When I was in Paris, the Arc de Triomphe was shrouded in scaffolding. The repairs were to stop it from deteriorating. In Scotland there were castles undergoing the same treatment. Scotland also contained castles that were nothing more than rubble, or at most, a few walls. These buildings had been abandoned to the elements. Eventually nature would reclaim them and they would be gone.
More recently, at the Angkor Archaeological Park there are buildings that are being restored to the former glory. Not just repaired but rebuilt. Some parts of the temples have been replaced with brand new pieces. In some cases, if a statue was missing an arm, then the replacement is also missing an arm. In other cases entire buildings are being restored to how it looked at its zenith. The grandeur before the decline. What was nothing more than a pile of rubble and a few walls, could be a brilliant temple in ten years time.
I wondered whether this restoration process is taking away from the site. What you see in ten years time is the modern reconstruction of the great Khmer city. You may judge the architectural brilliance of the past empire by how its buildings are still standing today; some 600 years later. The charm of some buildings maybe lost, or reduce to kitchy tourism. At Ta Prohm, where the roots have taken hold of the building and the setting of the opening Tomb Raider scene. No new roots are allowed to take hold and the existing ones are kept from destroying the temple. Here we try and preserve the temple at the point it was rediscovered by the West.
How you take this maintenance or rebuilding is influenced by what you want to get out of your visit. If you wanted to see what the Khmer built and what remains of their civilisation then you may not want it restored. You may judge their architecture’s ability to survive the ages as a significant element of your visit. You may want to see the indomitable nature reclaim humankind’s best efforts. Or, you may want to see what the city looked like at it’s brilliant peak. This, unless the building is maintained or rebuilt, will become harder and harder to do. Land shifts and upsets structures, water erodes the rock and tourists trample everything else.
The temples are not just for me and what I want. In a hundred years time if we let the buildings decline further then no one may be able to see what the Khmer’s achieved. And an achievement it was: for a few hundred years, they had a the biggest pre-industrial city on the planet.