For the Love of Heritage

The destruction of the Mackintosh building of the Glasgow School of Art, following a second fire in four years, has shocked and saddened all in the heritage community.
The future of the 110 year old A-listed building[1] is still very much in doubt. At the time of writing, the latest reports suggest that the shell of the building may be saved, but there is fierce debate to come as to what to do next.
Understandably, many wish to see the iconic building completely restored.  Detailed plans exist, and much was learnt from previous restoration work all of which would allow for a brick by brick, timber by timber reconstruction.
Others think that this is crossing the line into replication, and would result in nothing more than a facsimile, with none of the historic integrity of the original building.

This debate, which has been in the background of heritage conservation for over a century, is about to be played out in a very public way.  It speaks to the heart of the work done by all in the industry, whether they are converting and restoring listed buildings, or cleaning works of art.

The big question it asks is this: what are we protecting when we preserve our heritage?

For some, authenticity is everything.
As such conservation of heritage should be on a basis of saving what is there, sensitively but obviously repairing when necessary, championing new design if needed, but above all allowing the building or object to tell its own history.

The Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (SPAB) was founded on this principle, their philosophy of repair and conservation over restoration is one which has been the foundation for buildings conservation for over 140 years, and as such underpins much of the legislative approach to heritage.

In their view, and that of many others, a restoration project which removes or replaces a significant proportion of the original fabric would not be conserving our heritage, but fabricating it.  That a far better option would be to save what remains, embrace an opportunity for new design and accept the evolution of an icon.

But this is far from the only viewpoint.

For others, the purpose of heritage conservation is preserving ideas and stories, for them the power of heritage is in the interpretation. A restoration of a building or object to reflect a particular point in time, highlights its significance and preserves the original intention of its creator.

They may well argue in the coming days and weeks that the significance of the Mackintosh building was in its revolutionary design, and in the materials and craftsmanship that went into making it, all of which can be faithfully replicated. That rebuilding, using the same materials and techniques, would add to the heritage of the city and not detract from it. That it would create opportunities for learning, and greater understanding and appreciation of traditional skills.

Most people will fall somewhere in the middle of this debate– arguing that context is all, and that exactly what we are protecting varies on a case by case basis.

Anyone who has visited Malta, or the Cloth Hall in Ypres will have had a moment of realisation, that the obviously medieval structure in front of them was almost entirely rebuilt after the Second World War. This undoubtedly shifts the perspective, but does it reduce the value of the heritage, or supplement it?
Conversely, is the new Coventry Cathedral a more effective memorial, a more authentic space than if the original building had been reconstructed from the ground up, as with its European counterparts?

For those working in conservation, restoration, or heritage management this debate is part of daily life.
Removing the patina from an antique piece of furniture is seen as unforgivable, but what about polishing the silver, or cleaning a work of art so it can be seen once more as the painter intended?
At what point do the signs of age, of use, and of misuse become themselves heritage?
Where is the line drawn between conservation, restoration, and fabrication?

None of these are easy questions to answer; none of the answers will ever be definite.

So what, you may ask, is the point of these rhetorical ramblings on a website about the heritage of South Kesteven?

Well, what if it wasn’t an iconic Glasgow building destroyed last weekend, what if it was an iconic South Kesteven one?

If it was Browne’s Hospital in Stamford, or Bourne Town Hall, or the Guildhall in Grantham –where would you stand in the debate?

Why not join the conversation on Twitter, and let us know – #SKHAOpinion




[1] The Scottish listing system uses A,B and C . Grade  A is equivalent to Grade I listing in England