Last edited 01 Jan 2021

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Institute of Historic Building Conservation Institute / association Website

Conservation as action and reaction

In helping people to discover, access and safeguard their heritage, the role of conservation professionals as experts is needed more than ever, but on different and non-elitist terms.

The central question the conservation community faces is the renegotiation of the role of the public in conservation decision making, so it is fitting that the theme of the 2016 Institute of Historic Building Conservation (IHBC) annual school was ‘People Power!’.

We like to think of the conservation community as a plucky David pitted against the mighty Goliath of blind economic self-interest, and that the public on whose behalf we fight will be necessarily grateful. The view from outside can be quite different, with persistent accusations of detachment from the interests of the public, and a lack of both flexibility and accountability. The customary response within the conservation community is to suggest that all we need is better communication and public education. This article suggests that both the issues at stake, and the opportunities on offer, are more fundamental.

The story of modern conservation can be read as the response to the twin traumas of 19th-century restoration and 20th-century post-war reconstruction. William Morris and John Ruskin stand tall among our 19th-century heroes, and Morris’s still influential 1877 manifesto for the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (SPAB) drew heavily on Ruskin, most obviously his Seven Lamps of Architecture of 1849 with its eloquent evocation of ‘the golden stain of time’, and so on.

Less frequently cited is Ruskin’s 1854 essay ‘The Opening of the Crystal Palace’, which both attacks restoration and calls for the formation of a society to catalogue, monitor and, if necessary, purchase threatened monuments, a call answered by the foundation of SPAB. The appeal in Morris’s manifesto is ‘to treat our ancient buildings as monuments of a bygone art, created by bygone manners, that modern art cannot meddle with without destroying’.

Another figure of interest is the novelist Thomas Hardy, who had first trained as an architect, working on a variety of church restorations, including with Arthur Blomfield in London. Hardy was an early supporter of SPAB, including acting as a case-worker in the west country. He addressed the issue of competing interests in Memories of Church Restoration, his 1906 paper delivered to SPAB:

‘To the incumbent the church is a workshop; to the antiquary it is a relic. To the parish it is a utility; to the outsider a luxury. How to unite these incompatibles?’ He goes on to propose that ‘If the ruinous church could be enclosed in a crystal palace... and a new church be built alongside for services... the method would be an ideal one.’

Entirely compatible with the SPAB manifesto, this is a vision of built heritage divorced both from the history, and the community, which produced it. Whether this assumption of radical discontinuity was ever a culturally literate response to the historic environment is questionable; in an age of increasing public participation it is potentially disastrous, both for the buildings themselves, and for the place of the conservation community in the wider culture.

Our second trauma, that of the 20th century, is closer at hand. After the extensive destruction by aerial bombardment, including the deliberate targeting of heritage, it is often remarked that post-war replanning of British cities completed the work the Luftwaffe had started; Coventry is one frequently cited example.

The 1961 destruction of the Euston Arch was the first major battle for the recently formed Victorian Society, but its loss spurred greater activism and led to future victories, including saving St Pancras Station. Resistance to the loss of heritage also came from within the architectural profession, notably expressed through the Architectural Review, not least in the townscape campaign, with its focus on context and genius loci, and the pivotal role it played in saving Covent Garden. Others, of course, saw things differently; for example, critic and arch-modernist Reyner Banham ruefully suggested that ‘they do manage these things better in France. They pulled down Les Halles!’[1]

The development of modern conservation left a legislative trail, including:

The ecclesiastical exemption, introduced with the 1913 Act, may draw criticism for its less-than-perfect application, but it does provide an alternative framework that is people-centric in its foundations, since it demands that all participants in the process recognise church buildings as local centres of mission and worship, that is as expressions of the continuity of the life of their communities.

The development of modern conservation can also be described through the development of its charters and processes. Along with the 1877 SPAB manifesto defining historic buildings as monuments that should be preserved, we could mention:

These last two feed directly into Historic England’s Conservation Principles of 2008, which form the current guidance for the operation of conservation in England. This string of documents marks a progressive shift from sole reliance on the wisdom of experts to an increasing role for the public, with communal value as one of the four classes of value that make up cultural significance in the current methodology.

Hardy’s exasperated cry of ‘How to unite these incompatibles?’ still resonates in the contemporary stakeholder question of who gets to decide what matters about our historic buildings; and behind this lies the deeper issue of how ‘stuff’ matters anyway. The current model is to analyse the whole into discrete values, which are then added back together to formsignificance’.

But does this significance-two-step of analysis and calculus really provide an adequate account of the ways in which the physical environment is meaningful to people? Analysis is the quintessential method of modernity and always involves a division or cutting; it is hugely powerful in understanding a phenomenon in its parts, but perhaps less helpful in trying to grasp something as a whole, particularly where that whole is defined by its connectedness and continuities, such as is the case with historic buildings. Wordsworth addressed the same issue, warning that ‘we murder to dissect’[2].

To take a living animal or building, divide it into cuts or values, and process it through a mincer or significance calculus may be legitimate if one is in the business of meat production, but less so if one is interested in the going life and well-being of that living animal or building.

At root, this is the difference between seeing historic buildings as a collection of treasured monuments, to which any calls for change will necessarily represent harm, or as living buildings that are meaningfully ‘owned’ by the communities that use and (hopefully) love them. In the adjacent world of heritage studies there is much discussion of intangible heritage, for example in the work of Laurajane Smith, who seeks ‘to redefine all heritage as inherently intangible in the first place’[3].

The role of the public in heritage is perhaps most clearly championed in the Council of Europe’s 2005 Faro Convention on the Value of Cultural Heritage for Society (and which remains unadopted in the UK). As Robert Palmer suggests, ‘Heritage is not simply about the past; it is vitally about the present and future’ and it ‘atrophies in the absence of public involvement’ and support.[4]

If our vision of heritage includes the public, we must face the issue that, badly done, conservation has the ability to destroy heritage; ‘badly’ in the sense of distancing communities from their buildings, often through making the building unnecessarily technical and specialist. The implication of increased public participation in heritage is that conservation is not primarily a technical question, but a cultural one.

Every conservation practitioner will be familiar with the destructive potential of cement pointing to traditional masonry. In an age of public participation, the theory and process (mortar) applied to historic buildings (bricks or stones) needs to be flexible, weak enough and sacrificial; it also needs to be ‘breathable’, allowing the expression of community ownership (moisture).

At a technical level, traditional buildings call for judicious use of traditional materials; at a theoretical level, they call for an understanding of tradition, which has been glaringly absent for most of our history from the SPAB manifesto onwards. The wrong theoretical framework risks isolating historic buildings from the communities that by rights should ‘own’ and animate that heritage; from the best of motivations we risk destroying the very heritage we seek to protect.

If modern conservation in Britain has been defined to date by this tale of two traumas, what will be the issue that defines the conservation community in the 21st century? Most important, will we once again be responding to the actions of others, or will we seek to set the cultural agenda? We have so much to offer in an age of people-power heritage, but this will require us to fight tomorrow’s battles, not yesterday’s.

This message is primarily a positive one of opportunity, a call to conservation professionals to position ourselves as enablers of community, helping people to discover, access and safeguard their heritage. Much of this happens already. Our role as experts is needed more than ever, but on different and non-elitist terms. This will require a radical change in our sense of ownership, and a different answer to the fundamental question behind conservation: ‘Whose heritage is it anyway?

This article originally appeared in IHBC's Context 146, published in September 2016. It was written by Nigel Walter, a specialist conservation architect, director of Archangel Architects in Cambridge, who is researching a PhD in conservation at the University of York. His paper ‘Everyone loves a good story: narrative, tradition and public participation in conservation’ in Gill Chitty (ed) Heritage, Conservation and Communities, Routledge, London (2016) deals more extensively with the question of public participation.

--Institute of Historic Building Conservation


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