We shouldn’t underestimate how much good has been done by all the various building conservation advocates and professionals over the past fifty years or so. Countless buildings have been saved, traditional building skills have been resurrected and society as a whole is more aware of building heritage than at any other stage in the past 50 years. Despite all this good work, there is a tangible animosity by many conservationists towards any idea that we should be building new buildings in a traditional way. This is a curious reaction, as they on the one hand expound the qualities of traditional architecture, but then recoil in horror if anybody would dare consider using these great models for future developments.
Conservation has been reasonably successful in stopping the slide in the mid-20th century, but the movement as stalled and is stuck in a rut. I have noticed a change however as some colleagues from conservation are growing increasingly frustrated about the quality of new buildings where before they were silent or even defensive. Until recently most building conservation groups and professionals had a blind spot in regards to new buildings. Many would voice concerns privately but didn’t feel like they had an adequate language to express these concerns professionally. There was also a fear about stepping on the toes of the architectural profession. And probably most effective of all, it was the signing up to the Venice Charter that ultimately placed a gag over the mouths of conservationists in relation to new architecture.
“The heritage movement now has to struggle against the belief that progress is change and that change unchecked is the purest form of progress. As a result, heritage is often seen by professionals as an anti-progressive movement.”
Robert Adam, speaking at the INTBAU Venice Conference, 2006
We have all known for some time that something is wrong with the vast majority of new architecture; it is failing all around us. But this was just a feeling, a hunch, hard to put your finger on. It’s hard to not look like a fool when you try to convince someone of something based on just a hunch. Conservationists must feel frustrated that they must not bite the hand that feeds them work, and at the same time they don’t seem to have a voice when it comes to mistakes they see being made in new architecture. To voice any criticism that does not come with the stamp of approval of the moral establishment, is to be derided and mocked. Typical of this cheap mockery is a recent quote in the Irish Times column in relation to architecture in Dublin. (ironically it was an article that was supposed to be promoting building conservation)… good grief…
“Occasionally, you’ll hear about the lust for knocking down Liberty Hall which thankfully the economic crash delayed. Or a taxi driver tells you how much he’d love to knock Busáras, even though it’s one of the most beautiful buildings in the city, despite people who don’t know a jot about architecture or design insisting on its ugliness.”
Úna Mullaly, Irish Times Columnist, May 2018
I don’t doubt the sincerity of conservation professionals and organisations like ICOMOS or SPAB, but I have doubts about their effectiveness going forward. Demonstrations of traditional building skills or seminars about architectural heritage and policy only get you so far if they are not followed up by seriously tackling the behemoth that is the modern construction industry and the architectural establishment. These demonstrations and seminars, although worthy in their own right, are increasingly looking like window dressing to me; the same people, saying the same things to the same audience. They are great for making the public feel like they are part of the conversation, but to professionals, they appear tokenistic and tired, patronising and pointless; everyone gets to feel good about themselves after a morning of pointing a bit of a stone wall with lime mortar or looking at some fine Georgian House on a fine summers’ afternoon.
Unfortunately, conservation has allowed itself to become tamed and part of the establishment. It is like a charity that is content to fill a gap caused by irresponsible behaviour but is unwilling to tackle the root causes of this behaviour. It has noble and sincere motives but has become a sticking plaster over a gaping wound and part of the problem rather than the solution. It’s is enabling the construction industry’s irresponsibility by providing it with moral cover and in turn is being rewarded for being silently acquiescent.
There is a wide but hidden gulf, a no-man’s land between new architecture and architectural heritage, and this is where the movement needs to go, bridging both camps whether these camps like it or not. So far no-one seems to have the ambition and the knowledge to not just invigorate building conservation from its’ inertia, but to also fundamentally overhaul how we build new buildings today. No-one in Ireland seems to have the moral courage to stand up to the establishment and break this cosy but dysfunctional relationship.
Building heritage is not just about the physical objects themselves. It is also about the skills and practices that brought these buildings into being in the first place. I would argue that these skills and practices are far more important, as we know that to place any kind of heritage into a glass-case, is to simply suffocate it slowly. Building heritage today is on life-support; it is still standing but it is standing still, going nowhere… slowly being swallowed up by an architectural profession that is untrammeled by any sense of responsibility to the past or to the future.
This really isn’t about criticizing building conservationists. I know many and without exception they are 100% committed to their profession and most know much more about heritage buildings than I ever will. I just wish that they would do much more with the knowledge they have worked so hard for. They can do so much more and in the future, I have no doubt will because whether they realise it or not, they know far more about architecture than most architects.
In November 1856, when the Board of Trinity College Dublin instructed their clerk of works to inspect the failing library roof, no-one could have known that this request would result in repair work that would far surpass the quality of the original. The new barrel-vaulted ceiling of the Trinity Library by Cork partnership Deane and Woodward was described by a critic at the time as “What had been superb, they made sublime” and continues to enthrall over 500,000 visitor every year. Yet if such a scheme were to come to the board of Trinity today, they would have to refuse it as it would be in contravention of current conservation theory and practice. Who knows what kind of glass and steel monstrosity would have to be put in place to adhere to the doctrine of the charter of Venice.