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Preserving the Past, the Impossible and Necessary Task

"Beyond History and Memory" Seminar

April 29, 2004

The Future of the Past by Alexander Stille

Introduction

LILI COLE:

Our speaker tonight is Alexander Stille. His most recent book is The Future of the Past. He will speak tonight on “Preserving the Past, the Impossible and Necessary Task.”

The response tonight will be given by Professor Kenneth Frampton, the Ware Professor of Architecture in the program on architecture, planning, and preservation at Columbia University.

Thank you both very much for joining us.

Remarks

ALEXANDER STILLE: Thanks for providing an interesting forum for discussion about this and to Professor Frampton for coming to respond, because part of the interest is to enter into discussion with people who come at these issues from different perspectives, especially with someone whose work and thinking is as interesting as Kenneth Frampton’s.

If you ask a physicist or a philosopher, “What is the past?” half of them will tell you that it doesn’t exist, that time doesn’t exist; everything is in the present or past, or a continuum.

Even the business of the conserving of monuments presents a similarly perplexing dilemma, because the things that we’re preserving exist in the present; the monuments that we cherish the most, like the Parthenon or the Sphinx, were vastly different in the days of their creation, and so we set about preserving these white, austere monuments when they were brightly colored in their day. Are we preserving a fiction of the present or are we preserving the past?

When you then think about our own relationship in the culture at large toward the past, we realize too that the past is almost inevitably the servant of the needs of the present. We think of the Serbs and Croats and Muslims in Bosnia killing one another over the outcome of battles fought in the 15th century, all with radically different versions of the same history but having more to do with the politics of the present.

Add to that the difficulty that many of the people that I interviewed and talked to in the course of working on this book mentioned to me: One of the scholars that I wrote about in the chapter of the book which deals with the Sphinx and the preservation of the Giza Plateau in Egypt, said, “In archeology we have the equivalent of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, that what you observe, you change.” Or, “You study it, you kill it.” As an Egyptologist, he was thinking of the rape of the Nile and the deep and troubling paradoxes between the uncovering of the Egyptian past and its looting.

Most archeology now is conducted in a different way, but the paradox stands. Archeologists who have worked at Pompeii say that people now in their forties or fifties will tell you that half of the wall paintings that they studied in their youth are now gone from the walls simply because of the amount of attention that they received.

The caves at Lascauxpresent a similarly perplexing problem. The caves themselves were shut because of excessive use, then simulacra of the caves were created for the use of tourists, and now those caves in turn are being restored. We’re restoring the copy of that which is no longer accessible.

The extreme relativism of what it means to conserve was brought home to me by studying the conservation of monuments in China, where there’s an extremely different approach toward conservation. The idea of preserving the exact original object is not the same fetish that it is for most westerners.

Most of the architecture in China, as in much of Asia, is built in wood and therefore presents completely different problems. It was natural and inevitable when building in wood that the individual parts of the building would be replaced bit by bit as they rotted, and no particular concern was given to the fact that the entirety of the building would be thus at one time or another be replaced.

In Japan, for example, the Ise Shrineis ritually destroyed every 20 years and rebuilt, which completely confounded the notions of western conservatives. UNESCO refused to designate it as an ancient site because they thought of it as very recent, whereas the Japanese considered it one of their most important ancient sites at 1,200 years old.

So while acknowledging this impossibility, I also want to argue for its necessity, that precisely because of the accelerated changes of the time that we live through, there’s a tremendous sense of search for roots, need of grounding in the past, from New Agers who are seeking an imaginary past and doing incantations at the Great Pyramid of Gisa, Stonehenge, or Machu Picchu, to Hindus who are fighting with Muslims on the site of what they believe to be the birthplace of Krishna. Islamic fundamentalism can be understood as part of this longing for the past that is very much part of our present moment; it is the explicit stated goal of Wahhabismand other forms of fundamentalism to restore the Islamic world to the community of the four original Caliphates, immediately after the establishment of Islam.

And at the same time, a sane relationship to the past is somehow an essential part of a healthy, functioning society. If one thinks of the two great totalitarianisms of the 20th century, both can also be understood as wars against memory. It is not irrelevant that Hitler, in discussing the extermination of the Jews and responding to a few skeptical questioners within the Nazi regime, asked “Who remembers the Armenians?” And similarly, Stalin rewrote history and airbrushed his enemies out of its books.

It’s significant that both Milosevicand the Taliban concentrated not small parts of their energies on wiping out the cultural monuments and the history of the people they were combating, understanding that to rob a group of its history is to rob them of an important part of their identity; and that this problem of identity and past is playing a large role in the state of extreme anxiety within the Islamic world and its anger toward the Europeans and the U.S.

Because of this importance of preserving the past, even though to some extent the past is a fiction, at an event like the destruction of the colossal Buddhas in Afghanistan, we feel a sense of tremendous loss, just as we do at learning of the extinction of a language or the disappearance of a species.

I argue in The Future of the Past that the age that we’re living through is one of a particularly intense set of paradoxes of gains and losses. On the one hand, technology and new technologies have given us extraordinary and unprecedented opportunities for studying and preserving the past. We can make radar images from satellites in space which can tell us what the topography of Egypt was like 30,000 years ago or give us an underground map of Angkor Wat. But in the world above ground, those monuments are under the kinds of pressures that I have indicated.

So we end up with the paradox that we may have virtual realities of many of the world’s great monuments and have extraordinary digital reconstructions that we can consult on our computer, but the monuments themselves, like the caves of Lascaux, may be inaccessible to us because of the pressures of human development.

This period of accelerated development and technological change is putting extraordinary new pressures on us.

If one considers, for instance, that there are an estimated 6,000 languages spoken in the world, more than half of which are unlikely to be spoken in 100 years, we understand that we are at a critical juncture in the survival in any vital form of thousands of traditional societies that have existed in some fashion or another over the last 5,000 or 6,000 years.

One thinks of the enormous shift from print and written culture to audiovisual and digital culture. The National Archiveshas enormous problems in shifting towards the digitization of information and the extraordinary amounts of material that are lost in the process.

For instance, the Eastman School of Music in Rochester decided to digitize its entire and very important collection of musiclive events, many historic performances. They put everything onto a digital technology, except that no one is making the machine onto which they recorded everything. Unless they transfer it in totoonto another medium that’s more stable, they risk losing all of the material.

The transfer of this data is anything but technically trivial, and the National Archives in Washington is dealing with the far larger numbers of government computer databases, which have generated everything from the space program to the Census, and are stored on obsolete Univac machines which were not built to last forever.

We study with great, respectful attention traditional societies that were dismissed as primitive or savage only twenty or thirty years ago; but what we are studying may soon cease to exist in anything like recognizable form another fifteen or twenty years from now.

As often happens when you work on projects like this, you start to see them everywhere. You put on a particular lens and everything becomes a future-of-the-past problem.

Even the natural world has been digitized. Our genetic information is laid out on electronic, computerized microscopes and analyzed. We’ve finished genetic research retracing the family trees of species and can now understand when the chimpanzee and the orangutan parted company from the hominids, reconstructing our own biological past, in effect. And yet the species in the world that we walk around with are increasingly threatened with extinction.

Our relationship to monuments is actually closely linked and often underestimated in its importance. It’s significant that in the Renaissance period or the 17th century, ancient sculpture and natural objects were put together; in the minds of people of that era, they were both marvels that were taken out of the earth and belonged together in the Cabinets of Curiosity. Our connection has been broken down to our detriment.

In the 19th century, as the process of industrialization was going on and we had the first ideas of national parks in this country, we turned nature into a museum as we turned archeological sites and objects into museum objects. The national park was conceived out of a romantic and very modern idea of nature as being pristine; i.e., without the presence of human beings.

And so the first national parks are connected to the settling of the West, the industrialization of the country, and then the pushing of American Indians out of those places. As this idea spread throughout the developing world, indigenous people were eliminated from the areas that are supposedly being protected.

So we’re killing in the same way that I mentioned with the Heisenberg principle, or "you kill it as you study it"; you create an artificial nature which you then call pristine because it doesn’t have human beings in it.

We should look at these things a bit differently. I write about the problem of the conservation of nature in Madagascar, for instance. Understanding the complexity of this was part of the experience of doing the reporting and research. I found a project that was touted as a great success, an example of sensitively developing world conservation. An American biologist had discovered an unknown species of lemur in a part of Madagascar. She had convinced the U.S. Government to put up money to create a huge national park, urged the national government of Madagascar to donate the land, and had made arrangements with local people that would supposedly benefit them and create eco-tourism.

But the reality was much more morally complex. The local people hated the project, and were in fact suffering considerably from the effects of loss of access to land that they traditionally considered theirs. They don’t regard the national government as their friend. It’s run by a different ethnic group which has always been at war with the people that live in this particular forest, and so it was seen as another appropriation project.

Understanding the interconnectedness of human culture and the natural world becomes critically important in dealing effectively with this. This was brought home to me very powerfully when I was working on the chapter set in India, dealing with a man who is both leading the efforts to clean up the Ganges River but is also a mahan,the head of a Hindu temple in the area. He’s grappling with the problem of both maintaining the religious nature of the river but at the same time keeping it, precisely for religious reasons, clean enough to be able to swim in so that the millennial traditions of bathing in the Ganges and purifying oneself in the Ganges can go forward.

He said, “Please consider them an endangered species, these people who have a living relationship with the river, not just birds and plants, but also those who still have this faith. If birds can be saved, if plants can be saved, let this species of people be saved by granting them holy water.”

Conservation has often been conceived narrowly as the business of museum curators and the wealthy socialites who contribute to save Venice, which is all commendable. But the idea of seeing it as part of a much bigger and much more urgent global problem is extremely important. The cost-benefits of seeing these problems in their interconnectedness yields enormous benefits.

After publishing this book I was contacted from a very unexpected quarter by the people out at the Scripps Insitution of Oceanographyin San Diego. I was invited to a conference, and spent two or three days learning about sardines and anchovies.

The person who organized this conference had come at the same set of problems that I was interested in, from a completely different viewpoint. He spoke about the coral reefs in the Caribbean exactly the way the art historians who studied the frescos at Pompeii talked about them. He said, “I’m now 60, and I go back there, and more than half of the things that I studied as a graduate student don’t exist any longer. And so I realize that this has to be thought about in a different way.”

Just as historians have left nature out of their picture, the environmentalists and the naturalists have done the same. Environmentalists, because they’re scientists, are very skeptical of anecdotal or even historical data. They only want to study what they can put in their laboratory under their microscope. So they live in an eternal present.

The conference organizer went on to say, “What if we use what we know, all this extraordinary technology, and put history back into the equation of what we study in the environment, study how the environment has changed over longer periods of time?”

He was struck by the descriptions of people like Christopher Columbus and the first people that went to the Caribbean. He said, “They were describing flocks of sea turtles so thick you could barely move a boat through them. There are no sea turtles anywhere, and yet everywhere I go in Tortuga, everything is named after sea turtles. Obviously this environment has changed far more than anyone is beginning to understand.”

He sent a researcher off to the Archive of the Indies in Seville and is trying to reconstruct historically what used to be the environment in this area, understanding that to deal intelligently with the environment in the present, a sense of history is crucially important.

I would argue for this very broad, cross-disciplinary approach, and that flexibility and the willingness to go beyond the boundaries of disciplines is critically important. While we may be obsessed with the problem of preserving the past, we have to accept the reality of change and that change is often beneficial to the people that seek it out.

I was struck very much by this when traveling in places like China and India. In India, I visited a small island that was part of a project to clean up the Ganges. They were participating in hopes of getting electricity and a bridge to the land. The people on this island, who have no electricity, would look longingly toward a railroad bridge in the distance which is lit up at night. They would simply watch the lights with a sense of the world that they wanted to be a part of, just as we, European and American educated people, look romantically and longingly at preserving the past.

I thought, well, as soon as these people get electricity, television will come in; Rupert Murdoch, SkyTV and MTV will be here next. And yet these people desire to have the basic comforts that we take for granted as an entirely respectable thing, and it leads toward increasingly forms of hybrid culture, which is the future that we have in front of us.

I saw a very graphic example of this on my trip to India in Varanasi. I happened to be there during the Feast of Shiva and Parvati. Shiva is the god who supposedly brought the Ganges into being from the locks of his tangled hair, and so he’s the favorite god of Varanasi. The festival of his marriage to Parvati is a great annual event and goes on for more than twenty-four hours of very wild, ecstatic celebration. There are these shrines to Shiva throughout the city which are enormous ancient phallic symbols.

When I was there I noticed that many of these shrines were covered with brightly colored electric lights that were pulsating to the beat of Indy-pop musicit had a Las Vegas look to itand my first thought was, we’ve ruined them too. But then as I stayed a while and looked, I realized that it had a very different meaning for them than it does for us. They were continuing with the traditional devotions of their feast and simply appropriating things from our world that were attractive to them and that made sense to them in the context of their own religion and culture.

And so rather than thinking that we can preserve a static past, what we have is a creative dialogue between traditional cultures and the technologies that are more or less unstoppable.

KENNETH FRAMPTON: I met Alexander Stille almost two years ago, and I’m honored to be asked to respond on this occasion. The Future of the Pastis a remarkable book.

Architects are very aware of this paradox of past and present. One of the pathological habits of contemporary architects, when they finish a building, is to get the building furnished and then have it photographed as fast as possible in order that they should record it in the state they conceived before society appropriates the building, before their building comes to be lived in and transformed.

There’s a very beautiful essay written by the Spanish architect, Rafael Moneo, an address that he gave at Harvard called “The Solitude of Buildings,” in which he talks about this moment when the architect has to let the building go into society and live by itself in relation to the society without any protection from the architect.

Perhaps architecture makes one very aware of the flow of time, for even very new buildings change quite rapidly, and perhaps one of the aspects of modern building is that it has the tendency to be very fragile and to depreciate rather rapidly in the face of time, as opposed to the older building materials such as stone and brick which mellow across time and take on a new character, so as to be almost enriched by time. Many modern buildings suffer from maintenance problems and from the subtle erosion of fragile high-tech materials under the impact of time.

Charles de Gaulle decided to clean all the buildings of Paris, to steam-clean them all and thus to take off the carbon and bring them back to their, white, idealized moments of 17th, 18th, 19th century neoclassical purity. People have observed that the carbon from the 19th century protected the stone, and that the petrochemical pollution just eats it away. That the white buildings are now being consumed by petrochemical pollution is yet another paradox of preservation and ideology.

The whole question of how much can one restore of an old building, and to what moment in time it should be restored to is a big problem. There was a very famous Italian architect, Carlo Scarpa, who during the 1950s in particular and somewhat in the 1960s “restored” many old Italian buildings which he reconstituted into museums. Today historic preservationists in Italy and elsewhere are rigidly bureaucratic. Scarpa wove his own new work, very sensitively into the old fabric, so that one could clearly see what was old and what was new. Today that would probably not be possible because of a bureaucratically rigid attitude towards preserving the object in an immaculate but unspecified temporal state.

One of the strategems that relates to tourism and to commercialization is the attempt to resist temporal change or even reverse change, and this habit, which is perhaps somewhat less fashionable than it used to be, of pedestrianizing city centers. The pedestrianization creates a strange atmosphere which is on the edge of “Disneyfication” of the centers of historic cities. Vienna is a classic example of this, but there’s also some of this in Copenhagen.

The whole question of the reuse of buildings has become very problematic, the question of how many disused factories and slaughterhouses and other historically significant structures can you turn into museums? How many more funny museums can you go on making that are sometimes museums of nothing in order to justify the restoration of a building? If a slaughterhouse is turned into a museum, there is something peculiar about preserving a building but also killing it. This even applies to private houses. There is the classic example of Walter Gropius’s housein Lincoln, Massachusetts, which is coming much closer to the present, where you can see his spectacles on the drawing board, and his wife’s dresses still hanging in the closet. It’s a macabre, ridiculous stage set implying that they’ve just left for a few hours. Grand Central Station, which for purists is probably an anathema since it has heavily been commercialized, still retains its vitality. The fact that it is more commercial than ever still makes it live as part of the fabric of Manhattan, and that is somehow a triumph.

There’s a story [in Stille's book] about an astonishing Italian anthropologist who goes to an island off of New Guinea. Even getting there is a nightmare journey. He has no access to the language whatsoever. In the space of his lifetime, he realizes that this society is disappearing. The introduction of motorboats instead of canoes is already enough to undermine it, and one assumes that it will continue to erode. The fact that one-sixth of the world’s languages6,000 languages, will disappear in the next 100 yearsreminds one of the animal and plant species that are disappearing in the rainforests. There are even species in the rainforests that have still not been discovered.

ALEXANDER STILLE: It was particularly interesting to hear the architect’s perspective because I’ve always felt intuitively that architecture would be riddled with this. It’s enough to look at what used to be called the Pan Am Building and is now the MetLife Building to realize how poorly many of the great modern masterpieces of architecture age measure up. Ironically, there is a great loss, in that every time that there is a technological change, you forget how to work with the other materials, so that things that you observe, for example, in China, are present here in a somewhat different form.

One of the things that I was grappling with in the book was the question of whether there is a moment in which the past becomes the past? I talk some about the role of print in creating and fixing the past.

In the Renaissance and well into the 17th century, architects in Rome were using the Coliseum as a quarry. They simply took it apart and used the travertine for the buildings of the time.

They would also repair sculptures by redoing them. There was a sense that the past belonged to them, that it could be appropriated, re-appropriated, as they chose.

And then you have another point at least in the continuum when Canova is asked to repair or to fix the Elgin marblesafter they’ve been brought to England, and he says, “No, these are sacred objects, they belong to the past, I can’t touch them, it would be inappropriate of me to repair and fill in the missing parts.”

Somewhere between that moment, between Berniniand Canova you have something that has happened, and things like the excavation of Pompeii, which happened in the 1730s and 1740s, the grand tour, this whole idea of visiting the past becomes part of the psychology, the mentality, of Europe in that period.

But then the 19th century is just critical in terms of sheer material progress with the steam engine and, first the steamboat and then the locomotive. Distances collapse in ways that they couldn’t before, and change accelerates, and you simply reach more parts of the globe than could have been reached before.

The telegraph is the most eloquent example. When you look at the figures of how long it took news to travel from New York to Chicago in first the colonial period and then the 1820s, it still took a week or 12 days. You hit 1841 and the telegraph and it’s instant, and suddenly there’s a big rupture when information travels so much more quickly, the first information highway.

Questions and Answers

LILI COLE: I will open the floor for questions, but I can't resist saying something about China, where I’ve been spending time for over 20 years over a period of immense change.

One of the biggest changes is the attitude towards the past in China. In many parts of China, not only in the countryside where peasants live, where you could say that life was unchanged possibly for hundreds of years, but even in the city, many aspects of life would have been similar in the 19th centuryalthough it was still a very Marxist period when I first went there just after the Cultural Revolution [1966-1976].

One had the feeling that history almost didn’t exist. There had been the damage of the Cultural Revolution, and temples were only just beginning to be reopened. But people weren’t interested in it. They would praise very mechanically the great and long Chinese traditions and heritage. But I got the feeling that there were virtually no artifacts of the past left.

And yet over the last 20 years, along with all the modernization and the fantastic modern buildings that are filling a city like Shanghai and attracting architects from all over the world, what has been moving to me is people rediscovering the past, even if much of it has been commercial and a lot of it has been very badly done or even done with great harm.

I’ve seen the change even within my own family. When I first came back to the U.S., my then-husband was very educated and thought that the antiques that my parents collected were just trash. In China you wanted to buy red plastic chairs with metal on them to show that you were modern. And yet in recent years he has started a business importing antiques, many of which surprisingly survived the Cultural Revolution, and has developed an appreciation for them which goes well beyond the commercial. 

The emerging attitude towards history and the past, with all of its commodification and theme park aura, is very positive and moving, and has enriched people’s lives tremendously.

ALEXANDER STILLE: You’ve been there far more often that I, but I have noticed some of what you’ve mentioned. I was struck by the widespread, total lack of sentimentality among most Chinese. In a way it’s not surprising, because their history is so unrelievedly tragic for the vast majority. For people who have hunger and persecution in their lifetime memory, the idea of worrying about monuments seems unlikely.

It’s nice to know that even within 15 or 20 years of economic growth they’re starting to think about those things. The problem is that those still quite initial concerns are swimming against a very strong tide of destruction. As you know from visiting places like Beijing, construction is going on around every city that I went to 24 hours a day. They’re ripping things down and putting them up as quickly as they can.

Probably a lot of Chinese will look back 20 or 30 years from now the way we look back at the destruction of Penn Station, and say, “I wish we hadn’t torn all of that down.”

On the other hand, the good thing is that you realize that the past of a place like China is so incredibly rich and long that they can destroy a lot and it will even up. The best things will come from underground, because above ground is already "kaput" in terms of the architecture.

When you go to Luoyang or Xi'an, two of the ancient capitals, you see mounds everywhere, and you realize that they are vast tombs. Because archeology is just beginning in China, we have a period of very interesting discovery ahead of us. But these things will eventually be in cities that are ghastly to look at.

The good news is that buildings of the Stalinist-Maoist era are in such disrepair, that if we’re lucky, they will be torn down and something better will replace them. Modern architecture of Chinese cities is for the most part, with the exception of Shanghai, a disaster.

QUESTION: Just a brief addendum about China is that another aspect of the past there is the colonial past, and the way in which the colonial past is being preserved, reintegrated or dealt with is an extremely political issue.

Another aspect beyond the colonial past is the question of nostalgia, the ability to even feel comfortable enough to have a certain nostalgia or irony. There’s a phenomenon that people who are familiar with China will also know, which is the Cultural Revolution nostalgia restaurants. A government official took me to one where the waitresses are dressed as Red Guards and there are denunciation posters on the walls.

ALEXANDER STILLE: The question about the colonial past is interesting, because this is true for many countries. Egypt struggles very much with this because of their own history, and it was interesting to see the gradual beginnings of an ability to deal with this cosmopolitan period in their history, from the time of Mohammed Ali Pasha to the fall of the monarchy there, particularly the period of Khedive Ismail, and the building of the Suez Canal, when the European presence was dominant in Egypt. The statue of Khedive Ismail was commissioned by the Italian community of Alexandria in the twenties and immediately knocked down when Nassermade his revolution in the fifties. The statue sat overturned in the courtyard of a local art academy; they were threatening to melt it down, and they turned the statue into Liberation Square.

And then just a few years ago the statue made a tentative return to downtown Alexandria, not to its original place, which had been appropriated by the nationalist revolution, but in the middle of a traffic circle. Originally, it was facing the Mediterranean, looking north toward Europe, which the Khedive Ismail did; now instead it was at a funny angle which I calculated to be in the direction of Turkey, which was perhaps where contemporary Egypt was hoping to direct itself.

South Africa is an example of the way in which societies gradually get to a point where they can deal with painful periods of their history. The ability to deal with the art of a previous era also has to do with political accomplishments that happen in the present.

Some of you who have visited Atlanta may have seen the circular mural that was done in the 19th century, the Battle of Atlanta. When I first visited Atlanta more than 20 years ago it seemed like a monument to the Confederacy. It was preceded by a very weird film which presented the brave rebel boys fighting off the attacks of the Northern invaders, and they win battle after battle, and then suddenly Atlanta burns and the war is over.

The city was taken over by a black majority, with black mayors; the problem of the restoration of the Cyclorama was raised, and some people who wanted it destroyed.

So I wondered, how are they dealing with this now? Suddenly the lights dim and you hear the unmistakable voice of James Earl Jones. They have a completely different presentation. They figured out a way of appropriating what had been an uncomfortable piece of the past which had caused serious problems, but they did so in a way that was very intelligent and respectful. It simply gave a factual presentation. The black majority of the city had found a way to deal with this monument and make it part of history. They robbed it of some of its radioactive qualities, because it wasn’t a Confederate monument. It was in fact made by a Northerner who was running for President or Vice President in the 1860s.

It was painted by Polish artists, and then bought by Atlanta, and so it was in some sense restored to a place that was a little closer to its reality, and it was de-Confederatized.

QUESTION: The question of how to deal with the remains of the era we now call socialism, or wrongly often communism, seems very pressing. What do you think of keeping or restoring the monuments of that period?

ALEXANDER STILLE: I instinctively wince whenever I see the statues of Lenin toppled, because I spent a lot of time in Italy, and I’m glad that there exists architecture from the fascist period because it’s important to know something about this time. You get a feeling of the relationship between the individual and society.

The fascists built monuments of huge scale that quite consciously were meant to make you feel like you were nothing as an individual. You were meant to feel the power of the state and the smallness of the individual in relation to the state. There’s something about those physical spaces that is important to preserve. You don’t have to worship them, but it’s important to know what they are.

It’s important that rhetoric of the communist era remain physically, because most people will not read histories of the DDR. It’s important that Dachau or Buchenwald or Auschwitz be maintained because they are part of history and should be part of the current discussion.

KENNETH FRAMPTON: There is a very famous modern architectural monument in Como, the Casa del Fascio, 1936.

Over time one sees its different incarnations. It was first appropriated by the local Communist Party, so it had communist banners and flags then. It resorted to being a police station, and now it will be transformed finally into a cultural center. Italians are able to assimilate buildings and take a very mature attitude towards their history. They are not inclined to demonize.

Buildings form part of the urban fabric. I am very impressed by a monumental building on [Beijing's] Tiananmen Square, for example. It’s a belated neoclassical, quasi-modern building that is close to Stalinism but actually more refined than most Stalinist buildings, and it creates a public place which is very impressive next to the Forbidden City. It is an answer, in a way, to the Forbidden City, and also a complement. So in the end it is a matter concerning the specific quality of these buildings. Their relationship to their context should also be somehow considered.

QUESTION: In talking to ecologists, you had the impression that there isn’t much interest in the history of ecology?

ALEXANDER STILLE: An early generation of ecologists or environmentalists had a missionary zeal that tended to leave out the peoplethey wanted to save landscapes and have insufficient regard for the people that lived in those landscapes, which was linked to an idea that nature is pristine and doesn’t involve people. People have only muddied up the place and aren’t one of the species that are occupying the space.

Environmentalists tend to deal with the present and only the very recent past. They want data that is completely verifiable so that if, let’s say, a particular laboratory has been gathering data over 10 years, 20 years, the life of a project, that’s what they feel comfortable with.

Straying from that and using other kinds of evidence to take the picture back 200 years, 300 years, 500 years makes them very nervous because it can’t be controlled, it doesn’t meet their standards of scientific rigor. We’re starting to see a great enrichment in the environmental studies in which history is being added into the picture in a way that it wasn’t before.

QUESTION: I'm an art historian in painting who has discovered architecture late in life. What fascinates me is the loss of the understanding of the real meaning of why a building was built.

The cathedral in Florence with a cupola was finished in 1434. We now look at it like a beautiful cathedral, an incredible engineering accomplishment. But at the time, the cupola was seen as an example of the superiority of the Florentine genius over others.

We go to see the Medici Palacebeautiful. What we don’t understand now is that it was the most incredible subtle political statement.

ALEXANDER STILLE: The baptistery was built before the cathedral, finished by about 1200 by Brunelleschi. In Alberti’s day, they thought that it was an ancient Roman building – print inventing the past.

Before there was print, record-keeping was much scarcer, and they simply didn’t have the documentation for this, and before print they didn’t have images of Roman buildings. The number of Florentines who had been to Rome and seen what ancient Roman buildings looked like were very few.

QUESTION: What do you think about the whole notion of truth and reconciliation? Should other countries adopt the same model as South Africa?

ALEXANDER STILLE: I would prefer not to comment on the truth and reconciliation process. Unfortunately the past is almost always the servant of the present and often the political needs of the present, and the need is very common, particularly in the first generation, in the case of South Africa, to find a modus vivendi between a white minority that has economic power and a black majority that has political power. In so doing, history has been completely shoved aside. They need to find a way of creating some usable fiction about the past that allows them to get on with their lives.

It took this country well over 100 years after the Civil War to even begin to deal with any degree of honesty about the history of slavery and racial discrimination. If you look at history textbooks of the 1930s, 1940s, 1950s, many of them describe slavery as having been not such a bad institution. Yes, it was hard, but then again Christianity and enlightenment was brought to the slaves. The period of reconstruction was seen as a period of total chaos in which uneducated blacks were running around and opportunistic northerners were exploiting the South. It wasn’t until the civil rights movement and the sixties that a more critical and serious examination took place.

Unfortunately, history as painful as slavery in this country, and apartheid in South Africa, has a radioactive half-life, and the more radioactive it is, the longer the half-life.

It wouldn’t surprise me if it took generations for later South African historians to go back and say, “Let’s look at this history again and see what happened.” In the meanwhile, firsthand witnesses will disappear.

But on the other hand, there’s also a great trial record. One advantage to the truth and reconciliation process is that many of these people have had to testify and put into record what they did. There’s a record of many of the crimes that happened under apartheid. We hope that a more enlightened generation can look with greater serenity at this history and reconstruct it in all of its complexity.

But it doesn’t surprise me that for the moment the ANC people need to keep good relations with the business community and with the civil servants who participated in the apartheid bureaucracy, and so they want to say, “You’re not a war criminal, you’re my neighbor, and let’s get on with things, because meanwhile IBM is coming next week and we want to convince them to open a factory in our neighborhood, so let’s not argue about what happened under apartheid.”

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