Fallacy in the Mediterranean Medina

by Natalia Escobar Castrillon (MDes '13)

As a recent field of specialization, architecture and urban conservation have been rooted in ideology and ancestor worship enforced by legislation but operating without an intellectually rational foundation. The preservation movement in Europe since the beginning of the 19th century has privileged restoration of buildings and sites based on the significance of their fixed image. However, the pace of change in contemporary lifestyles, globalization, and a new generation open to more diverse cultures and experiences warrants a shift of focus from tangible to intangible values, associating cultural meaning to abstract constructions of the object instead of the antiquity of its stones. This study develops a more dynamic and contemporary theory of conservation using the Mediterranean region as a case study.

Over thousands of years the Mediterranean perimeter has undergone a continuous process of interaction and exchange as empires have collided. The residue of each era imprints its intense dynamism on the urban environment. The Mediterranean medina, or traditional Arab town, is considered as another step in the larger chain of evolution that the Mediterranean represents. However, modern preservation practices have focused principally on the final European stage for many Mediterranean cities, ending the possibility of future evolution. Orientalist interpretations have simplified these cities as ‘’Islamic,’’ but their fabric contains the stratigraphy of colliding civilizations rather than a single urban historic layer. For this reason preservation policies that argue for freezing the inherited city at one time challenge the very essence of this built environment. Indeed the intense mutability of this palimpsest of an urban landscape undermines most of the assumptions upon which the traditional preservation practices operate.

Critical Conservation provides a broader cultural frame that aims at understanding places as living organisms or as processes that evolve through time. It aims at a broader understanding of historical fact, thereby avoiding nostalgic and picturesque recreations of the built environment. While the materiality of buildings condemns them to gradual erosion as part of their natural life-cycle, conservationists using the example of the Medina can learn to manage change rather than denying the rich process by which cities have historically evolved.

Sponsored by Talentia Andalusian Agency of Knowledge Real Colegio Complutense