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Suffocating conservation system leaves us grasping at longevity

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What is the real purpose of listing buildings? We know by their survival in one form or another that our most precious pieces of historical architecture in the thousand-year class must already have survived for centuries without the aid of English Heritage and 'knowledgeable local authority conservation officers' (as they are soothingly described in The Times and elsewhere). But there is another side to this saga of salvation.

Our relics may look as though they have been looked after regardless of expense but we should examine more closely the disturbing facts of our own record. For just as a recently reformed cannibal might not make the most relaxing dinner host, so might the awkward facts of the history of Europe during the past thousand years reveal a state of almost continuous warfare, culminating in the two monster world wars of the 20th century.

Any unbiased historian of just one of these centuries would doubtless argue that there must be better objects of value to look after than buildings - many of which, like the city of Dresden or the monastery at Monte Cassino, had been the object of a thousand bomber raids designed to disurbanise whole cities. In short, only just over 50 years ago we were bombing the hell out of the precious historic architecture of Germany and the rest of occupied Europe, and, even as I type these words, a full-scale war of a different, but equally destructive, kind is raging in Iraq. Looking objectively at the unhappy relationship between creation and destruction in architectural opportunity, one might indeed be justified in feeling like the recently reformed cannibal's dinner guest.

What is the point of us now, at an arbitrary moment in time, deciding to 'save' our precious heritage, even though, for the most part, it consists of already extensively altered examples of this or that historic period? And why are we extending that 'protection' to millions of ordinary dwelling houses as well?

This grasping for longevity is an indicator of the failure mode that must succeed our current binge of museumisation. As a precedent I offer the terms of the 1921 Treaty of Versailles, which called for huge compensatory payments from Germany to France and Britain to continue until 1962. Strict terms, indeed, but abandoned in less than seven years. Such tales from history come to mind when one reads of environmentalists demanding a 90 per cent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions during the next 50 years.

It is as though the Association of Conservation Officers is preparing for some grand presentation to a celestial headmaster in the sky. As long as money is poured into ancestor worship of this kind, more and more extravagant notions of the value of this collection of decrepit structures are sure to be found.

The ancestor worship of old buildings is a delusion that is bound to end in disappointment of the most bitter kind. It will not keep us young; it will not ward off the future. As we can see, it will only suffocate our dwindling power to reorder the present, waste our diminishing resources, and immobilise a growing proportion of the building stock of the nation. In the new century that we are locked into, buildings will no longer be treasures to be hoarded; they are tools to be used and improved, altered and replaced over and over again in all the processes of living.

The fantastic delusions of the art historical value system are robbing us of the power of action that is the only true relief in the human condition. If environmentalists lay claim to the political high ground of the new century, what remains of undiscovered territory for the exploring architectural mind?

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