Inger & Johannes Exner
Buildings are like human beings. They are born and develop; they become ill and are cured; they grow old, waste away and die. They show the influence of events, people and adversities. They change from the freshness of youth through maturity, sometimes attaining beauty in their old age. Thus their identity is not only the one that was given to them at birth by the architects and artists who created them; it also reflects all the changes, additions and influences that they have experienced during their life. If that life has been historically eventful, it is a serious matter to remove or obliterate the impressions the building has received in order to restore it to its appearance at birth or to stop the historical process in any way. As we know, one of the ideological difficulties of the profession of restoration is to handle this problem in the right way, and to do it properly in each different case.
The old royal castle of Koldinghus is an example of a building which has lived an active, eventful life. It has changed several times during its history, from Gothic, through Renaissance and Baroque, until a fire in 1808 reduced it to a ruin. Some preservation and maintenance was undertaken during its long years as a ruin, but it is only recently that actual rebuilding has been started; and since this rebuilding has caused considerable debate, it is presented in this article as a contribution to the ceaseless discussion about the treatment of old buildings.
Koldinghus is the property of the State, but the town of Kolding and the province of Sonderjylland/North Schleswig regard the castle as a very important part of the history of their area. In 1964 the Ministry of Housing appointed a committee which reported on Koldinghus and the future of the ruins after an interval of five years. Whether the castle should remain as a ruin or be rebuilt was the subject of great debate. To many people the romantic hilltop ruins had become part of the identity of themselves, the town or the area; while others regarded them as a public eyesore, something somehow degrading since they were a constant reminder of a lack of respect, will and ability to rebuild the old royal castle of North Schleswig. But for our part, as a result of our preliminary investigations, we came to believe that the question in the report about whether to recommend ‘either ruins or rebuilding’ should be resolved as ‘both ruins and rebuilding’.
A proposal to protect the ruins by means of a simple structure supporting a roof and walls, otherwise maintaining the ruins untouched, was worked out and approved by the building committee. We believed the proposal would be well received by all the parties concerned, but local opposition arose and Det Saerlige Bygningssy (building surveying committee) would not approve. The result was a compromise which is now being carried out, in which the castle’s exterior is being given a general form corresponding to the time before the fire, while the ruins appear mostly in the interior. We evolved a basic principle that the main periods of the castle’s history were to be respected in such a way that its long and eventful life was clearly illustrated. As it was to be a museum, it was obvious that the most important exhibit was Koldinghus itself, and the different historical periods and events would have to be emphasized architecturally in the various parts of the building.
In order to keep the ruins untouched and to preserve their ‘narrative value’, a framed structure has been designed to fit within the walls of the ruin. Columns carry the floor decks and roof, and the design also includes a timber wall that fills in the gap in the brickwork of the south-east facade. This new structure is virtually free-standing within the ruin, and the elements do not touch the old brickwork. One might say that ‘air’ is used as the connecting material. This solution also offered the possibility of using pre-fabrication methods for many of the parts, which allows a more precise programming of the work, both in time and cost. The structure consists of columns reducing in section as they rise through the height, with ‘bases’ and ‘capitals’, and with branching elements which create a vaulted effect. The ‘capitals’ are made with sliding carden-frames, and the bases are cast-iron hemispheres. Above the columns is a horizontal lattice beam spanning from east to west. As a contrast to the heavy red brick walls, the inserted structure and walls are light. The capitals of the columns and the ceilings will be covered with white plates reflecting the daylight from the white painted new windows. The inspiration for the light ‘heaven’ in the ruined hall came first of all from the ruins themselves, but it was suggested also by the characteristics of Baroque architecture, with its manipulation of light and space.
The treatment the castle is receiving at present, during the sixth period of its history, is based on extreme respect for the authenticity of what remains and a clear presentation of the historic fabric with all its wear, weathering and patina. It is the antithesis of reconstruction, which has been discussed many times since the fire in 1808. Some proposals have been made for reconstructing the whole building, and others for reconstructing individual parts such as the chapel. But it seems obvious to us that such attempts would be found to fail, since there is insufficient evidence on which to base a reconstruction, and the result would be a brand new hypothetical castle. At Koldinghus, the historical changes in the fabric, and its visible weathering, are both parts of the building’s history, and both would be lost if it were to be reconstructed. Its great value is that in its present state it can tell us so much, and so we have placed great emphasis on preserving its narrative value and its ability to help visitors understand and feel that what they are seeing is genuine history as they walk through it on our inserted platforms and staircases. We have preserved what remains, but nothing has been done to hinder the building from developing or changing. If that happens some time in the future it will be a continuation of the castle’s history, to which we have made our individual contribution; and that seems to us infinitely preferable to those attempts either to put back or to arrest a building in time.
Location: Kolding, Denmark
Type: Museum, Renovation
Text: Johannes Exner, Koldinghus: the conversion of an old royal Danish castle, 1984
Photography: Ernst Kallesøe - Jens Lindhe - Thomas & Poul Pedersen - Lars Peter Elfelt
Collection: Det Kongelige Bibliotek - Nationalmuseets samlinger