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Humility is as hard to come by as historic experience


One of the more concrete proposals to emerge from the battle for the RIBA presidency was George Ferguson's suggestion that not all architects ought to be let loose on conservation projects. On one hand, the assumption that only those with relevant experience should be allowed to tackle any particular project is inherently conservative, and likely to mitigate against innovation and change. On the other, as Sarah Jackson argues in her review of the English Heritage publication Informed Conservation (page 43), there is an increasing need to monitor the quality of conservation-based work.Whereas such projects were traditionally the preserve of specialist clients (EH, the National Trust, the Church), the advent of Lottery-funding has upped the number of projects led by 'conservationally naïve'champions and 'ordinary'architects.

The conservation of Newhailes near Edinburgh (pages 28-35) suggests a strategy whereby architects who are not specialists in conservation, but who are nevertheless highly skilled, could make a significant contribution to conservation work. Having taken the basic decision to reflect all stages of the house's history rather than restore it to a specific point in time, the team adopted a strategy of intervening 'as much as necessary but as little as possible'. Alterations were limited to those required for health and safety or for visitor and staff accommodation with the result that the project soaked up £4.5 million (and counting) with very little outward sign of change.

Carried out by LDN Architects for the National Trust for Scotland, the Newhailes project enjoyed the benefit of an expert architect and client. But in emphasising technical and project management skills as well as specialised historic research, it exemplifies a methodology which could be successfully appropriated by the highly skilled but 'conservationally naïve'design team. Such a strategy, does, however, require additional qualities which may be even harder to come by than conservation expertise. Both architect and client need to be sufficiently self-effacing to resist the urge to 'make a mark'on the project in question. And, perhaps harder still, sufficiently persuasive to convince funders to cough up money without the expectation of visible results.

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