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Past caring

review: We review two guides on the care of historic buildings and one on a historic view of the future

Building Conservation Philosophy

By John Earl. Donhead, 2003. 248pp. £37

Long ago, I fell irredeemably in love with William Morris. It was not when first I saw his African Marigold designs, nor when I read his bon mots, nor when I learned of his socialist campaigns. No, in all honesty I was truly smitten when I read that he called the great GS Scott and GE Street 'damn'd pigs, damn'd fools' and accused them of being 'deaf to the claims of poetry and history'.

Such heartfelt passion and willingness to take sides is the only thing missing from this otherwise interesting volume by John Earl. As a substantial book, it is the sum of Earl's excellent teaching on the RICS postgraduate diploma in Building Conservation. He is a brave man, for this is a notoriously slippery subject and he raises some very important points, not just for the cognoscenti, but for society at large.

It is perhaps inevitable that a book on philosophy will raise more questions than it answers, and Earl is quite clear that he wants to 'provide guiding lights not instant prescriptions'. He even quotes the dictionary definition of philosophy as 'reasoning calmness of temper'. Such equanimity is laudable and, when dealing with contractors or conservation officers, may prove extremely effective. At times, however, his constant checks and balances left me feeling dizzy and yearning for something solid to relate to.

An unwillingness to allow passion into the debate pervades the whole book but is particularly explicit in his discussion of the public argument that raged over the Sainsbury Wing extension to the National Gallery: 'The conservation specialist should try to stand aside from such unseemly shouting matches and take a reasoned position.'

Are such debates to be stepped away from, like some unpleasant mess in the street?

Caution is perhaps an inevitable by-product of the complexities of today's conservation issues, which need to embrace Saxon churches and 1930s cinemas.Mindful ofhis readership, Earl is at great pains to avoid passing on any dangerous dogma because successful conservation does require great sensitivity.

Despite his clinging to reason, Earl demonstrates sensitivity, including a great understanding of the part emotion plays in our attachment to old buildings.

Describing the old Soup Kitchen for the Jewish poor in Spitalfields, he suggests, quite rightly, that different generations will have different emotional responses to the prospect of its demolition or preservation.

The elderly may wish to obliterate all memory of such a painful past, while the younger generation of Jews may want to hold on to the physical record of their ancestors' triumph over adversity.

This observation, and there are many more, underscores the inescapable subjectivity not only of the philosophy of conservation but also of its practice. Decisions made concerning old buildings, whether it be replacement pointing or an extension to the National Gallery, involve artistic judgements and are part of the numerous creative processes that affect the life of a building.

Where art is concerned, it is not always possible, nor desirable, to stifle that passion.

Clare Hughes is a historic buildings consultant currently working for Feilden Clegg Bradley Architects. Email clarabella@clara. co. uk

Old House Care & Repair By Janet Collings.Donhead,2002.208pp. £25

A fine introduction to the art of caring for old houses, this refreshing new volume from Donhead describes itself as 'part of a continually developing understanding of practical conservation', writes Clare Hughes. We are thus reminded from the start that there are very few set rules in repairing old houses and that British Standards and Building Regulations do not always provide the answers. Janet Collings shows how each individual building offers up its own problems and, very often, its own solutions. She offers practical advice and resolves a few myths but does not pretend to know it all.

Aimed primarily at owners of old houses, this volume has the potential to educate clients to the point where they can be much more discerning in choosing appropriate designers and contractors.

You may know of well-meaning owners who want to look after their listed building but who are encouraged by ignorant or cost-saving contractors into slapping cementitious render all over a 16th-century cottage or an 18th-century town house. Just as one tends to defer to the car mechanic's grunts from under the bonnet, so homeowners will defer to the contractor's sighs and shakings of the head. This book sets out to break that cycle and enable homeowners who really care about Britain's historic housing stock to know the difference between repair and replacement, between lime and cement, and, consequently, to be less accepting of the stock solutions offered by standard contractors, who often apply modern building techniques to historic buildings.

Central to the book is the idea, unpalatable to some, of custodianship rather than ownership.

Custodianship entails responsibility, both to the past and the future, while ownership may offer short-term gratification, unfettered by the artistic sensibilities of others. If we accept this idea of custody, then we will make decisions about the care and repair of our historic houses with reference to the house itself, as an architectural, artistic and social entity, rather than as an expression of our personal identity as 21st-century consumers.

'In decorating or adapting an old house, it is all too easy to sacrifice the very subtleties that drew us to it in the first place, 'writes Collings. 'Houses are often stripped of the materials and finishes that have been vital to their survival, only to be replaced with expensive new materials which can hasten their decay.'

That is as tough as it gets, though. The author is extremely moderate in her calls for appropriate technologies and thoughtful design solutions for old houses. There are some helpful pointers for designing extensions and adaptations but most of this useful book deals with repair and maintenance. It provides an excellent starting point, with good titles for further reading and numerous websites.

Understandably, Collings devotes an entire appendix to explaining how and why lime is the basis of historic building technology.

Comparative diagrams help distinguish between old and contemporary technologies and clearly illustrate the crux of the matter, which she puts very simply: 'Problems start to happen in old buildings when people expect them to behave like modern buildings.' Yes, folks, it really is that simple.

Where's my Space Age?

By Sean Topham. Prestel, 2003. 160pp. £22.95

This fascinating book, written by Sean Topham (whose last book, Blow Up, was reviewed in AJ 3.10.02), asks 'whatever happened to the space age?', writes Austin Williams. Constructed in three parts, with a two-page conclusion at the end, the book examines the historical moment of space exploration in its own terms; the cultural forms that were generated out of it; and, looking back on that period, explores contemporary artistic representations of the space age.

The book is aided by a constant flow of beautiful images which complement the words - rarely is an image mentioned in the text that isn't replicated in full colour with concise explanatory notes.

Even though it is obvious that the book stems from fairly limited source material (the opening descriptive chapter in particular has little new to offer), the author's infectious enthusiasm for his subject, conveyed in wellpaced journalistic prose, results in chapters that are a pleasure to read.

The problem comes when Topham insists on assessing the past from the standpoint of the present - reading history backwards. With jarring modern references to globalisation and environmentalism, he throws in sneaky criticisms of the throwaway society. 'The oil crisis deepened and made people aware of how vulnerable the world was in its reliance on technologies fuelled by a limited resource.' This is not exactly the truth of the period.

From Kisho Kurokawa's dramatic Living Capsules to Archigram's Cushicle; from Paco Rabanne's futuristic fashions and Verner Panton's Phantasy installations, Topham documents the excitement of the period - but his is a strangely paradoxical reflection on it. He is, at once, enthused and appalled at the excesses. With 20-20 hindsight, Topham is gratified that what he calls a childish vision of the 1960s has been overtaken by a more grown-up, 'responsible'attitude to the planet, but he still wishes we could retain a sense of childish wonder.

Apart from reflecting a modern fetish for the childlike, this is a classic catch-22 situation.

He wants the dynamic of the past but is glad that today's society has grown out of what he sees as a rejection of the consequences of that dynamic. Another way of looking at it is that society has effectively lost its belief in vision - the sort of vision for a progressive future that was commonplace in the 1960s - and try as we might, we can't just grab 'vision'out of thin air, even though we might wish we could. When contemporary actions are assessed in terms of their negative consequences for the planet, all we have left is a nostalgia for the past.Topham invests his remaining hope that those vestigial unconstrained actors in society (artists, designers, sculptors, etc) may be less inhibited in exploring the 'vision thing', primarily because they have less practical or 'damaging' impact.

Ultimately, Topham sees the space age in cultural terms, reflecting on the period when designers saw the world in a particular way and hoping that a 'new generation of artists are embarking on their own voyage of discovery'.

What he misses is the dynamic reality of the 1960s - a period driven by scientific advance, social upheaval, exploration, economic development, conflict and political polarisations - which has been replaced by today's period of caution, restraint, risk aversion and lack of authoritative voices. It is no wonder that people look back to the past for a sense of certainty but that, governed by the prevalent climate of precaution, don't really know what to make of it.

'The futuristic style that accompanied the space age, 'Topham says, 'was at first inspiring, then deemed threatening, and now seems quaint.' This book reflects the modern malaise:

a safe nostalgia for the past, for its certainties about the future, while at the same time a horror that today anyone would dare to be certain about the future.

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