Saving grace

Atkins | 05 Dec 2008 | Comments

With the march of progress, it falls on us all to ensure our architectural heritage remains intact. But what’s valuable to one person is another’s eyesore, and what might seem insignificant today could be prized by future generations. Deciding what to save from the bulldozers and how to preserve it requires sensitivity and a deep understanding of the architectural, historical and cultural issues involved. We asked four leading experts in the field: what does architectural heritage mean to you?

“The diversity of our architectural heritage is very important. It adds another layer to the cultural landscape” – Sefryn Penrose, Heritage Consultant, Atkins

Because of our long history and industrial evolution, the British are quite obsessed about the past. We’ve tended to retain heritage from the significant architectural periods. People will always be interested in how their ancestors lived, and that interest in the past is deeply rooted in each of us. Today, we live in a far more equal society than in centuries past, so it’s interesting to visit grand old buildings that remind us of how a section of society with power and status used to live. There’s always a notion that what has gone before was better.

Many modern buildings weren’t built with an expectancy that they would last for any real length of time, but that doesn’t mean we should demolish them with broad strokes. We need to show an understanding of what they meant to society, where they came from, and value the rich diversity of architecture. There are buildings constructed today that we won’t appreciate or attribute any value to, but I have no doubt that future generations will look back more fondly. They may be astonished at some of the things we have demolished.

With the Images of Change book, Atkins wanted to challenge the notion that heritage is simply about preserving nice buildings. Our heritage isn’t necessarily handed over to the National Trust and opened to visitors; it is all around us, it is constantly changing and it reflects our lives. People tend to think of something like the M1 motorway as built in the past and so nothing to do with them. But it’s likely they will interact with it to some degree.

We also wanted to spark a discussion about what heritage is, and in particular to think about the heritage of the last 50 years. For example, some people would much rather drive to a shopping centre than visit an old mill or factory museum. That shopping centre is just as important to our heritage; it is a powerful symbol of our consumer culture and an icon of our time. We want to encourage people to look around and recognise that we are responsible for these buildings, roads and retail complexes; they are part of the story of how we got where we are.

I don’t think our view of heritage has changed a great deal over the years. However, we have become more educated. We are more likely to recognise what period a building is from, and to have an idea of its story and significance. The landscape is for everyone to enjoy, so it’s great that a larger portion of the population can now appreciate it more fully.

Sefryn Penrose is author of Images of Change: an archeology of England’s contemporary landscape (ISBN 978-1905624140)

“The physical substance and details of a building can give us an immediate and emotional reminder of our place in the world” – Catherine Croft, Director, 20th Century Society

Every building has a story: how was it built? Why was it built? Where did the materials come from? How did people react to it at the time?

In the UK, the decision about whether a building should be assigned heritage status rests on two factors: architectural and historic interest.

Aesthetics are important, but aesthetic judgements are very subjective and architectural interest is also inextricably bound up with considerations of social, economic and cultural history.

Buildings, by their very nature, almost always exist in the public realm, and those that are to be preserved need to have a role and function that is useful and acceptable to the public. This sets them apart from works of art in a gallery, and makes developing a public understanding of significance far more important.

Robin Hood Gardens in the east end of London (see picture on previous page) is a good example. Regardless of whether you like it or not, everyone would agree that it has a very strong aesthetic impact. I think it is wonderful and has visual strength and power. But it is also significant because of its place in the social and economic history of public housing, and in the history of post-war redevelopment of London’s east end. It is also a rare example of a built project by internationally famous architects.

People say about a site like Robin Hood Gardens: “You would never be able to build something like that these days.” These people recognise that they are looking at something from a different era, a marker of the passage of time.

People are also aware that some of what marks such a structure out as different is likely to be precious, even if it is just (in the view of some residents) the comparatively large room sizes, built to comply with more generous standards.

I believe people are more sophisticated in their attitude and response to heritage than they are given credit for. While there is still an assumption that the most important heritage sites are pretty village churches and grand country houses, most people place a lot of value on the things that surround them from day-to-day. We respond to the “real” and instinctively appreciate that the physical substance and details of a building can give us an immediate and emotional reminder of our place in the world.

We are also inspired by the unusual, and by sites that embody amazing stories. The Dungeness Sound Mirrors, for example, are large concrete structures that were built to reflect the sound of aircraft crossing the English Channel. Although now in a state of disrepair, they have gained cult status and are beautiful sculptural objects as well as historical artefacts.

People will always be interested in what people did in the past and what buildings can tell them about that. I don’t see that ever changing; it’s a basic human need. However, it’s natural that our view of heritage will become more complex as society becomes more complex. There are so many more ways to live now, so in the future there will be more pasts to discover.

“Change is an essential component of our historic environment, and we should not, indeed cannot, prevent change” – Steven Bee, Director of Planning and Development, English Heritage

For professionals in the construction and development industries, the question of what on an historic site must be kept and what can be adapted or demolished has often been an arena for debate and uncertainty. How can you be sure that advice on conservation is objective, well-informed and fair? In recent years, English Heritage has put its best practice into a framework for making these decisions.

The Conservation Principles, Policies and Guidance for the Sustainable Management of the Historic Environment, published in May 2008, has become key to establishing objectively which parts of an historic building must be kept and which less-important parts could be changed in order to find the best, and sometimes only, way to keep it in use.

The essence of these principles is an acceptance that change is an essential component of our historic environment and we should not, indeed cannot, prevent change. English Heritage’s responsibility is to manage change in a way that sees the heritage value of a place strengthened, rather than diminished.

This framework is just part of a forward-looking and collaborative approach to protecting heritage. English Heritage is helping to provide the clear, objective information that developers need in order to make regeneration a success in their own terms.

This echoes the growing collaborative relationship between heritage and development professionals, more and more often working closely together during the pre-application stages.

The combination of clear information and early pre-application advice has provided developers with the certainty to secure the future of many buildings that would otherwise have been lost. English Heritage has helped to identify where a great level of change could be accommodated and to guide decisions that wouldn’t compromise either the historic fabric or the site’s financial viability.

Modern conservation is collaborative, reasonable and precise, resulting in a higher level of confidence and creativity from the development sector. Even five years ago, these sites would have seemed too risky or too confrontational for investment, and would have rotted away. By collaborating with English Heritage and local authorities at pre-application stages, development schemes have benefited from a constructive approach to conservation, the outcome being projects that are not just commercially successful, but that add distinctiveness and meaning to the places in which we live.

“World heritage is the common heritage of everyone on Earth – it is something that touches us all” – Kishore Rao, Deputy Director, World Heritage Centre, UNESCO

It is UNESCO’s job to preserve those sites that have important heritage value for humankind the world over. It’s essential that we protect and preserve them for generations to come. When heritage, in the dictionary sense, transcends international boundaries and has inter-generational value, then it has what we at UNESCO call “outstanding universal value”. We identify these sites around the world, be they natural sites, monuments, buildings or groups of buildings, and with architectural, cultural, archaeological or anthropological interest.

The process of assessing a site for World Heritage status is rigorous and thorough. Over an 18-month period, the advisory bodies make field visits, hold discussions with stakeholders and collate the views of numerous experts and partner organisations. The recommendation that comes out of this democratic process then passes to an inter-governmental committee of 21 states. It makes the final decision on whether to include a site.

If something is, or was, of outstanding heritage value and elements of authenticity and integrity exist, there may be an argument for restoring it to its original condition. Take the city of Dresden, Germany, for example, destroyed during the war but rebuilt in parts to regain that cultural landscape. There are also many examples around the world where a monument has been re-erected in another place in order that it could be saved.

What we consider to be important world heritage and what we value will change over time. It will depend on what we build today and how our ideas and cultures evolve. It’s not a static thing. For some buildings or structures it isn’t a question of time or values – think of the Great Pyramids or the Taj Mahal. But, in other cases, as our ideas and cultures evolve, so will our perspectives on what constitutes heritage and what we value.

Photo: Paul Glazzard

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