Last edited 20 Jun 2020

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Institute of Historic Building Conservation Institute / association Website

Conservation and the Royal Institute of the Architects of Ireland

Significant campaigns to protect historic buildings have led to the Royal Institute of the Architects of Ireland playing a leading role in developing the practice of conservation.

Ballintubber Abbey.png
The crossing and vault of Ballintubber Abbey, Co Mayo, whose nave was restored and re-roofed in 1966 (Photo: Andreas F Borchert, Wikimedia).

When the RIAI (Royal Institute of the Architects of Ireland) was founded in 1839, the impetus behind it was more preservation than conservation. In 1835 a major programme of workhouse building had been announced for Ireland, work eagerly anticipated by Irish architects. However, the entirety of this programme was given to George Wilkinson, a 27-year-old architect from Oxford. An organisation to protect the interest of Irish architects was needed, hence the founding the RIAI. Wilkinson settled in Ireland and some years later (in 1851) was elected vice president of the institute.

Despite what could be regarded as an organisation founded to protect professional interests, the RIAI has been active in architectural conservation as a body and through its members. Some of these activities include:

  • In 1869 the RIAI produced the first listing of medieval structures in Dublin and district, an important resource for architectural historians and conservationists.
  • In 1890 the RIAI lobbied against the building of the Loop Line railway bridge, which would block the view of the Custom House, regarded as the finest neoclassical building in Dublin. The bridge was built and is still with us.
  • 1913 saw the RIAI producing the first listing of architecturally important buildings in the country.
  • The RIAI played a key role in advising government on the appropriate rebuilding of O’Connell Street, Dublin’s principal street, after the 1916 rising and the civil-war destruction.
  • In the 1920s the RIAI influenced the proper rebuilding of James Gandon’s two great riverine buildings, the Custom House and the Four Courts after extensive damage in the war of independence. There was a possibility that these important buildings could have been poorly restored or even demolished.

The 1950s saw the beginning of the pressure of modern office development on Dublin’s largely intact architectural heritage. This was signalled by the demolition of a number of Georgian houses in Leinster Place, off Kildare Street. At this time there was an establishment/political view that Georgian architecture was not part of Irish culture. This may have been an unfortunate result of the Irish cultural revival, which had a significant impact on Irish art, literature and politics. A prominent government minister regarded Georgian architecture as the preserve of ‘belted earls’.

Around this time the profession began to change. The writer first saw this as a student during the late 1960s in the Dublin Institute of Technology School of Architecture. As a group project it was standard practice to give fourth-year students an area of Dublin to study, leading to ‘comprehensive redevelopment’. Our project was a settled residential area of 18th and 19th-century housing, which was to be redeveloped (demolished). Our response was to ask: what is wrong with the area? All that was needed was some traffic calming, play areas and, as there was a limited number of house types, we could design kitchen and bathroom pods (this being the 1960s). The staff was dismayed, as we were supposed to be designing new buildings, not doing repairs – which was, in fact, conservation. Our response could have been a reaction against the doctrine of high modernism prevalent at the time. I doubt if any of us had even heard of the term ‘conservation architect’ but the seed had been sown among some of those about to join the profession.

In 1970 a group of architects, architectural students and their supporters occupied a Georgian house on Hume Street in Dublin city centre to prevent demolition. Ultimately the demolition did happen, with offices concealed behind ‘new’ Georgian facades. But the consequent publicity helped to change public and political attitudes towards Irish architectural heritage.

There were some negative results of the Hume Street protest. The first was a growth of facade schemes as an acceptable solution for office developments, with the facade being no more than skin deep. The second was the term ‘Georgian’ being used as a brand, particularly in volume housing. One suburban scheme was named The Georgian Village. ‘Georgian’ became a fashion. The third was to have a long-term impact on the profession and conservation, regarding period building as good and new building as bad. As more historic buildings were preserved, the problem of finding new uses was to become a challenge for the profession.

In 1974 the RIAI introduced a conservation medal for high-quality work in this area. It was presented to three projects: Kilkenny Design Workshops, Ballintubber Abbey, and Dublin Castle. Dublin Castle and Ballintubber Abbey were restoration projects, while Kilkenny Design Workshops was a conservation project, adapting a period building to new uses. It would be some time before the profession saw these as distinct categories.

While the separate silver medal for conservation/ restoration was not awarded until 1974, many of the gold medal winners from the early 20th century are now heritage buildings, and works to them fall into the conservation category. These include St Thomas’s Church, Dublin Airport, Busaras, Radio Telefis Eireann and Birt Church.

Following the publication of the Charter of Venice in 1964, a small number of practitioners started to specialise in conserving and restoring buildings. By 1974 the philosophy of conservation was being developed worldwide and Ireland, with its rich cultural inheritance of buildings, was well placed to be part of that developing knowledge. With the publication of the Burra Charter in 1979, the stage was set for a better understanding of our heritage and how to pass it on intact.

Members of the RIAI were at the forefront of these developments, understanding that the architecture of today is the built heritage of the future. The conservation working group was set up and led to the development of the first RIAI conservation policy, which was adopted in 1994. A new conservation policy was developed and approved by council in 2018.

The Heritage Act of 1995 gave us the Heritage Council, with funding for conservation works being routed through them. The Granada Convention of 1985, which was ratified in January 1997, resulted in the National Inventory of Architectural Heritage, the first statutory base for the protection of buildings in the Republic of Ireland. In 1995 the Conservation Working Group produced the first set of ‘Guidelines for the Conservation of Buildings’. In 1998 the Historic Buildings Task Force produced the ‘Conservation Guidelines for Local Authorities in the Preparation of Development Plans’.

With the changing legislation, the RIAI understood that it had a responsibility for encouraging the highest standards in conservation for works carried out by its members. While appreciating the collaborative nature of modern practice, the RIAI considered that any works to buildings were best designed and managed by architects, so it developed the Conservation Accreditation System. Originally based on the importance of the buildings, the system has developed into a matrix of complexity of the works/importance of the building to set out advisory criteria for applicants for accreditation. It was launched in 2001 and reviewed in 2019, following earlier reviews in 2014. A skills matrix, and the RIAI Standards of Knowledge, Skill and Competence for RIAI Conservation Accreditation, were formulated and passed by council in 2019.

There are three grades of accreditation for architects, grade I being the highest and grade III the basic or entry level. Evaluation is based on objective standards related to the range of skills necessary to carry out the services involved. Applicants for grade III undertake the RIAI Conservation Induction Module (CIM), covering the philosophy, principles and responsibilities of architectural conservation, and the identification of key areas in which specialist advice should be sought. Eligibility for accreditation requires attendance at the module and successful completion of a CIM assessment exercise. Applicants for grade I and grade II are assessed by the Conservation Accreditation Board. Details of all of these processes are available on the RIAI website.

The RIAI hopes that the revisions to the Conservation Accreditation System and its regulation will make it clear to applicants what is required of them, ensuring that there is adequate movement through the grades, while maintaining standards. Out of a total of some 3,000 registered architects, there are approximately 50 grade I and 40 grade II conservation architects, with some 600 architects at grade III. The RIAI system has been the basis of both those of the Royal Society of Ulster Architects and the RIBA.

The RIAI has brought the philosophy of conservation to a wider cross-section of both the architectural profession and the public, and has informed clients as to best practice. Practicing architects are becoming used to considering the criteria contained in the various charters, in the ICOMOS guidelines and in the general sphere of best practice.

While there is still some misunderstanding as to what exactly conservation means, the standard of debate, discussion and reasoning is much higher than it was. This can be seen in the finished projects. Most important, the RIAI Conservation Policy and Conservation Accreditation System have changed the attitude of architects, clients, authorities and the public. Unlike most of architectural practice, we understand that the correct approach to conservation is to do as little as possible.


This article originally appeared as ‘The RIAI’s role in conservation’ in IHBC's Context 163 (Page 25), published by The Institute of Historic Building Conservation in March 2020. It was written by John Graby, architect and former chief executive of the RIAI, who wrote the section of this article dealing with the years up to 1974. Robin Mandal, architect and former RIAI president, wrote the section relating to the years after 1974. The research and writings of Patrick Shaffrey Architect on the RIAI and conservation are acknowledged with thanks.

--Institute of Historic Building Conservation

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