Last edited 12 Jun 2022

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Institute of Historic Building Conservation Institute / association Website

Heritage value

Philosophical reflection can hold up a mirror in which we can recognise the structures of theory and evaluation concealed within conservationists’ familiar routines of professional judgment.

St alds.jpg St zacs.jpg
St Ald’s: a masterpiece by that doyen of high Victorian architecture, Sir Gilbert Bodfield (Drawings: James Hall) St Zac’s has the look of a building only the Victorian Society could love.

Someone (I used to think it was John Betjeman [1]) once said that, if forced to choose, they preferred buildings to people. Whoever gave voice to this thought, it is one that historic conservationists could usefully dwell on. How, in our system of priorities, do we weigh the claims of bricks and mortar against those of flesh and blood? Is our practice ultimately about trying to improve people’s lives in the present (or the future) – or about keeping faith with people in the past – or just about preserving, for its own sake, that which we regard as valuable?

As a conservation lecturer with an academic background in philosophy, such questions have a particular resonance for me. For all their abstractness, they have a direct bearing on the practical choices we make as conservation professionals. Our everyday decisions rest, in part, on a number of – usually unspoken – philosophical intuitions: here, about the nature and structure of so-called ‘heritage values’; their relation to personal welfare, communal standards and the ‘public interest’; the respective roles of expert judgment, majority preference and minority prerogative in determining their scope; and the proper function of official heritage bodies in deciding which values will be supported under which circumstances.

Let me try to examine, in a philosophical spirit, part of the structure of ideas underlying certain familiar debates over historic environment policy. This article is meditative rather than polemical in purpose, seeking to explore and clarify disagreements rather than arguing for a particular stance; although I do intend, in displaying the complexity of the issues at stake, to show why these questions cannot have straightforward answers.

Let us try, as philosophers are wont to do, to illuminate these abstract problems by means of a concrete, if imaginary example. Suppose that the grants panel of some public funding body – say the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) [2] – has to choose between two conservation projects. To simplify certain issues (even if it perhaps complicates others), let us say that they both involve 19th-century churches. [3]

The first, St Aldhelm’s, is a purist’s delight: a masterpiece by that doyen of high Victorian architecture Sir Gilbert Bodfield, superbly built and fitted out in the finest materials by the leading craftsmen of the day. It is of course Grade I listed, and gets the full five stars from Simon Jenkins. There is only one drawback: it is stuck out on a remote and unromantic stretch of East Anglian fen, with a congregation of seven elderly villagers at its monthly service, and annual visitor numbers that seldom reach treble figures.

The second church, St Zachary’s, is a very different proposition. Rising gaunt and lumpen among West Midlands tower blocks, it is a very ordinary piece of work by the justly obscure local firm of Scrimpe and Warthogg. Although it just manages a Grade II listing, it has the look of a building only the Victorian Society could love. This latter appearance is misleading, however: the long-redundant church has been reopened as a thriving community centre, bringing the area’s ethnically diverse and economically disadvantaged population together for fitness classes, free legal advice and multicultural happenings of all sorts.

In our scenario, these buildings – call them ‘St Ald’s’ and ‘St Zac’s’ for short – are both in a parlous condition, and are competing for a grant to cover emergency repairs. Which one should get it? You may already have a view about this – a view that reflects both your moral and political commitments and certain higher-level philosophical convictions.

Suppose you instinctively favour St Zac’s. Why? Well (you say), precisely because so many people value it, and get so much out of it. It is a vital asset to a populous but underprivileged community that needs every resource it can get. And the members of that community, including many who would not normally look twice at a historic church, cherish it deeply. Isn’t that just what the value – the public value – of heritage is all about?

There are several distinct thoughts here. One concerns the authority, in a democratic society, of people’s attitudes and commitments. A large number of people have formed a strong personal attachment to St Zac’s; shouldn’t the HLF, whose own website declares that it exists to ‘help people enjoy and protect the heritage they care about’, respect this? (The fenland pensioners may reply that they, although fewer in number, care just as strongly – and perhaps in a way more deeply – about St Ald’s.)

A second thought concerns the production or maximisation of wellbeing. Of the two projects, St Zac’s appears to do the most good for the most people. Shouldn’t public funding decisions, regarding heritage or anything else, aim at a maximally beneficial outcome? A third thought could be about social justice. St Zac’s serves a community that has been (perhaps unjustly) deprived of other social goods; shouldn’t it therefore have a higher priority in the allocation of public resources? And there may be a related fourth thought about needs versus wants: St Zac’s provides benefits that may seem more essential to their recipients than are the extravagant visual qualities on display at St Ald’s. (The pensioners might reply that spiritual and aesthetic experience, far from being superfluous luxuries, belong to the essence of human welfare. The more devout among them may add that a church does not exist merely to serve human purposes, but ad majorem Dei gloriam, to the greater glory of God. A secular paraphrase of this might be: ‘for its own sake’.)

Let’s leave this train of thought and look at the case for the opposition. If you intuitively side with St Ald’s, you will doubtless point out that in terms of design, craftsmanship, materials and so on, this church is leagues ahead of its rival. Admittedly, because of its location, relatively few people get to experience it. But what matters, you will say, is that it is there to be experienced: surely the public interest in heritage lies in preserving for public enjoyment those buildings that innately merit preservation, rather than those which, however well they may happen to serve present purposes, are of limited value in and of themselves.

Again, there is more than a single idea at work in all this. One thought is about the specific mission of the HLF. Maybe St Zac’s generates a bigger pot of social benefit than St Ald’s. But – you will argue – the HLF does not exist to promote any and all social goods, but chiefly those arising from what has value as heritage. Even without trying to define that term, you may suspect that the scheme at St Zac’s, however worthy on other grounds, preserves something of limited heritage value in order to promote goals only tangentially related to the enjoyment of historic buildings as such. (The people from St Zac’s may respond with an indignant: says who?)

Another, closely related thought concerns instrumental versus intrinsic values. St Zac’s, being conveniently located, capacious and so on, is good for certain purposes: as a community centre, for instance. But St Ald’s, being a masterpiece, is – you may think – good in itself. What exactly does this mean? Maybe that the value of St Ald’s flows directly from its unique identity, or at least from its status as an outstanding work of architecture, whereas the usefulness of St Zac’s does not. Any large building in this location would arguably serve just as well; indeed, a modern-purpose-built community centre might serve better. Alternatively, and more radically, you may mean that while St Zac’s is valuable largely for what it brings about, St Ald’s is to be valued for its own sake, apart from or in addition to its effects of people. (Response from St Zac’s: you only say that because of the gratifying effect it has on people like you!)

This dispute might be framed as a contest between different kinds of value: for instance, following Historic England’s 2008 documentConservation Principles’, between the primarily aesthetic value of St Ald’s and the largely communal value of St Zac’s. That is right up to a point. But it is also about how we should understand the nature of these values in the first place.

For instance, to what extent can the values at stake be quantified, that is, reduced to a common metric? How far can they be expressed in terms of experiential benefits to individuals? How ‘egalitarian’ should we be in weighing up personal and collective responses, and how far is the authority of such responses subject to public standards of criticism?

Take a building’s aesthetic value. Some will think of this as simply a function of how far people in general – regardless of who or why – enjoy looking at it. Others will see it as primarily determined by the considered (and argued-over) verdicts of experts and connoisseurs. Others still will regard it as an inherent property that underlies and explains all these responses but is not reducible to them, and whose presence is in theory independent of whether anyone gets to appreciate it.

In similar vein, communal value might be determined simply by counting heads across the populace at large, which looks democratic but will tend to ensure that minority communities are sidelined in decision-making; or by regarding each community group as an independent and equal locus of value in its own right, which looks respectful but will tend to result in deadlock. To what extent, in any case, are the values of individuals and groups to be accepted ‘as found’, and how far do norms of reasonableness, well-informedness and openness to debate affect their claim to be recognised as such by the public at large?

Finally, what about those sections of humanity that do not, and cannot, form part of today’s public? As custodians of heritage, we like to agree with Ruskin that historic buildings ‘belong partly to those who built them, and partly to all the generations of mankind who are to follow us.’ But neither our ancestors nor our descendants can respond to opinion surveys, let alone make funding applications. How, then, are they to be taken into account? Suppose we believe that the builders of St Ald’s, unlike those of St Zac’s, aspired to create something that would last for centuries; or we surmise that our children’s children would prefer to inherit (what we ourselves judge to be) a beautiful building rather than a mediocre one. What difference, if any, should this make?

We have still only dipped beneath the surface of some forbiddingly deep problems. To some readers, broaching these questions may feel like opening Pandora’s box, unleashing a swarm of conceptual troubles to make a straightforward practical decision, better resolved by a tick-box exercise using published criteria, seem impossibly complex. In fact, as I have tried to suggest, such decisions are rarely if ever straightforward, and to insist otherwise is to abdicate responsibility for thinking them through.

Philosophical reflection, having raised these problems, cannot simply make them go away again. (You will notice that, as advertised, the above discussion has not magically resolved our funding dilemma.) But it can hold up a mirror in which we can recognise the structures of theory and evaluation concealed within familiar routines of professional judgment. It also gives us tools for locating and testing the foundations of those structures, and for modifying – to some extent – their configuration. We can thus hope to make decisions that are a little less in thrall to received wisdom and unconscious bias, and a little more responsive to the full range of values that the historic environment – both the buildings that compose it and the people whose environment it is – presents to us. It’s a start.


  • [1] The internet seems to think it was Andrew O’Hagan, in a 1999 debate with Will Self, who apparently replied: ‘Well, you spend more time inside them, don’t you?’
  • [2] My example reflects the genesis of this article: a conversation at an IHBC event with Sara Crofts of the HLF, to whose insights concerning heritage funding dilemmas I am indebted. The issues that interest me are raised by such dilemmas; but they are present throughout the sector, and a similar thought experiment could be devised involving, for instance, a heritage planning dispute.
  • [3] Again, while the choice of a religious building focuses some of the issues, the same fundamental questions could arise for any building type.

This article originally appeared as ‘Bricks and mortar, flesh and blood’ in IHBC's Context 159 (Page 42), published in May 2019. It was written by David Garrard, senior lecturer and subject coordinator in historic conservation at Oxford Brookes University.

--Institute of Historic Building Conservation

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