The future of Plaster Archeology (Nijmegen)

By Laszlo Muntean

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Plaster archeology is
a perversion. But a truly scientific one at that. It entails the deep mapping
of architectural facades, that is, observing buildings’ walls for information
that passersby normally wouldn’t notice. An inscription of someone’s
initials, a graffiti that’s barely visible, a fading advertisement of a cosmetic
product that no longer exists.

The plaster
archeologist spends a lot of time walking and staring at walls. The plaster
archeologist prefers walls that are layered, walls with plaster peeling off and
laying bare colors, or texts even that have been plastered over. The plaster
archeologist stops and observes where people normally keep walking, looking
ahead. Consequently, the plaster archeologist runs the risk of being perceived
as a weirdo.

Plaster archeology
also entails the noble quality of self restraint. For instance, decades of
neglect allow a chunk of the outer layer of plaster to fall off from a façade.
Part of the name of a store that used to be there in the late 19th
century is revealed. The plaster archeologist would instantly feel the urgency
to reveal the full name by removing more plaster. But this is to be avoided.
The plaster archeologist may not damage façades. Instead, the plaster
archeologist goes to the archives and goes through vintage photo collections to
decode what remains hidden behind plaster. And if there is no image, it’s all
well and good.

The city of Budapest,
where I grew up, is the ideal place to become a weirdo—and a plaster
archeologist. The bulk of the building stock of the city was built from mid to
late-19th century, when plaster abounded as a means of covering
buildings. Bullet holes from the war and the lack of means to renovate have
supplied me with ample material for years.

What about Nijmegen?
What about a city where walls are covered with brick and plaster is so rare?
Well, up until now I thought it would be a problem for the plaster
archeologist. But it is not so. The city bares the marks of World War II not
only in the absence of its old architecture in the city center but also in the
presence of scars on buildings’ walls, though one might not notice them at
first sight. The side façade of 4 Prins Hendrikstraat is a case in point. Signs
of a massive impact close to the roof, perhaps housing a machine gun position.
Already walled in, but the scars bear witness. Brick is no impediment to
plaster archeology. Quite the contrary, it may open no horizons to dig.

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