When architects restore an old building, they typically return it to some original, or “historically important” state. They reset the bricks and regild the cupolas and patch over the cracks in an attempt to create a pristine artifact of a bygone era. But there is another, simpler way to showcase architectural history: leave the building as is, ruins and all.
That’s what architect David Closes has done with the Sant Francesc convent in the small Catalan town of Santpedor. Built in the early 1700s, the convent was sacked in 1835 and deteriorated bit by bit until 2000, when demolition crews razed it, leaving only a crumbling church. Charged with converting the church into an auditorium and cultural center, Closes could’ve smoothed over the damage. Instead, he chose to highlight it. He transformed partially collapsed roofs into windows and skylights, and maintained the crooked, seemingly frail masonry of the original edifice. Then he added big boxy volumes largely outside the church to avoid altering the nave, including a floating, asymmetrical glass-encased stairwell. It’s one of the prettiest stairwells we’ve seen in a long time.
Each act of historic preservation carries a value judgment. The architects and their partners choose which moment in history to preserve. It is a fraught, political, deeply revealing process. Just look at the antiseptic reconstruction of Dresden, which demonstrates the city’s stubborn refusal to confront the darker chapters of its history. Here, Closes democratizes the past: The church is not a monument to one historical era, but a monument to history itself.