Building Repetition Through History: Motivations And Implications

March 3, 2014

Anastylosis, decontextualization, industrialization or tribute are just a few methods to erect a repeated building. But why build one?

This research by by José García Soriano and Carmen López Albert explores historical and contemporary examples of identical buildings, the motivation for its construction, and the relation between the original and the copy.


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Repetition in architecture is often related with suburban homes. In the photo, repeated houses in Cincinnati use the same design to reduce costs. © Derek Jensen.

Everyday Repetition

Every day, we use repeated objects. The coffee cup’s design is repeated for millions, as is the bike that gets us to work, the clothes we wear, the planes that take us into the sky… These objects are exact replicas, made through industrialized processes of repetition in order to produce cheap pieces. In art, Andy Warhol explored and exploited the concept of repetition, putting art close to business. By repeating a successful painting with very small investment, he discovered, the benefits would radically increase.

What about architecture? When repetition in architecture is named, large streets of suburban houses or prefab homes appear in society’s imagination, repeated in order to reduce costs of design and production. But throughout history, some buildings have been erected as a copy of another construction with different purposes than the economic.

Approaches to Repetition in Architecture

Anastylosis, decontextualization, industrialization, and tribute are just a few methods to erect a repeated building. But what is the relation between replica and original? And what is the rationale for building a replica? This research explores historical and contemporary examples of identical buildings, the motivation for their construction and the relation between the original and the copy. When repeating a building, there are two aspects essential to understanding it. One is the localization. There are three different possibilities: in the same place, as in reconstructions; decontextualized, in a very different site from the original; and contextualized, not in the same location, but in a similar one next to the original building. The other aspect is the technique used to construct the repetition. The anastylosis allows the reconstruction of a building with its own debris, the original techniques to preserve the materiality, and with contemporary materials, too.

Repeated Buildings

Altamira’s UNESCO World Heritage-listed cave, located near Santillana del Mar in the North of Spain, houses one of the most important Paleolithic paintings. The increasing amount of visitors endangered its conservation, so the Ministry of Culture decided to close the cave to the tourists. As a replacement, and to maintain the educational work, an exact replica was built inside a museum, close to the cave, using the original painting techniques. There are another two repetitions of the cave, one at the National Archaeological Museum of Spain in Madrid, and another one at the Deutsches Museum in Munich. Plus, there are replicas of part of the replicas at the Shima Spain Village in Japan and at the Prehistory Park in Teverga, Asturias, in the north of Spain.

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Thanks to the replica of the Altamira Cave, it is possible to show the paintings to visitors without endangering the originals. © Rapilor.

To conserve and protect the original cave, it was completely repeated three times and these were then repeated in part two other times. This effort helped people from all over the world to contextualize the prehistoric art without endangering the cave paintings. This is an extreme case of repetition, with five replicas all over the world.

In Spain there exists another case of conservation, but with only one repetition, next to the original. The original chapel of San Antonio de la Florida, in Madrid, was finished in 1798. Francisco de Goya, one of the most important Spanish painters, was responsible for its inner decoration. In order to protect the paintings from the pollution produced by altar candles, a replica of the building was built in 1925 next to the original one, which housed the mass. The replica changed the composition of the original space, turning the axial-centered place into a symmetrical one.

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The twin churches of San Antonio de la Florida in Madrid have been together for almost a century. Now it is difficult to know which one is the original and which the replica. © Carlos Delgado.

The main motivation to repeat the original building was to conserve Goya’s work, as the building was declared a national monument. This process brought the transformation of the original chapel into a museum.

A similar case of a repeated building, one used as an exhibition, occurred at the Spanish Pavilion at the World’s Columbian Exposition Chicago in 1893. The Spanish government decided to build a replica of the fifteenth century Lonja from Valencia, a late Gothic civil building. Rafael Guastavino, a Valencian architect working in the Unites States, was commissioned to design the Spanish Pavilion at the Exposition due to his experience with vaults, the constructive system from the Lonja. As we can see in the images, the building was erected without the left addition, finished 50 years after the original building. This is the reason why the architect had to design a new lateral façade that never existed. This brings up an interesting question: which is the original building? The first version, which lasted 50 years, or the final one, which lasted for 350 years?

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The Valencian gothic building of the Lonja. As it was built without the left addition, a new façade had to be designed. © Public Domain. Unknown author.

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The Valencian gothic building of the Lonja. As it was built without the left addition, a new façade had to be designed. © Public Domain. Unknown author.

The final purpose of the repeated Lonja was to show to the world the attractions of Spain and encourage the visitors to visit the country. With the same touristic intention, a Chinese company has copied not just a building, but a complete city close to Guangdong.

Hallstatt, an UNESCO World Heritage-listed Austrian city, has a $940 million Chinese replica. Architects, unnoticed between the numerous tourists, secretly measured all the buildings and streets for months, drawing the plans to raise the new city. This culture of copying comes from afar. In the third century BC, the emperor Qin Shi Huang built a replica of the palace of every state he conquered within his capital city to show the wealth of the Empire. As if that wasn’t enough, he burned to the ground the original ones.

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The Austrian city of Hallstatt. © Greymouser.

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Its own replica in China. © Hanno Boeck.

More cases of repeated towns took place in other regions and periods, during the reconstructions in Europe after the First World War and World War II. Some cities were almost completely destroyed and rebuilt again from zero. In Warsaw, their inhabitants claimed the need to recover their identity with the vital scenario of society: the public space and its buildings. The repetition of the city was not purely archaeological, but as the collective imaginary remembered it, using the original materials available. In 1980, UNESCO included Warsaw’s city center in the World Heritage list as an “outstanding example of a near-total reconstruction of a span of history covering the thirteenth to the twentieth century.”

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The Marketplace of Warsaw after the WWII bombings. © Public Domain.

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The Marketplace of Warsaw after its reconstruction. © Dennis Jarvis.

After a shocking event, it is important to forget and carry on. This way, life will come back to normality. Something similar happened in Venice after the collapse of St. Mark’s Campanile.

The tower, originally from the sixteenth century, was rebuilt during the early twentieth century with bricks, wood, marble, and wood. In July 1902, a crack appeared in the tower and continued to growing until the building completely collapsed a few days later. The city held an international competition to rebuild the tower. Proposals offered different solutions, such as building it in a different place in the square and making a new version in Austrian Sezession style. Finally, the architect Luca Beltrami won with his motto Com’era e Dov’era—“As it was and where it was.” So the building was repeated in the same place with the same aspect, but the architect’s investigation showed that the collapse was caused by the lack of foundations and the high weight of the construction. So the new Campanile was erected with a lighter structure made of concrete.

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The original Campanile. Courtesy of the authors.

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Replica of the Campanile. Courtesy of the authors.

With his motto, Beltrami showed the importance of preserving the aspect of the buildings. However, the project did not conserve its materiality.

In Japan, there are two shrines that have been rebuilt for centuries with the same materials. Naikū and Gekū are rebuilt every twenty years in a contiguous place, in a process called Shikinen Sengu. This shows the Shinto belief of death and rebirth of nature and the essence of impermanence of all things. During the process, the master teaches the apprentice how to build the next temple. This way, the techniques and materials have passed to the next generation for centuries. However, different fires and typhoons have destroyed the buildings several times, suffering small changes in decoration when the last building couldn’t be used as a model.

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Aerial view of the Japanese temples of Naikū and Gekū, one in construction and another one in use. © Public Domain.

In the western culture, permanence generally remains in the material continuity, while in the Japanese shrines of Naikū and Gekū, permanence flows through continuity and change. It is possible to find examples of this oriental concept in other regions, but not with its serial repetition.

The German Pavilion for the 1929 International Exposition in Barcelona, Spain was designed by Mies van der Rohe. The space was not conceived to show any exhibition. The building itself became the exhibition, featuring its structure and a single sculpture, Georg Kolbe’s Alba. As a pavilion, its purpose was to last for the duration of the Exposition, so it was demolished in 1930. Over time, the building became a reference in the history of modern architecture, and in 1986, thirty years after the initial reconstruction effort by architect Oriol Bohigas, a replica of the original building was opened in the same place, with the original design, materials, and program.

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The original Barcelona Pavilion by Mies van der Rohe. © Public Domain.

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The replica of the Barcelona Pavilion by Mies van der Rohe. © Jose Mesa.

But not all the repeated buildings conserve the original use. In Nashville, Tennessee, the centerpiece of Centennial Park is a replica of the Greek Parthenon. It was built for the Tennessee Centennial Exposition of 1897. Nashville’s moniker is the “Athens of the South,” so the authorities decided to build the Parthenon. As with the rest of buildings, the construction was not supposed to be permanent, so it was built with wood, bricks, and plaster. Its popularity let it stand until it was rebuilt in 1920, with a second, much more faithful, version in concrete. In this second iteration, numerous specialists studied the Greek Parthenon in Athens and its marble from the British Museum. In addition, the monument has a polychrome decoration, like the original was supposed to have. As a paradox, the Nashville building is closer to the original Parthenon than the ruins in Greece. In this case, is the replica a better building than the remains of the original?

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The original Parthenon in Athens is in worse condition than its replica in Tennessee. © Sébastien Bertrand.

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Replica of the Parthenon in Tennessee. © Mayur Phadtare.

Final Thoughts

As we’ve seen, there are several motivations to repeat a building. Altamira’s cave had a simple target: allow the investigators to keep on sharing their work, without endangering the original cave. Thanks to the construction of five replicas all over the world, the scientists not only preserved the cave, but they spread their work more effectively, making it available to more people.
Is it worth visiting a replica or does it lack any soul?

Conservation is also the focus for the repetition of Goya’s chapel. It conserved the paintings, allowing the residents to keep celebrating their mass in the new building and creating an attraction for visitors.
Is the repeated building more or less valuable than the original?

Tourism is a very powerful industry. Repeating buildings in different countries can make people interested in visiting the original one, which was the purpose of the Lonja. But it is also possible to use repetition to attract people, not to the original building, but to the replica. The Chinese replica of Hallstat is the recognition of success of the original one.
Is the repetition trivializing identity?

Repeating a city requires a very large investment, not always with the sole motivation of obtaining economic benefits. The case of Warsaw demonstrated that restoring the identity of a suffering society compensates the effort of reconstruction.
Has the replica the same identity as the original?

Repetition can also conserve the memories of a building, not only in the same place it was built, as the German Pavilion from Barcelona, but even on the other side of the world, like the Parthenon in Nashville.
Are these replicas real architecture, without the authenticity of the act of creation, or just giant models? Does it reduce the artistic ownership?

Japanese temples have been able to maintain the memory of the building through their constant repetition. Destruction and reconstruction are just assumed naturally.
What is important in a building, its materiality or its image? Which characteristic is the original one?

After all these examples, a question sums up the rest: Is it even possible to repeat a building?


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