Defining Conservation

As a paid-up member of the 20th Century Society and as a child of the sixties who cheered the replacement of history with modernism, I have lived a lifetime of resistance to what I have seen for years as the useless preservation in aspic of past glories. Yet now, as someone who lives in a UK heritage city, owns a locally listed piece of the history of its C20th  architectural heritage and is closely involved in conservation in the city, I have had to moderate my views on the preservation of the national heritage!

Part of my earlier view has always been, and I still hold to it, that the UK authorities and their servants have paid scant regard to the construction of a national built heritage which could become the proud preoccupation of the conservation lobby in 250 years time, much as ours with the Georgian is now. I have also been vexed by the endless pastiche constructions of the jobbing post-war architect, especially in the domestic field, and the inability of various levels of government to commission truly inspiring buildings in the taste of their contemporary age. It is a fact that the distance at which 70s Brutalism held modern taste from the average citizen, proved too wide a gap for many to overcome. How doubly awful though, given this failure of courage – and of contemporary taste – that in the place of the daring buildings that could have been built, we are faced with endless boxes of cheap system built blocks or pastiches of archaic domestic styles that will   disfigure our contemporary landscape for years and advertise at every turn to future generations our inability to develop an aesthetic for ourselves.

Of course I should perhaps not complain too loudly. Our Georgian forebears did have the economies of the colonies to pillage to pay for their striking fantasies, resources notably lacking since 1964, and often built on the proceeds of human trafficking anyway.

And then I fulminated against our planning regime that seems to have preserved within the Grade II category, endless mediocre or even jerry-built constructions from the historic periods. Grade I and II starred fair enough, ancient monument or building OK, but why so many tens of thousands of similar properties? Do we need quite so many preserved examples of the same thing dotted about the land? Why this inability to have a more proportionate view about our heritage and such reluctance to build the heritage of tomorrow?

Such frustration has led me many times to support the ideals of the Landmark Trust over those of the National Trust, dedicated to bringing back into popular use only those buildings that have sufficient merit to be saved for future access by the citizens as rentals.

Another element in this litany of frustrations has been the ability of our planning and conservation regimes to prevent the adaptation of historic properties of merit to modern standards of living. How much longer can this regime go on preventing the installation of double glazing and proper insulation, surely these days one of the basic responsibilities of any person alert to the effects of global warming? And then, of course Georgian living produced the design of Georgian internal space, but things have moved on mightily since then and a decent kitchen and bathroom are surely an acquired right for our children 250 years later?

The Burra Charter

Being involved in the conservation movement has educated me however, although I am by no means a specialist in the field. A lot of my language was slapdash, easily confusing preservation and conservation for example (as I still do – see above). This is not to say that I have abandoned my support for the aesthetic of my own generation; nor the need to list less Georgian and Victorian buildings; nor the needs of the citizen to live in an environment adapted to modern living. As a lifelong culture vulture I suspect that pondering the proper definitions of the language of conservation could fuel my argument without dismantling the built heritage, which I so loudly applauded during the indiscriminate destructions of the sixties.

I am amused by the paradox that some of the best thinking about the conservation of the built heritage in the past decade has come out of the New World and particularly Australia. In places like this (or Canada, in whose professional company I spent 18 years) where a high Victorian building is ancient, a particular kind of attention to conservation is required since there is no heritage for a colonial population to protect beyond it, forwards or backwards (the archaeology of the indigenous is a whole other debate we shall have in another post). Lose that period and there is no historic street-scene to inspire the citizens and imbue them with civic and national pride in the achievements of their young nation. And less for the tourist too let us not forget.

This dynamic comes out of the museums’ culture of course and, for me, the The Australia ICOMOS Charter for the Conservation of Places of Cultural Significance of 1988 is the place to start. Known as the Burra Charter, it usefully elucidated the nuances between words and their attendant concepts in the conservation world.

For Burra, Conservation means all the processes of looking after a place so as to retain its significance. This includes maintenance, preservation, restoration, reconstruction and adaptation, and will often be a combination of processes. (Hang on to that word significance, it was a useful find as we shall see in a moment.)

Very helpfully, Burra breaks down the vocabulary in that definition and has given it some thought. By Maintenance they mean the continuous protective care of the fabric, contents and setting of a place. Preservation for them however means maintaining the fabric of a place in its existing state, and retarding deterioration.

Restoration means returning existing fabric to a known earlier state by removing accretions or re-assembling existing components without introducing new material. Whereas Reconstruction means returning a feature as nearly as possible to a known earlier state by the introduction of additional materials into the fabric, which can be old or new. Finally, one of my earlier points, Adaptation means modifying a place in order to propose appropriate uses.

Interestingly, Protection is not defined by the Burra Charter. The most frequent meaning in the UK heritage sector seems to be the safegarding of sufficient quantities of significant fabric or values against actual or potential damage which might arrive through planned activities, accidental events, or the normal processes of decay.

Defining significance

I like the emphasis Burra puts on place, my previous obsessions about preservation or conservation having all been focussed on buildings. For Burra, before developing policies for conservation or management, they want to define what makes a place important and why it warrants protection. They have developed the term  Assessments of significance, derived from our understanding of the heritage assets in question.

In the UK,  major types of significance, especially for buildings and landscapes, are expressed in the designations set out in Planning Policy Guidance notes PPG 15 & 16:

  • Special architectural or historic interest (for listed buildings)
  • Character and significance (for conservation areas)
  • National significance (for scheduled monuments)

The criteria employed for listed building designations include:

  • Architectural interest: design, decoration, craftsmanship; building types and techniques, significant plan forms
  • Historic interest: important aspects of the nation, social, economic, cultural and military history
  • Historical association with nationally important people or events
  • Group value: where buildings comprise an important architectural or historic unity

A further group of criteria are represented by the UK Secretary of State’s non-statutory criteria for scheduling monuments:

  • Ability to characterise a period
  • Rarity of survival
  • Extent of documentation
  • Association with other monuments in a group
  • Fragility/vulnerability
  • Diversity – the combination of high-quality features

Making statements of overall significance

For less tangible qualities, some have found it useful to employ values derived from the conservation plan approach developed for Australian sites by James Simple Kerr in his publication: The Conservation Plan (1996).

These additional values are:

  • Representative value – that is, the ability to demonstrate social or cultural developments
  • Historical continuity, in both buildings and activities
  • Literary and artistic values
  • Formal, visual and aesthetic qualities
  • Evidence of social historical themes
  • Contemporary communal values
  • The power to communicate values and significance

Guardians of significance

This final list is a sophistication on the basic Burra of eight years previously and no doubt borne of the practice of its implementation. It hits the button for me I must admit and, were our own heritage industry able to operate to these notions, we would be in business. These preceding lists are eminently cultural and as I said earlier, as a lifelong culture vulture, pondering the proper definitions of the language of conservation will fuel my argument for a more discriminating and balanced system.

Burra gives us a good set of objective definitions on which to hang the later sophistication of significance, a word which seems to me to hold the key to a more intelligent approach to conservation. I think that even the citizen, whose wish to modernise his Grade II listed has been thwarted by the system, could get his head round the local community’s expectation that he is but the temporary custodian of the asset and the guardian of its significance.

The UK Secretary of State’s list of non-statutory criteria seem to foreshadow Kerr’s and are a step up from Burra. I find it surprising that these criteria do not form part of our contemporary statutory requirements; they seem so much better able to focus our attention on the core characteristics for the preservation (or not) of our heritage assets. Such criteria applied without indulgence would certainly have the power to considerably reduce the number of similar or mediocre properties that have made it to the Grade II list.

Such questions as:

  • Is this place actually able to characterise its period?
  • Frankly, how rare a survival is it?
  • Is the quality of its supporting documentation truly enough to tip the scales in favour of its preservation?
  • Would the group it is part of really suffer if it was not there?
  • Is it just our response to its fragile or vulnerable state that will  somehow warrant the expense of its preservation?
  • How richly diverse is it as an ensemble of elements? Does it really present a combination of such high-quality elements that we cannot do without them?

Dealing with the intangible has characterised most of my professional life – such is art. Since the terrible fad of measurement was introduced from the business world into the public realm by the Thatcher government, civil servants and the less well-instructed politician have continually fallen back on the tangible as the sole justification for retaining or funding our national assets and skill set because they can cope with that. The intangible is a terrible challenge because it is intangible, but that is no reason to shy away from it.

Which is why I like Kerr’s list. Surely here are some superb criteria that will help us decide what of our heritage needs protection and what can be left to decay gracefully or make way for our own aesthetic:

  • Has this place had a role in our social and cultural development and does it bear witness to that well enough to be kept?
  • If it were not there, would we understand dangerously less of the historical progress of our culture because the continuity had been broken?
  • Does it have cultural value beyond itself, due to its connection with the creative word or the artistic image?
  • Is it pleasing in form, as a visual delight or as evidence of an aesthetic phenomenon?
  • Does it have a connection with our social history and so deserve preservation as a witness to another event?
  • Would our community become less cohesive if it was to disappear, change or be neglected?
  • Does it have significance because it is a beacon to our shared values?

There is no doubt that the posing of such questions would take some time to answer, but in the struggle to measure such intangible significances and reach a consensus around them, a group of well-considered decisions could well emerge which would have the power to slowly transform our heritage landscape into a series of well-placed jewels that we could agree must remain to grace our contemporary landscape.


Primary source:

The Chichester Cathedral Conservation Plan Oxford Archaeology, February 2008

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.