Capernaum House of St Peter and landscape archaeology

The Octagon Church is a fine example of context-insensitive design, despite its octagonal shape

The Octagon Church is a fine example of context-insensitive design, despite its octagonal shape

When building a visitor centre on an archaeological site the best policy is assemble a group of experts and ask them to make a reconstruction of the original building. The worst policy is to invite a trendy designer to exercise his or her creative imagination. The Octagon Church at Capernaum shows ‘how not to do it’. The building dominates the ancient town. I find it no comfort at all that visitors can look through the glass floor and see the ruins of the octagonal church which the Byzantines built on the supposed ruins of St Peter’s House.

” According to Luke 4:31-44, Jesus taught in the synagogue in Capernaum on the sabbath days. In Capernaum also, Jesus allegedly healed a man who had the spirit of an unclean devil and healed a fever in Simon Peter’s mother-in-law. According to Matthew 8:5-13, it is also the place where a Roman Centurion asked Jesus to heal his servant… One block of homes, called by the Franciscan excavators the sacra insula or “holy insula” (“insula” refers to a block of homes around a courtyard) was found to have a complex history. ..The excavators concluded that one house in the village was venerated as the house of Peter the fisherman as early as the mid-first century AD, with two churches having been constructed over it (Lofreda, 1984).”  Info from Wiki. Photo courtesy kokorokoko

There is a great need for landscape architects to become involved with archaeological sites. They are far too important to be left to the care of archaeologists.

17 thoughts on “Capernaum House of St Peter and landscape archaeology

  1. Christine

    The modern church is said to be modelled on the original 5th century church on the site….Although, [I am with you on this]…it is very difficult to imagine how this might be so! Just what inspiration did the designers take from the original church apart from the shape of the octogon?

    I realise the constraints of preserving and giving access to the archeological site must have to a large degree driven the design solution however the aesthetics are disappointing…both outside and in.[]

  2. Tom Turner Post author

    I am much against the idea of a reconstruction, or any building, on the archaeological site itself. But if land can be found for a visitor centre on nearby land (preferably out of site) then it seems to me an interesting and useful thing to attempt a reconstruction. An example which comes to mind is Hadrian’s Villa The visitor centre and cafe are out of sight and the style of the original villa would be very appropriate for a a cafe.

  3. Tom Turner Post author

    I think the ‘inspiration’ is that the Byzantine church was octagonal and the modern church is octagonal. I feel aggrieved that the modern structure dominates the archaeological site. One should be able to sit alone with the silence of history, letting the stones do the talking. This ghastly structure reminds me of the comic book illustrations I once had for HG Wells War of the Worlds. I know Israel is a militarily powerful state, but this is taking things too far! The building should be removed, perhaps for use as a border surveillance post.

  4. Christine

    Perhaps the requirement to submit an exterior and interior model [and context] for public viewing prior to planning approval could assist with better aesthetic solutions?[]

  5. Tom Turner Post author

    Yes! But Israeli politics tends to be dominated by people from a military background and public consultation is not a characteristic of army life! The ‘visitor centre’ aspect of St Martins in the Fields has had undergone a major re-build and it has been a very successful project (almost entirely underground).

  6. Christine

    I wonder if the client body for the visitor centre at Malaga were more sympathetic to public consultation? And if so, at what stage in the process it occurred? It would also be interesting to know what were the expectations and outcomes of the process from the client perspective, the public’s perspective and of course from the designer themselves.
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    Perhaps someone may have more insights of the issue of public consultation from working on the St Martin’s in the Feilds or other similar projects?

  7. Tom Turner Post author

    The Malaga Visitor Centre is less assertive and more elegant and more sympathetic – I suppose the reflectivity makes it responsive to its context. But I still think it attracts too much attention to itself and therefore makes the Roman remains appear, in the photograph, as little more than external works to the building.

    Re public consultation, I am both a believer and a sceptic. If it can be arranged, it is better for a designer to work with a single enlightened client – a patron – than a miscellaneous self-selected group of consultees,

  8. Christine

    In the ‘Urban Design Reader’ (Matthew Carmona and Steve Tiesdell) the following is said of enlightened patronage:

    “What makes a good building is quite simply a good brief, a good client and a good architect – in other words – enlightened architectural patronage….While patronage will always remain the privilege of the few, it can no longer operate without support from the man in the street. A better educated public therefore becomes a prerequisite of enlightened patronage.” (What makes a good building? p203)

    Boston University in their study of British architecture reference the text by Kenneth Powell and Renzo Piano ‘City Reborn: Architecture and Regeneration in London, from Bankside to Dulwich’ [ ].

  9. Tom Turner Post author

    It is a good quotation but does not take us very far. For example, I certainly regard Norman Foster and Richard Rogers as good architects, and they often have good clients, but I often think they do not produce ‘good architecture’ because it is insufficiently context-sensitive. They seem to care far more about internal space and about producing iconic buildings than about the relationship between their buildings and the landscapes in which they are set.

  10. Christine

    Should I have said ‘with what aspect’ would you start exploring this relationship? However, you must have had something particular in mind when you nominated Sumer, Babylon, Assur, Waset (Thebes) and Knossos?

  11. Tom Turner Post author

    I did not expect to get away with such a brief reply but it is a big question.
    As a natural skeptic, I nonetheless think religions have something very important and I think they managed it by developing principles at a time when society was less complex and truths could take shape over what Christopher calls a ‘timeless’ period. From this, I reason that the same applies to relationships between buildings and landscapes. The principles were easier to appreciate when society was less complex. So I think the study of ancient places has a comparable role in planning to that of religion in society: the ancient ways are important but we need to keep on adjusting them as society evolves. My sharpest reservations about religions are connected to the fundamentalists who oppose change – they make me wonder if Karl Marx was right about religion being ‘the opium of the people’. I see evolution as part of the nature of the world and cannot see how religions can even dream of being changeless.

  12. Christine

    I am not sure I am clear about your answer….are you saying that the aspect of the relationship between building and landscapes that should found our understanding is planning principles?

    Or is your answer more akin to this statement about Planning from The Victorian Transport Policy Institute;

    “Traditional communities relied on shamans and priests to help maintain balance between human and natural worlds. In modern communities these responsibilities are borne by planners.”

  13. Tom Turner Post author

    In essence ‘planners’ is a word for people who produce plans. Given recent changes in technology we should probably call them CADers (or ‘cads’ as a diminutive and affectionate term!). But if ‘planners’ is used to mean ‘bureaucrats who administer regulations for the planning of town and country’, then, ‘No’ – I think they have few principles, few ideas and hardly any honour.

  14. Christine

    Oh. Perhaps in a different mould from Corbusier but still not, I would think, demonstrating any of the elements you spoke of: 1) a clear link with the landscape setting 2) a sense of view lines within and from the city or 3) an idea of an urban garden transition zone is the new Korean city of Gwanggyo by Dutch firm MVRDV.[ ] But perhaps it is early days yet?

    Or perhaps the set of relations they have conceptualised are entirely different from those you nominated?

    True it is a little difficult to get a sense of the landscape setting from the CAD renderings so I tried to find some visual reference material
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