Conserving a Great Building, Restoration

The Library at the Glasgow School of Art before the devastating fires. Photo: David Morris

‘Conserving a Great Building, Upping your game’ is here.

Adding new design work to a historical building is an act of ‘creation’ whereas restoring lost features is generally considered as ‘conservation’. After a terrible disaster like a major fire, the choice between new design and restoration inevitably comes up. David Mullane, a former director of the Charles Rennie Mackintosh Society, argued that the burnt out library of the Glasgow School of Art should be rebuilt in a new way by a contemporary architect rather than be restored.

I admired his courage but, in saying so, perhaps he was a little too close to Mackintosh’s heritage and overlooked the enormous worldwide interest in the Glasgow School of Art. After half a century of acclaim, Charles Rennie Mackintosh is now an international superstar and any new addition by A. N. Other, however famous they might be, was simply out of the question. The global significance of Mackintosh’s great work meant that an accurate replica was the only reasonable option, as confirmed in the unwavering commitment to restore following the second fire. The future interior of the Glasgow School of Art and much of its exterior will now be a replica but good replicas quickly take on the role of the real thing. This is also true of more modest restorations of everyday listed buildings.

The restored Ashton Canal Warehouse or Portland Basin Museum. The stone arches are the only original features. It is as if the devastating fire of 1973 had never happened and the modern museum structure of the 1980s had never existed. It was reopened in 1999. Photo: David Morris

In the 1990s, I steered the conservation of the grade II listed Ashton Canal Warehouse, aka Portland Basin Museum, Ashton-under-Lyne towards an accurate restoration rather than finish a new design which was then half built. Some twenty years had passed since a devastating fire had destroyed all but the ground floor of the warehouse. What remained had been extended upwards to house the museum, thereby stabilising the ruins and giving the site a long term future. However, despite a contextual approach the new structure was unloved and few wanted it completed. It seemed that the original building had been too good to lose.

My recommendation was to take down the new build and accurately restore what had been destroyed. The idea attracted the support of fellow Council officers, councillors and the public at large and their positive response clarified where the significance of the Canal Warehouse truly lay – in its aesthetic and communal values. The 1990s Tameside MBC delivered the restoration in partnership with a developer and, although lacking from a professional conservation perspective, the end result was embraced as though the fire and the 1980s museum had never occurred. Indeed, it seems all photos of these are now firmly erased from the internet!

There is a question as to whether architects, as creative people, are necessarily the right professionals to lead in such decisions about conservation, in contrast to their role in enriching historic buildings. The creative urge is to leave one’s own mark rather than to preserve or restore someone else’s and in these two instances, the creative urge was not the right one. As conservation requires a deferential approach, should creatives be in the lead? The answer depends on the individuals as many architects are excellent conservators and spend their lives deeply engaged in sensitive restoration. So, I’m really making the rhetorical point that conservation requires subduing the creative urge, at least until the heritage values and significance of a building are fully understood.

Restoration, whether in the aftermath of tragedies or just mundane mutilation, is central to the purpose of architectural conservation. It has a long history and the often painful experiences of the nineteenth century provide a profound insight into how and when restoration should take place. Indeed, the term comes with considerable negative baggage from that era. Conservation practice changes and develops over time. It is worth visiting a few ‘restored’ churches, castles and houses and comparing what was done in the heyday of Victorian restoration with the more sensitive work of the early twentieth century. Then, there are the restorations and other decisions following the Second World War to learn from.

The grade I listed St. Leonard’s Church, Middleton is known as Greater Manchester’s finest unrestored church. The muted materials, colours and textures are thoroughly convincing. Nevertheless, at least half of this interior photograph comprises sensitive restoration. Photo: David Morris

I find there are no perfect answers and, unlike the budding composer who restores the final movement of Bach’s Art of Fugue, makes a hash of it and quietly places the score in a draw after its first performance, architectural restoration involves having mistakes on public view for a lifetime. So one needs to tread carefully and, if the situation allows, blend restoration with elements of repair and, indeed, new work. A favourite church of mine is the grade I listed St. Leonard’s Middleton, Manchester. Here, all three elements are so beautifully combined that it is difficult to distinguish between them and one hardly feels the need to try.

The thinking underlying heritage conservation has matured and the place of restoration is now better understood. Tucked away in a current Historic England guidance document, ‘Making Changes to Heritage Assets‘ lies a check list of when restoration is appropriate and how it should be done. It’s worth a read.

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