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From Imhotep to Fixer Uppers: The History of Renovation

When exactly did the culture of renovation and home makeovers begin? Well, to trace that beginning, we must travel back to a time before Chip and Joanna Gaines ever popped up on our televisions, before the first load-bearing wall was removed, and way before the term “remodeling” was ever used.

Ancient Egypt: Remodeling as an Idea

One of the earliest suggestions of renovation is found in the Step Pyramid of Djoser, which was presumably designed by Imhotep, the vizier to Pharaoh Djoser. This Old Kingdom pyramid, although not a makeover project per se, is known as a drastic departure from the older styles since it appears to be the very first mastaba (a rectangular funerary superstructure) made up of stone (mastabas were previously constructed of mud bricks). This spirit of upgrading culminated in the Great Pyramid of Giza, which was presumably designed by vizier Hemiunu. It was another step toward the advent of remodeling since it was a move toward aesthetic appeal—the Pyramid remained the tallest manmade structure in the world for more than 3,800 years.

The Great Pyramid of Giza.

Ancient Mesopotamia: Remodeling as a Passion Project

The tale of the Tower of Babel, the skyscraper of the distant and perhaps mythical past, is believed by some to be a legend and by others to be a true story. But they can find common ground in Etemenanki, a now-destroyed ziggurat (an ancient Mesopotamian stepped pyramidal temple complex) that once stood sometime between 2200 and 500 BC. After apparently enhancing the Etemenanki by the use of gold, silver, and enameled bricks, the Babylonian emperor Nebuchadnezzar II recorded that the deity Marduk, to whom the ziggurat was dedicated, excited Nebuchadnezzar’s mind “to repair this building.” There is even a cuneiform cylinder confirming the reconstruction.

The Ziggurat of Ur. The Etemenanki would have been three times taller.

Classical Antiquity: Remodeling as a Disgrace

In the ancient Greek world, philosophy and mythology influenced the arts. Philosophers and artists alike sought perfection and divine wisdom. Pythagoras’ golden ratio was incorporated into architecture; amphitheatres and temples stressed mathematical exactness. Loftiness of mind became tied to status, and therefore, renovation—a sign that the original construction was not perfect—appears to have been spurned at times.

One notable work of art that typifies this attitude is the mythical Labyrinth—a maze so complex that the architect himself was barely able to break out of it. Its creator was Daedalus, the genius architect who could fashion any number of things from a lifelike wooden cow to a lifelike statue that Hercules mistook for a living person. The Labyrinth in particular illustrates that a perfect artwork ought not need any renovation.

Another narrative of this era that undermines renovation is that of the hero Perseus. When a prophecy foretells King Acrisius that he will one day be killed by his grandson, he commands that his daughter Danae be locked away. To accomplish this, Acrisius remodels his dungeon, constructs a bronze chamber, and locks her in it. Zeus infiltrates this prison by transforming into a shower of gold and impregnates her with Perseus, rendering the renovation null and void.

The Parthenon is said to typify the Golden Ratio.

Roman Empire: Remodeling as a Culture

When Rome seized Greece, a full-on renovation was in order. The Greek gods were given Roman names and Greek art was appropriated. Enamored with Classical Greece, Romans borrowed the amphitheatre as well as the Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian orders. But they added their own touches too—the now-iconic Roman domus was a combination of the Greek peristyle and the Etruscan atrium.

With the advents of concrete, aqueducts, and domes (as seen in such structures as the Pantheon), the toolkits in the box of renovation grew exponentially.

The dome of the Pantheon.

Byzantine Empire: Remodeling as a Paradigm Shift Declaration

After the Western Roman Empire fell, the Eastern half (Byzantine Empire) took on the mantle of Rome. After Constantine I legalized Christianity and renamed Byzantium as Constantinople, he is said to have commissioned the building of Hagia Sophia (Holy Wisdom). Through various earthquakes and tumultuous events such as the Nika insurrection, Hagia Sophia was reconstructed and enlarged. Built at the site of a pagan temple, Hagia Sophia toppled the previous paradigm by depicting Christ Pantokrator (“Christ Almighty”) in overwhelming gold.

After the Ottoman Empire conquered Constantinople and renamed it Istanbul, Sultan Mehmed II remodeled the church into a mosque. The Christian mosaics were whitewashed; minarets (towers that issue the call to prayer), a mihrab (recessed part of a wall that faces Mecca), and arabesques (geometric and sometimes calligraphic patterns) were added to reinforce the Muslim paradigm.

The Hagia Sophia is a museum today.

Middle Ages and Renaissance: Remodeling as a Spiritual Exercise

There were many developments, too many to list here, but here are some honorable mentions: Numerous flying buttresses, basilicas, vaults, stained windows, frescos, naves, clerestories (sections in the wall that have high windows for admitting light), and castles of Gothic and Romanesque persuasions. In the 13th century, the word “renovacyoun”, connoting spiritual rebirth, entered Middle French. “Renaissance” also literally means “rebirth”.

Cologne Cathedral is an example of gothic architecture.

Baroque, Rococo, and Mannerism: Remodeling as a Theatrical Apologetic

Buildings added trompe-l’oeil, or illusionistic art, to their ceilings (e.g. The Palace of Versailles). The Catholic Church fought against the Protestant Reformation by adding to their cathedrals furniture packed with Catholic narrative. Some notable examples are: St. Peter’s Baldachin (featuring shafts with elaborate twists) and altarpieces that employed chiaroscuro (a painting technique that heightens drama via a high contrast between sheen and shadow).

St. Peter’s Baldachin. Forces the viewer’s perspective to gaze upward.

Neoclassicism (Reaction Against Rococo): Remodeling as Decluttering

The Prado Museum. Full of Greek rationality and lacking Rococo froufrou.

Romanticism (Reaction Against Neoclassicism): Remodeling as the Love of Nature

The Houses of Parliament. Shapes have become more organic.

Modernism and Postmodernism: Remodeling as a Coping Mechanism

These phases were an intermingling of many “isms” that came from disillusioned schools of thought: Impressionism, Bauhaus, Cubism, Futurism, Constructivism, de Stijl, Abstract Expressionism, and the like. And in 1789, the word “remodel” entered the vernacular.


The Eiffel Tower.

Today: Remodeling as Entertainment

Fixer Uppers, Trading Spaces, and home makeover shows shimmer on our television screens.


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