Conserving a Great Building I

At some point, a conservation planner, architect or other practitioner is responsible for conserving a truly great building, whether it be of polite, vernacular or technological architecture. In my experience, preserving something of genius, perhaps by a famous architect, is very different to run-of-the-mill conservation. It doesn’t happen every day, so here are a few thoughts gathered from my own experiences of working with greatness.

First, I find it involves upping your game and thinking much more deeply about what you are trying to achieve and why. Looking and thinking can sometimes reveal the building to be much greater than you initially thought. Great buildings seem to reveal more of themselves the more you study them, but they don’t always give their secrets away easily. Some are the product of several architects and crafts people where history and art intertwine so closely it takes a long time before you stop feeling like a dullard unable to appreciate what is around you. They can be a steep challenge for the conservation architect who may also be wrestling with accommodating new uses or modern standards.

Secondly, addressing such multifaceted heritage with only a limited set of responses is unlikely to work no matter how ‘worthy’ their pedigree might be. A broad and undogmatic approach is often needed. I am sometimes surprised at how some apply a standard response to quite individual scenarios, a one size fits all conservation based on presumption, little research and a closed mind. A mediocre conservation scheme or, worse, actual harm to the significance of the building can be the end result.

Thirdly, conservators need to acknowledge the greatness of the building and that its creator(s) probably had, to put it bluntly, a greater artistic gift than the conservator. Listed buildings comprise the very best of each era’s architecture and are listed for good reason. Conservators need to be immersed in the building and any related works. They should understand the nuances of its architecture and what forms and effects the creator(s) aimed to achieve. Learning from other experts on the building, its designer and the crafts people who created it is an essential part of a successful approach to conservation.

Fourthly, on matters of conservation and restoration, the conservator should defer to the historical architect, builder or artist who created the artefact. This is the opposite of those who use conservation as a means of deliberately placing their own ‘contemporary’ mark on the building, which comes in different forms. Orange coloured sacrificial coatings on a grey limestone church, ‘climbing wall’ voussoirs inserted into an historically eroded arch and ‘honest’ concrete lintels with a date added are just three historical instances which claim to be preservation. Today’s fad is the essential addition of a glass door, box or screen. None of the above say say anything about the building being conserved, they are all concerned with the theories, ideas and fads of conservation.

Some might even be an appropriate response for a modest building, where alterations can add to the evolution and interest of the building but surely not for great designs by master architects. Nobody seriously proposes adding in this manner to the masterpieces of Rembrant, Picasso or Constable and so it should be for their architectural counterparts.

Finally, minimal and sensitive conservation itself is an historical intervention and we cannot avoid our own place in time. The early conservators approached historic buildings with enormous respect and their work, which now itself is historic, in my opinion has largely stood the rest of time. It most situations, architects and conservators should approach a great building as an early music performer approaches a work by J. S Bach or John Dowland, to sensitively recreate it for contemporary people.

To be continued.

The painting above is by the late artist and historian, Colin Gilbert. It shows part of the Middleton ‘Golden Cluster’, near Manchester where four very different great buildings are clustered in a parkland setting.

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