Theories of Architectural Conservation – A Guest Post by Douglas Read

Theories of Architectural Conservation – or How did we get from what we had to what we have?

Few of the old buildings we see around us today are untouched by modern hands. The older the building the more hands it has passed through and the more changes time will have wrought upon it. To what extent are we seeing what the original architects and stonemasons meant us to see? To what extent can we expect to see their vision intact? Should we expect to see it intact? If not then what should we expect? These and similar questions have been discussed by architectural conservationists for over 100 years.

Firstly what would be a useful definition of conservation? James Simpson has put forward “action to secure the survival or preservation of buildings, cultural artefacts, natural resources, energy or any other thing of acknowledged value for the future” and further suggests updating of this definition might replace the first word “action” with “management of change”. This has the benefit of being straightforward, succinct and acknowledging that change is what we are faced with.

Issu du Dictionnaire raisonné de l'architecture française du XIe au XVIe siècle, par Eugène Viollet-Le-Duc, 1856.
Issu du Dictionnaire raisonné de l’architecture française du XIe au XVIe siècle, par Eugène Viollet-Le-Duc, 1856.

There are 4 basic stages of architectural conservation:-

1. Maintenance work of an everyday nature, keeping gutters clear, replacing fallen slates.

2. Repair work beyond the scope of regular maintenance… to return a building or artefact to good order without alteration or restoration.

3. Reconstruction: re-establishment of the design of a building or artefact, or of what existed or occurred in the past, on the basis of documentary or physical evidence.

4. Restoration: alteration of the fabric of a building or artefact to make it conform again to its design or appearance at a previous date.

What philosophy guides the conservation architect in his or her work in each of these and how has this philosophy developed over time? Historically 3 major characters have influenced conservation philosophy. These are Eugene Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc (1814-79), John Ruskin (1819-1900) and William Morris (1894-1936).

Basic intervention theories of historic preservation are framed in the dualism of the retention of the status quo versus a “restoration” that creates something that may never actually have existed in the past. John Ruskin was a strong proponent of the former, while Viollet-le-Duc, argued for the latter.

Eugène Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc (1814 – 1879)  Photo by Félix Nadar
Eugène Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc (1814 – 1879) Photo by Félix Nadar

Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc has had a huge influence on the development of architectural theory through the 20th Century and to today. Essentially he took structure and function of Architecture as its sole determinants of form, completely dismissing speculative aesthetic systems. In effect he preceded Louis Sullivan’s “Form Follows Function” by several years.
Viollet-le Duc published his influential « Dictionnaire raisonné de l’architecture » in 1854. A second important work appeared four years later. His “Entretiens sur l’architecture” and “Dictionnaire du mobilier” of 1858 contained discussion on goldsmiths’ work, musical instruments, jewellery and armour in addition to furniture. His own sketches accompanied the text. Viollet-le-Duc wrote that restoration is a “means to re-establish [a building] to a finished state, which may in fact never have actually existed at any given time.”

During the early 1830s, a popular feeling for the restoration of medieval buildings developed in France. Viollet-le-Duc, returning during 1835 from study in Italy, was commissioned by Prosper Mérimée to restore the Romanesque abbey of Vézelay. This was the first of a long series of restorations; Viollet-le-Duc’s restorations at Notre Dame de Paris brought him national attention. His other main works include Mont Saint-Michel, Carcassonne, Roquetaillade castle and Pierrefonds.

Facade of Église Sainte Madeleine, Vézelay before restoration, Eugène Viollet-le-Duc © Photo RMN-Grand Palais - G. Blot
Facade of Église Sainte Madeleine, Vézelay before restoration, Eugène Viollet-le-Duc © Photo RMN-Grand Palais – G. Blot

Viollet-le-Duc’s “restorations” frequently combined historical fact with creative modification. For example, under his supervision, Notre Dame was not only cleaned and restored but also “updated”, gaining its distinctive third tower (a type of flèche) in addition to other smaller changes including the gallery of chimeras and Le Stryge which have now become iconic symbols of Notre Dame themselves. Possibly his most famous restoration, the medieval fortified town of Carcassonne, was similarly enhanced, gaining a set of pointed roofs that are actually more typical of northern France on each of its many wall towers. The Chateau de Pierrefonds he took from essentially a ruin to the state where it has served as a location for “The Man in the Iron Mask” and “Merlin”. Modern conservation practice considers Viollet-le-Duc’s restorations too free, too interpretive, but some of the monuments he restored might have been lost otherwise.

John Ruskin (8 February 1819 – 20 January 1900)
John Ruskin (8 February 1819 – 20 January 1900)

John Ruskin was hugely significant in the Anglophone world for his opinions and judgements on all forms of art and architecture, though translated into many languages by admirers like Proust and Ghandi. He is perhaps best known for his early championship of the Pre-Raphaelites. His writings especially “The Seven Lamps of Architecture” (1849) and “Stones of Venice” (1851-53) were highly influential and remain in print today. In the “Lamp of Memory” he wrote, “Neither by the public, nor by those who have the care of public monuments, is the true meaning of the word restoration understood. It means the most total destruction which a building can suffer: a destruction out of which no remnants can be gathered: a destruction accompanied with false description of the thing destroyed. Do not let us deceive ourselves in this important matter; it is impossible, as impossible as to raise the dead, to restore anything that has ever been great or beautiful in architecture.”

A greater divergence from Viollet-le-Duc’s approach would be hard to imagine.

William Morris (24 March 1834 – 3 October 1896)
William Morris (24 March 1834 – 3 October 1896)

William Morris founded the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (SPAB) in 1877 based on the teachings of Ruskin. Morris was particularly concerned about the practice of attempting to return buildings to an idealised state from the distant past (i.e. Viollet-le-Duc’s approach), which often involved the removal of elements added in their later development and which Morris saw as contributing to their interest as documents of the past. He saw this as lying. Instead, he proposed that ancient buildings should be repaired, not restored, so that their entire history would be protected as cultural heritage. This took Ruskin’s approach one step farther – to accept work done to the building since its origin as part of the continuing story of the building and equally valid. The Society is still very active and its principles are followed by land and property owners as important as the National Trust, they run seminars and “hands-on” classes for architects and craftsmen as well as providing scholarships.

The philosophical argument remains current when restoration is being considered for a building or landscape. In removing layers of history from a building, information and age value are also removed and lost forever. However, adding features to a building, as Viollet-le-Duc did, can be more appealing to modern viewers. The argument as to which approach is “correct” is played out in front of us all when we visit any ancient monument or restored building. Sometimes it looks “new” – the Viollet-le-Duc solution. Sometimes it looks like a patchwork doll with contrasting pieces of old and new – the Ruskin/Morris solution. Is there a definitive Right or Wrong?

Today’s conservation architect is guided by the Australia ICOMOS Burra Charter (1999), developed under the aegis of the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) in succession to the earlier (1964) Venice Charter. It was designed for application in Australia, but has since been seen world-wide as the Gold Standard of Conservation philosophy.

The Charter gives clear and helpful guidance to the practitioner and is very clear on definitions and in particular includes the assessment of the cultural significance of the building as well as its material and current or future uses. Cultural Significance is defined (in Article 1) as”aesthetic, historic, scientific, social or spiritual value for past, present or future generations” while conservation is seen as “all the processes of looking after a place so as to retain its cultural significance”. Article 3 urges “respect for the existing fabric, use, associations and meanings” and importantly explains that “traces of additions, alterations and earlier treatments to the fabric of a place are evidence of its history and uses which be part of its significance. Conservation should assist and not impede their understanding”.
Thus in practical terms the Charter is the offspring of Ruskin, but its enthusiasm for cultural significance may be said to derive from Violett-le-Duc. The conservation architect should make as little alteration to the fabric as possible, but should enhance the public’s understanding of the cultural significance of the building or place.

✚ All images used in this post are used under the GNU Free Documentation License through Wikimedia Commons ✚

13 thoughts on “Theories of Architectural Conservation – A Guest Post by Douglas Read

  1. A fascinating post. I come down on the side of Wm Morris, as I do like to see the evolution of a building. Thus your definition 4 “Restoration: alteration of the fabric of a building or artefact to make it conform again to its design or appearance at a previous date.” is to me anathema. The Architects of Bâtiments de France (the conservation arm in France) unfortunately subscribe too rigidly, not in the guardianship of the patrimoine, but in stultifying development in the environs.

    Our house is within 500 metres of the unspectacular Chateau de Cerisy la Salle, and the then architect of B de F insisted we changed the design of the window of my workroom from a long low straight dormer to a totally impractical high triangle of glass which, facing due South, makes the room unusable at midday even in winter, and in summer it becomes a furnace. It is impossible to shutter or curtain, leads to angles on which I bump my head regularly.

    It is a fact of human frailty that these powerful architects – who change with monotonous regularity – each ride their own particular hobby horses.

    Sorry! I’ll get off mine now. Thanks for the interesting post.

  2. A very good article. I would just like to add this from the recent CEN standard.
    CEN/TC 346 N. 202 FprEN 15898
    “Conservation of cultural property — Main general terms and definitions”

    maintenance (en)
    entretien (fr)
    Objektpflege (de), Instandhaltung (Syn.) (de)
    periodic preventive conservation actions aimed at sustaining an object in an appropriate condition to retain its significance

    repair (en)
    réparation (fr)
    Reparatur (de)
    actions applied to an object or part of it to recover its functionality and/or its appearance

    reconstruction (en)
    reconstitution (fr), restitution (Syn.) (fr)
    Rekonstruktion (de)
    re-establishment of an object to an inferred earlier form using existing or replacement material

    conservation (en), conservation-restoration (Syn.) (en)
    conservation (fr), conservation-restauration (Syn.) (fr)
    Konservierung (de), Konservierung-Restaurierung (Syn.) (de), Bestandserhaltung (Syn.) (de)
    measures and actions aimed at safeguarding cultural heritage while respecting its significance, including its accessibility to present and future generations
    NOTE 1 Conservation includes preventive conservation, remedial conservation and restoration (see [20]).
    NOTE 2 The term “conservation-restoration” is mainly used in the field of movable cultural heritage
    NOTE 3 The term “preservation” is also used, e.g. in libraries and archives.
    NOTE 4 All conservation actions are based on documentary and/or material evidence (see [9]).

    restoration (en)
    restauration (fr)
    Restaurierung (de)
    actions applied to a stable or stabilized object aimed at facilitating its appreciation, understanding and/or use, while respecting its significance and the materials and techniques used
    NOTE 1 In some professional communities, especially in the field of immovable cultural heritage, the term restoration traditionally covers the whole field of conservation.
    NOTE 2 Remedial conservation is often carried out at the same time as restoration.

    significance (en)
    intérêt patrimonial (fr)
    Bedeutung (de)
    combination of all the values assigned to an object

  3. That was a most instructive article…separating and weaving again the differing strands of thought.

    I echo vivinfrance’s strictures on the powers and prejudices of the architects of Batiments de France…you can appeal to the Prefet…if you want to waste paper.

  4. Reblogged this on Cultural and Heritage Tourism and commented:
    This essay, from Via Lucis and by Douglas Read, provides a clear summary of the primary approaches that preservationists can take when deciding how to conserve a work of architecture (or cultural landscape, etc.). It also highlights the work and vision of 3 major figures in the history of architectural preservation: Eugene Emmanual Viollet-le-Duc (1814-79), John Ruskin (1819-1900) and William Morris (1894-1936), leading us from the early days of conservation as a discipline to the ICOMOS Burra Charter (1999), which has become an international standard for articulating a contemporary preservation philosophy and set of values.

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