Theories of Architectural Conservation – A Guest Post by Douglas Read

In light of the disastrous fire at the Cathédrale Notre Dame de Paris this week, it seems that this is good time to reprint Douglas Read’s excellent article on the theories of architectural conservation. Douglas Read is a Scottish architect who specializes in the restoration and conservation of buildings of historical importance, a subject near and dear to our hearts here at this blog. His post is an excellent survey of the issues that guide modern conservation theory.  The subject is already under discussion in architectural publications, most notably in “Rebuilding Notre Dame? It’s Complicated” by Aaron Betsky in Architect.

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 ✚

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

  1. Dennis, you asked me a long time ago to think about writing something about architectural restoration for Via Lucis, and, because of many issues in my life, I have not taken the time to do so. Nor, did I write when today’s piece by Douglas Read first ran. Today, however, I am taking the time to point out that, while much is his article is excellent, it is misleading when he writes that the Australia ICOMOS Burra Charter is “the world-wide Gold Standard of Conservation philosophy.”

    In the United States we are governed and led by the “Secretary of Interior’s Standards on Historic Rehabilitation.” Now, I am not suggesting an America First view of the world in which what our one country does outweighs what the rest of the world does, just pointing out that our sizable country, in which a great deal of restoration and rehabilitation work is done, follows different rules, which significantly pre-date the Australia Charter.

    I have been glad to read of your improving health and I am delighted to be seeing Via Lucis regularly, again. And, I hope that you and P.J. are basking in the glow from your exhibits.

    Cheers, Grace Gary

    Sent from my iPad


    1. Thank you so much for your comments here, Grace. I do remember asking you to write an article on this excellent subject and the offer is absolutely still open. Your thirty years experience in the field would be an invaluable contribution to our efforts here at Via Lucis.

  2. Very interesting, Dennis. The year in Greece comes to mind in the article where Restoration and Reconstruction are defined. One of my side trips from Athens took me to Crete for a days work. While there on the last day, I was taken to a site said to be one of the earliest know civilizations, some 6.000 years old. It was there I became aware of the distinction between Restoration and Reconstruction. The Government of Greece has as part of their National Budget an ongoing investment in historical preservation of buildings and structures, including maintenance of the remains of much younger structures -say only a couple thousand years old. Contrast this relatively young country and its neighboring Canada to the North and our good neighbor to the south, Mexico with its Mayan and other ancient buildings. What will our successor structures and society look like and what will be left of today’s and the past 3 or 400 year-old buildings and institutions now on our landscape? Washington Monument, Lincoln Memorial, Valley Forge, Gettysburg and other National Cemeteries. We’ll never know, we can only do our best to respect History and all that comes with it while hoping for the best for our children and successive generations. I could go on, but with that just say thank you, Dennis and PJ for your good work and valuable time, all for the benefit of your fans and admirers, of which I am pleased and proud to be one.
    Ciao! for now….

    1. Fred, great to hear from you. The reconstruction of the Palace of Minos in Knossos is a great accomplishment, and when I was young, was one of my great inspirations. I discovered Evans’ work and Schliemann’s Troy at the age of eleven in the library of my school at Fort Bragg, NC. Their discoveries fired my imagination. Now, however, it is clear that like Pierrefonds in France, it is as much an imaginative recreation as a restoration. At least Evans didn’t plough through entire layers of history like Schliemann did.

      My feeling is that loss is inevitable. Archaeologists moved artifacts to other places to “protect them” only to have them destroyed by war. The Parthenon has been completely defaced by the removal of the Elgin Marbles which the English claim is their property. The great altar at Pergamon still resides in Berlin despite Turkish claims. The Russians removed the altar from Berlin at the end of WWII and only returned it to Berlin in 1958. We must, therefore, take all steps that we can to protect these records of our history as a people.

      But the problem, of course, is how much damage we do to the monuments in our restorations. There is a long record of horrible additions and restorations in the past. We can only hope that as time goes by, we learn more and learning, respect more.

      1. Thanks all, great stuff. A favorite (*sarcasm*) remuddling for me is the glorious (for it *is* glorious – in its own world) baroque statue defacing the chancel at Chartres.

      2. Thanks. Looking forward to what you end up publishing on your blog! Keep me posted.

        As far as the statue at Chartres, it disturbs me as well, however I think that since it does no damage to the cathedral, history will adjudicate the matter of taste. In some near future, people will either love it or hate it and the matter will be dealt with. Destruction of the original, however, can never be corrected.

  3. great article! thank you for sharing! I’m sure Janice would agree with me that these buildings are living artifacts and as the article points out have to be cared for the same way you would an article in one’s collection. The big however is that these artifacts still “house” humans and other artifacts. it’s really stressful on these living artifacts as well intentioned groups aim to retrofit them to 21st century standards, i.e. heating and cooling for one thing. Upon bringing them to 19thC or 20th c or 21st C standards , again as the article points out you will be modifying them from their original format if that was there final form…again architecture never truly has a final form…

    since the fire there has been some really good articles especially on this topic in the Globe…in my clip happy manner i’ve been cutting them out and stashing them in appropriate art history books!


    1. It is true that architecture is never really final … societies grow, cities grow, and buildings grow and change. Palaces are expanded and abandoned, monuments inspire and then become lost in a dim past. What is, precisely, a sphinx?

      In this, like other things, I am guided by Rose Macaulay’s “Pleasure of Ruins” – “Ruin is always over-stated; it is part of the ruin-drama staged perpetually in the human imagination, half of whose desire is to build up, while the other half smashes and levels to the earth.”

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