Spain’s highest court has upheld the decision in a 17-year-old case that requires the removal of a controversial 1993 restoration of a Roman theater in the coastal city of Sagunto. The ruling establishes the outer limits of that country’s flexible approach to historic preservation.

an ancient Roman theater in Sagunto, Spain
Photo ' EL PAIS, SL/Jes's Ciscar
Renovations designed by architects Giorgio Grassi and Manuel Portaceli to an ancient Roman theater in Sagunto, Spain, took care to distinguish new construction from old. This month a judge upheld the ruling in a 17-year-old court case that requires the removal of their work.

The theater was built during the first century A.D. on a hillside that overlooks the modern town. During the renovations, which were commissioned by the regional government of Valencia, Italian architect Giorgio Grassi and local architect Manuel Portaceli covered the worn local stone of the cavaea, or theater seating, in a shell of marble. They also rebuilt the scanea, or stage house, based on archeological conjectures about its original form, incorporating fragments of its moldings and columns into the brick fabric.

In 1990, while the $4.7 million project was still under construction, Juan Marco Molines, a member of what was then the opposition party of the regional government, filed a case against it. Although Molines claimed that he was acting on behalf the public interest, many observes suspected that his move was politically motivated. A local court ruled in 1993 that the project violated Spain’s Law of Historic Patrimony, which forbids the reconstruction of listed structures except to assure their stability and maintenance. A second decision in 2003, ruling that the restoration should be removed within 18 months, was appealed by the City of Sagunto. The latest verdict upholds the earlier decision based on technical studies that deem the removal feasible. Demolition is estimated to cost between $4.5 million and $9 million.

Grassi and Portaceli, writing in their 1993 architects’ statement, defended their design as a restoration not of the theater itself but of its original space, primarily the relationship between the cavea and scaena. They contended that previous interventions had distorted this relationship by bringing the stage closer to Greek models—and that these earlier restorations, which date as far back as the third century A.D., were responsible for as much as 80 percent of the theater’s extant remains. By contrast, their design clearly distinguished new elements from old, as required by law, and was reversible: the cavea, for instance, was coved with a plastic net to protect it from full adhesion to the mortar of the new seating.

Although several local architects defended Grassi and Portaceli’s approach at the time, other independent observers strongly criticized it. Preservation specialist Antonio Almagro, for instance, opposed the work arguing that restorations “should respect the essential nature of a monument, even if that means maintaining it in a state of ruin that is the expression of its history.”

Monuments in Spain are frequently adapted for new uses by architects with no special training in the field of preservation, but instruction in conservation techniques and education about the different degrees of intervention permitted by law are basic to every architect’s training. As a result, Spanish architects generally demonstrate sensitivity and respect for their country’s cultural heritage—even when adding contemporary elements onto historic structures, such as Rafael Moneo’s recent incorporation of a ruined 17th century cloister into his new building for the Prado Museum in Madrid.

Spain’s liberal approach to preservation has great advantages, allowing projects such as the system of state-owned paradors, or hotels, that have been installed in historic castles, palaces, and convents all across the country. But the law establishes clear limits to the degree to which monuments can be adapted for new uses, depending on their importance, state of conservation, and suitability. According to the latest court case regarding the Roman theater in Sagunto, Grassi and Portaceli upset this careful balance between the demands of the historic record and the effort to bring a rich cultural heritage back to life.