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Cultivating a living continuity The best way for a conservation team to help the historic building in its care is to 'meet' and befriend it

A great architectural teacher, Patrick Geddes, defined the essential sequence of all successful planning as: 'Firstly, to Survey - secondly, to Analyse - and thirdly, to Plan'. The same sequence was put forward by Lewis Mumford in his study on 'The Culture of Cities'. First, he said, we must have knowledge of the facts. The next step is to apply judgement and opinion, acknowledging all prejudices which every mind will bring, but digesting and synthesising data towards positive recommendations. Thirdly, and then only, can we take the final step - an imaginative look to the future, suggesting a forward strategy and applying priorities. These three steps are the very essence of all positive planning.

For architects, it is essential in any exercise of building conservation, to:

(a) be able to specify and define clearly what is needed, then

(b) arrive at a phased and costed programme with which to

(c) execute, control and guide, all within budget and within time.

This calls for imagination, training and experience. It calls too for partnership with builders, craftsmen and owners. Never forget that all true achievement demands teamwork.

Survey quality and method

How can we best ensure high quality in our preliminary study? I have suggested that survey is the process of finding out about and meeting, befriending and understanding a monument, building or town. If we accept this definition, which is the best method - research or experience?

Our team prefers to meet the actual building before researching into the paperwork. One thus approaches it without preconceptions, open to receive its special message. A vital part of each building's personality is its impact, which may well include both expected and unexpected, possibly stronger, features. Is it not, at the gardens of Versailles, the overpowering symmetry and predictability which speak to us? Or in Venice, the perverse delight in its complexity? Such observations come directly from on-site experience. Having 'met' the building we are better placed to help and guide it, both today and for the future.

Is the life of a building best researched by specialists, or by the conservators and architects who will guide it?

Our experience is that over-specialisation can be dangerous, if it is divorced from teamwork. Breadth of vision is essential, as is balance. Conservation has been described as 'cultivating a living continuity'. This stands in strong contrast with the earlier, specialist, less-mature concept of 'preserving' - of embalming a mummy, collecting a dead fly in amber, or arresting and pinning a butterfly in a box. There is a danger of losing the wider view. The specialist will help and advise, within his or her brief, but research and the understanding it brings are skills which need to be encouraged in everyone, and are vital to the conservator. We must not starve or lose these qualities in training those architects and surveyors who will in turn be asked to generate and design, to plan and to guide. Without that skill, they will become dull and insensitive, in whose hands our environment will suffer.

Only by meeting and truly befriending a building - by careful and understanding survey - can we look for real success in managing and conserving for a new century, the historic towns and buildings which we have been privileged to inherit.

This is an edited version of an address by Donald W Insall to the European Symposium on Restoration of the Architectural Heritage

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