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Conserving the Future

From past historic to future perfect. Alastair Donald reviews Miles Glendinning’s, The Conservation Movement.

On the centenary of the 1913 Ancient Monuments Act, the recent BBC television series Heritage: The Battle for Britain’s Past highlighted the resurgence of heritage. No longer concerned merely with protecting valuable monuments or buildings, conservationists have set their sights on ‘safeguarding’ the wider ‘historic environment’. With UNESCO promoting an ‘intangible culture’ of values, traditions and oral histories, designers seek to boost emotional attachment to place through the urban memory toolbox of objets trouvés or fragments of post-industrial cities.

If the 1970s were synonymous with campaigns to save country houses, today’s activists are as likely to target Brutalist structures such as Robin Hood Gardens and Preston bus garage, and the objects of their veneration appear in the pages of magazines such as CLOG.

Following several failed attempts, Preston's Bus Garage has finally been granted Grade II listing

Following several failed attempts, Preston’s Bus Garage has been granted Grade II listing

Where once the energy of youth might have taken heart from a Modernist commitment to constant experimentation, today 95 per cent of 18 to 25 year olds think more postwar buildings should be protected. In an age when re-imagining the city is out of vogue, architecture students at Kingston University instead campaign for UNESCO to bestow World Heritage status on the London Public House.

Provocatively, Rem Koolhaas warned recently that preservation may overtake us, shifting from a retroactive to a prospective activity. While at the turn of the 20th century the average gap between completion and conservation was 200 years, today the architect of the not so ancient 30 St Mary Axe (the Gherkin) has already advocated its protection through revisions to the London viewing corridors.

Robin Hood Gardens perspective

In recent years, the Twentieth Century Society mounted an unsuccessful campaign for Alison and Peter Smithson’s Robin Hood Gardens, a Brutalist council-housing complex, to be listed.

In the newly built Gloucestershire town of Bradley Stoke, which has yet to suffer a single military casualty, memorials are to be erected with blank plaques to ensure readiness for any possible war dead. Future memory competes with present reality.

All of which means that Miles Glendinning’s history of architectural preservation The Conservation Movement is a fascinating read. While English Heritage’s Simon Thurley says a desire to preserve is part of the human condition, Glendinning, Professor of Architectural Conservation at University of Edinburgh, argues heritage has not always been there but has a story and a dramatic history. Conservation, he says, is a constantly changing, modern phenomenon, firmly knitted into the wider trajectory of European, or Western modernity.

In its adoption of specific values and ideologies, he argues, conservation became a movement, bearing comparison to cultural groupings such as the Modern Movement to which it became an almost alter ego.

As the subtitle ‘Antiquity to Modernity’ suggests, this is a substantial volume and it includes copious references and notes within its 500 plus pages. The main focus is the 20th century, but this is inserted into a more or less linear narrative that commences with the movement’s pre-history from the Classical civilisations through to the late 18th century, and then offers an account of its 19th-century origins and early ideological battles. The final, speculative chapter tentatively traces emerging trends.

taking measurements for an elevation of the Old State House in Philadelphia. In the Cold War, America’s architectural heritage was held up as a relic of freedom

Taking measurements for an elevation of the Old State House in Philadelphia. In the Cold War, America’s architectural heritage was held up as a relic of freedom

Glendinning’s argument is that the Conservation Movement is unambiguously a child of modernity. While old structures were intensively cared for as early as pre-Classical civilisations, they were more akin to religious objects, invested with unchanging divine force. The modern world’s sharply defined sense of historical awareness, he argues, cannot be projected back to times when the relationship between old and new was imprecise and there was little or no concept of unified design.

In contrast to the amateurish and sentimental efforts of gentlemen antiquarians, architects or romantic poets in pre-Enlightenment times, the conservation movement is shaped by Enlightenment rationality and the modernisation wrought by early capitalism which helped to systematise conservation through scholarly techniques and scientific methods.

The wide-ranging international nature of this study helps draw out the multifarious character of the movement, especially early on when shaped by the geopolitical complexities and ideological conflicts of the 19th century. One well-known dispute is between the ‘restoration’ approach of France’s Viollet-le-Duc, who viewed conservation as a constructive counterpart to modernisation, and the ‘heritage militants’ of the Ruskin-inspired Anti-Scrape movement, who favoured ‘preservation’ of the time-worn fabric, judging restoration to be as disruptive to authenticity as any modern factory or steam engine.

Neues Museum, Berlin David Chipperfield and Julian Harrap, 1998-2009

Neues Museum, Berlin was ‘rebuilt’ under supervision of David Chipperfield following damage caused during the Berlin Bombings.

Elsewhere Glendinning tracks the state-led and voluntarist approaches in France and England respectively, and explores the links to conservative historicism in Germany and utopian socialism in Morris’s England. These are compelling tales that serve to emphasise the absence of critical debate in our timid times.

The central theme of the book is the increasing mobilisation of conservation by nationalist movements during the 19th and early 20th centuries, particularly in Germany where the concept of Heimat (homeland) predominated, and then the adoption after the Second World War of a more internationalist approach to preservation. Here Glendinning would have been better served by going beyond a focus on nationalism and examining the role of conservation in relationship to the wider demand for tradition that emerged in the conservative reaction to Enlightenment notions of progress.

The book is fairly thin on the conservation movement in the early years of 20th-century Britain where as a status quo imperial power, the demand for tradition to counterbalance the drive to progress could take less overtly nationalistic forms.

After the Second World War served to discredit nationalism, the conservation movement adapted, promoting instead an image of humanistic idealism to be realised through the ‘cultural heritage of all mankind’. However, despite the formal existence of an internationalist ethos and the success of famous projects such as the rescue of the temples of Abu Simbel in Egypt, Glendinning’s account makes it clear that the postwar conservation movement retained a particularist agenda, but with conservative notions of tradition and exclusivity reworked within the guise of an official commitment to universalism.

Museum model of the UNESCO-backed relocation of the Abu Simbel temples in Egypt, completed 1966.

Museum model of the UNESCO-backed relocation of the Abu Simbel temples in Egypt, completed 1966.

During the Cold War, ‘universal’ values of civilisation really operated as a code for ‘the West’. The evoking of a long, successful tradition stretching back to the Classical civilisations of Greece and Rome played an important role in helping to express the superiority of traditional values over the forces of modernisation. Italy’s escape from the sinking ship of overt nationalism highlights how this approach worked as it benefited from its central involvement in the new international set-up, with the famous Venice Charter of 1964 playing a key legitimising role.

Interestingly, the ‘tradition’ of the conservation movement itself was important here with Charter co-author Raymond Lemaire arguing that safeguarding heritage was one of the fruits of Western civilisation, emerging from a Western view of history and from Western artistic sensibility and ethical values.

Amid a proliferation of charters, agreements and declarations, the conservation movement had already grown rapidly in the postwar era. However, additional comments by Lemaire highlighted a new direction. Arguing that the principles of conservation are recognised as a ‘universal aspiration innate in human nature’, and that they create a framework which ‘nurtures a feeling … that the past abides and that race [and] culture … continue’, he revealed not only a conservative, fixed view of human nature and identity, but pointed to the conservation movement’s coming flight to relativism through cultural diversity and the amorphous territory of intangible heritage and memory landscape.

Ex-Conservative minister and leading conservationist Duncan Sandys once argued conservation is a way of recovering a ‘sense of purpose … sense of mission’. Such an instrumental view of architecture that represents some of the high points of human achievement has become more widespread today and suggests that the past is now a refuge for a society which lacks belief in its capacity to create the future.

Unfortunately, a hyperactive heritage industry in thrall to relativism is likely to weaken a candid appreciation of the great architecture of the past − it undermines the authority and judgement required to assess what is genuinely valuable from human history. In this sense, Glendinning signs off with a provocative question that deserves further consideration: if the Conservation Movement is a child of progress and Western modernity, then in an age of postmodern relativism, what is its future?


Author: Miles Glendinning
Publishers: Routledge
Price: £39.99


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