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Maintaining a sense of history

Conserving is not just about preserving. It is about keeping buildings alive. But how this is done proves contentious, as last month's National Conservation Conference showed. Ruth Slavid reports

We all know that politicians reserve their real venom for different factions within their own party and that the most bitter religious conflicts have been between different strands of the same faith. So it was oddly reassuring and not really surprising at the National Conservation Conference in June to hear speakers damning those who did the wrong kind of conservation.

In this spirit, Donald Buttress, one of the doyens of conservation and a former Surveyor of the Fabric of Westminster Abbey, provocatively titled his talk 'Conservation - the enemy of sound repair'. He argued that 'conservation can become counterproductive and damaging, and in the end it will destroy the things it sets out to preserve'. Rather like some holy roller priest, he laid into the prevailing orthodoxies and the sins of his congregation.

That treasured phrase 'historic fabric' was one of the first targets of his wrath. 'There is a great constituency of people, ' he said, 'who don't want historic buildings to be used. It's not just the lack of interest in their continuing reuse, the thing that really gets me is the idea that people have affected the 'original fabric'. What is historic fabric?'

According to Buttress there is no such thing, at least in the sense of something that has been there and untouched since the start of time. 'Most stones have been reused two or three times in the original fabric.'

Intervene or die Buttress took some flak during his time at Westminster Abbey for making changes that some considered unacceptable. But he was remarkably immune to those jibes. 'You can only in the end be content to submit what you have done to the judgement of history, ' he said. 'When I took on Westminster Abbey I was treading in the footsteps of people in every generation who have intervened. Had they not done so it would look nothing like it does today - and it probably wouldn't be standing either.'

Similarly at St Alban's Cathedral, where an earlier speaker had criticised the work of George Gilbert Scott and associates in the 19th century, Buttress argued: 'Had it not been for Gilbert Scott etc, it would be horizontal.'

And despite his own long career in conservation, which included building up a practice of 30 architects, he was scathing about his colleagues. 'Historic building work does attract the feeble designer, ' he said.

'There is a tendency for people to retreat into conservation because it's not so competitive and it's smaller scale.'

He contrasted this with the attitudes of other countries. 'In France, ' he said, 'architects on major conservation projects are leading architects of their day.' And he followed this up with a truly radical idea: 'It's a standing reproach that Lord Rogers and his like are not architects to Westminster Abbey etc. They see the mincing and quarrelling of the conservation people and it puts them off. An architect is a designer.'

Buildings, Buttress believed, could suffer from too conservative an approach. 'If you take an extreme line you are not going to revitalise these buildings, ' he said. 'There are such things as charming and original texture, but fundamentally historic buildings are there to be worked on - sometimes radically. If you don't do it they will die as near as damn it.'

In praise of doctrine Ofcourse, Buttress is not against all conservation, but he believes it needs to be done wisely and this was a theme that other speakers also addressed. Sir Neil Cossons, chairman of English Heritage, said: 'It is crucial when we argue for the preservation or conservation of a monument that we understand why we value it. It requires a depth of understanding.'

Herb Stovel, an international conservation expert and educator who is based in Montreal, argued that 'if we are to be fully coherent with the heritage that we have, we need to give more attention to doctrine'. The problem is that there are too many different doctrines floating about, many with dubious credentials.

'How can we move towards integrating doctrine effectively with practice?' Stovel asked.

And, in true pedagogic fashion, he answered his own question: 'We must recognise the way in which concern for doctrine can give us powerful decisionmaking tools.' One example is in making decisions about 'authenticity'. Stovel explained: 'We have to ask to what extent the attributes of the heritage credibly and truthfully and genuinely reflect its values.' If the 'filter' through which our understanding and appreciation of the original building is mediated is relatively transparent, then the building can be judged to have a high degree of authenticity.

There are numbers of different attributes of a building against which the authenticity can be judged. These range from materials and substance through techniques and function to spirit and feeling. The combination of attributes, which is judged to be authentic, will then influence the conservation philosophy. At one extreme, where material is paramount, there could be slavish attention to replacing like with like; at the other, maintaining a special atmosphere could take priority with all detailed considerations being subservient to that aim.

Preserving the spirit Some of this sharper thinking was triggered by debates in the 1990s when the Japanese were invited to join the World Heritage Convention. They were concerned that they would be obliged to conform to Western ideas of conservation which were entirely different. Japanese timber temples last for centuries, but with every element replaced several times like the apocryphal 200year-old hammer that has had four new shafts and three new heads. But in a different sense these temples are certainly authentic, since both the design and the spirit have been preserved.

As if doctrine was not a knotty enough subject, Stovel also applied himself to ethics.

'Conservation may create conflicts, ' he said.

'There are problems of ethical behaviour.You may need to say, 'My client is the building, not the person who pays the bills.'' He was concerned that some young American architecture graduates were becoming hired guns, testifying in court on behalf of clients who wanted to demolish buildings.

As a teacher himself, he did not neglect the subject of education. 'The real problem is with the undergraduates who are asked to deal with the lower tier of conservation buildings and don't have the necessary skills.'

James Simpson of architect Simpson & Brown was more outspoken. 'Schools of architecture know nothing about specification writing and aren't interested, ' he said.

'Somebody should set up a working party.'He admitted that 'most specifications are pretty poor - including ours. You never have enough time and we are increasingly obliged to use the NBS which means we have to clear out a whole lot of guff. There's no training in specification writing.'

This came in response to a statement in a workshop session by Ian Constantinides, managing director of specialist conservation builder St Blaise. He said: 'Good documentation is heaven on earth for the estimator and a nightmare for the claims consultant.'

Bring contractors in early This was part of a larger argument, that the approach to running conservation projects is fundamentally flawed. Clients should not be trying to push all risk on to the specialist contractor, and those contractors should be brought in at an earlier stage of the process.

The result, he believes, would be better jobs and less money wasted.

Constantinides, who started life as a nuclear physicist and drifted into the building industry, learning as he went, said:

'Conservation is too complicated a subject for the traditional hierarchical role to work.

I am talking about the client and the grantgiving authorities making sure that the client takes responsibility.'

Instead of, as so often happens, St Blaise giving architects free advice early in the project, Constantinides said: 'I want to try to promote a pre-contract use of a specialist builder's knowledge.We have worked for the very best architects and on the very best buildings throughout the country. We have experience. How can that be used pre-contract to help?'

The problem, as he saw it, is that 'there is a lot of abdication of responsibility by construction professionals. The reasons why contractors go over budget and over programme are nearly always the result of poor presentation of contract documentation.'

It is not true, he believed, that conservation projects are a great step into the unknown. It is possible to measure and quantify almost anything in advance, limiting uncertainty. 'The idea that a job takes as long as it takes is absolute balls.' And this measurement should be done, he said, before the job goes out to tender. 'I get increasingly angry when quantity surveyors don't measure a building properly.

It just means that five builders measure the building five times and all differently. It just adds cost to our overhead.'

There are other arguments for getting the contractor in early. For instance, at the British Museum Great Court, where St Blaise worked - but not on the infamous South Portico - it was obvious, said Constantinides, that there would be problems getting large blocks of Portland stone in time. Sir Christopher Wren had an Act of Parliament to make sure that stone was not available for any other jobs when he was building St Paul's. 'We should go back to the days when it was not considered too risky to order the stone in advance.' Similarly, certain specialist mortars need to be aged for several months before use, something which is not possible if the contractor is appointed at the last minute. 'You should order the mortar in advance as a prime-cost sum, ' Constantinides argued.

Banish fee bidding And Constantinides has no time for fee bidding. 'It is a disaster, ' he said. 'When a professional wins a job on a low bid I automatically add 10 per cent to my oncost because I know I will do the work the professionals can't do. It costs the client money.'

He wound up with a complaint about the RIBA and QSs. 'I don't know why the RIBA allows itself to be emasculated so often. QSs are taking the lead. I am sick of my tender being the lowest and coming in 50 per cent above the budget. It means the professional has demonstrated their incompetence.'

Invective like that put paid to any suggestion that conservation might be a slightly dull, slightly precious area of construction.

The lively debate showed that it is full of disagreement and of ideas - and is responding to the need to develop as rapidly as the rest of the industry.

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