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Editorial: the right to inherit

1467 cover ar new into old and preservation

Looking past the moment of completion, the AR explores what it means to preserve 

Trained as an architect, the work of French artist Jacques Villeglé became that of a street archaeologist, an anonymous hand who pilfered colourful layers of leftover, shredded posters from Parisian walls (the 1930s ‘newspaper of the street’ as he called them). The spontaneous and collectively made adornment publicly displayed in the city is peeled off, laid down on canvas and framed; the artwork’s title reduced to the place and date of the find –122 rue du Temple, 1968, is the image on this issue’s cover. 

Capturing a frozen instant, Villeglé treats the city walls as a museum in the making and presents us with pieces of evidence as reflections on popular culture, documents attesting to the passage of time. ‘En prenant l’affiche, je prends l’histoire’, he claims (‘by taking the poster, I am taking history’).

Jacques villegle by francois poivret issy les moulineaux 28 janvier 1991 1461875826 b

Jacques villegle by francois poivret issy les moulineaux 28 janvier 1991 1461875826 b

Source: François Poivret / Collection Frac Bretagne

More than two decades after he happened upon the collage that features on this month’s cover, Jacques Villeglé remains up to his particular mischief, captured in Issy-les-Moulineaux by François Poivret on 28 January 1991 as he aims to make off with a thick slice of the city’s skin. Villeglé’s selection valorises this heavy adornment; he elevates it to artistic status at the very same moment that it is destroyed, stolen from public view

The process of selection is the first step of preservation. As we choose what we preserve, we write our own histories. We select particular versions, moments in time, that will shape how we move forward, and inform how historians look back, as Jorge Otero-Pailos argues in this month’s keynote. 

‘We will probably be judged not by the monuments we build but by those we have destroyed’, wrote Ada Louise Huxtable. By law, buildings in Mexico constructed after 1900 cannot be considered ‘historic’, and are therefore not seen as worthy of preservation. The fight to preserve Modernist gems is often a difficult struggle, as Marcel Breuer’s Parador Ariston shows, left to rot in Argentina’s Mar del Plata. In Athens, on the other hand, antiquity is imposing its burden, casting thick shadows onto the modern city and hindering development. 

Only very rarely does Villeglé feel the need to provide a ‘coup de pouce’ (to alter and edit the composition) but beauty, new meanings and associations materialise within the thickness of the fibres. Processes of documentation and appropriation are conscious acts of writing history: winners of this year’s New into Old awards, Flores & Prats, speak of the ‘right to inherit’. 

‘Modernism’s trite distinction between old and new has been left behind, and projects of adaptive reuse are engaging in a lively conversation between the existing and new life, acknowledging incrementalism rather than duality’

Modernism’s trite distinction between old and new has been left behind, and projects of adaptive reuse are engaging in a lively conversation between the existing and new life, acknowledging incrementalism rather than duality. All architectures are gradually and constantly evolving – ‘It is necessary to consider the past as a historical present, still alive’, said Lina Bo Bardi. Buildings absorb the world around them, human habits sedimented into their walls and imprinted on their skins. The materials these walls are made of are coming under increased scrutiny. In Mill + Jones’ graphic novel, we are invited into a world of ‘archived salvage’, where surplus material is meticulously stored and sorted. 

We naturally correlate architecture’s longevity with the hardness of its surfaces, but soft earth, requiring annual mending, such as that of the homes of Tangassogo in Burkina Faso, is a ritual that preserves not only the physical fabric of the village, but also the social ties of the community.

The duality of natural and manmade blurs; as a radical alternative to traditional conservation, rewilding challenges human superiority over nature, and proposes to treat landscapes with imagination and curiosity. ‘We have a perverse preservation idea that says “this is what we have so this is what we should maintain” rather than saying “this is what we could have so this is what we should aspire to”’, George Monbiot argues.

Challenging old, intellectual frames broadens our understanding of preservation to include the ‘unsavoury’ or ‘unworthy’, excluded by official narratives – rather than restoring the old state of something that has effectively become obsolete. Buildings are just a small part of a much bigger picture. While it might sound counterintuitive, it is about looking to the future, rather than the past.

This piece is featured in the AR December 2019/January 2020 issue on the New into Old and Preservation – click here to purchase your copy today