Conserving a Great Building, Heritage statements

Originally a house called Hollins Hill, Haworth Art Gallery, Accrington was designed by the Arts & Crafts architect Walter Brierley (Photograph by Peter Graham)

Heritage statements, appraisals and significance studies when properly done are meant to guide architectural and conservation schemes of all types. Unfortunately, they are often researched and written after the designers have already designed the scheme! Getting clients and architects to hold back while the research is being done can be difficult. This is particularly true where a new use is involved and everyone rushes to the ‘end game’ of designing the alterations.

Some designers trust their instinct with historic buildings but I have found that a carefully researched heritage statement almost always adds to the appreciation of the heritage asset and sometimes can turn instinct on its head. Whether the case or not, undertaking a significance study after the key decisions have already been taken makes a nonsense of the significance led process.

By way of example, with one great building I worked on in Merseyside, the designers had instinctively decided that the significance lay in the building’s internal aesthetic value and the design was worked up accordingly. Later, when the significance statement was produced, it could be seen that the building’s true significance lay in its evidential values and very specific and pioneering layout. As a consequence, a less expensive more interesting intervention with less harm could have been created. By then it was too late… the design fee had been spent. On reflection, the design team had merely imposed their own prexisting opinions onto the historic building.

Appraisals require rigour, dedication and an open mind. The time-served procedure of three phases of work, ‘survey, analysis, plan’, is the right approach, perhaps rephrased as ‘research, appraise, conserve’. In the heyday of town planning and the creation of New Towns etc, great store was placed on orderly and somewhat mundane survey and analysis phases to guide the actual design. The late town planner, Nathaniel Lichfield, produced a whole book just on a sub-stage of this process, evaluating information, which became a standard text of the time. In present day architectural conservation, ‘conviction’ so often has the upper hand but a problem is that conviction is simply a mirror of the experience and prejudices of the persons involved. Conserving great buildings requires more than this. Despite my own personal experience and convictions, I generally come out of writing an appraisal with a different opinion than when I went into it.

Great buildings are multi-faceted and normally need several minds to fully understand them. The creators of great architecture were almost always of a greater stature than the conservators which caring for them (let us remember our place!). Conservation is therefore a team game involving study, sensitivity and a reflection on both the particular building and the artists who created it. Strong opinions based on poor research and analysis will obviously stymie intelligent and bespoke conservation, as will the imposition of generic responses such as, ‘The Victorians always did it this way’.

It takes time for the true significance of a building to grow in someone’s mind. On major buildings, there needs to be discussion and feedback of the team’s ideas into both the appraisal and conservation stages. It sounds structured but it often happens in a very organic way.

Previous post in this series – Conserving a Great Building, Restoration