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Speaking at the recent AJ planning conference on conservation, Robert Adam took for granted the need to conserve buildings and places, but argued that we need to examine the assumptions that underlie the culture of conservation and planning.

International charters summarise the prevailing attitudes to conservation. Most important of these is the Venice Charter of 1964, which defines the culture of conservation.

Later charters acknowledge their debt to this, and the International Council on Monuments and Sites was set up to promulgate its principles.

The charter states: 'The common responsibility to safeguard [historic monuments] for future generations is recognised. It is our duty to hand them on in the full richness of their authenticity.' But, as Adam explained: 'It was not until the post-war period that the conservation movement became significant.

Listing began in 1947, Conservation Areas were created in 1967 and English Heritage was born in 1984.' Once the legal and administrative apparatus was created, the conservation process rapidly extended its powers. The number of listed buildings grew from 120,000 to 500,000 in 30 years. In the same period, the proportion of listed buildings to all buildings increased from one in 140 to one in 40. Buildings by living architects are now listed.

Conservation areas grew from four to more than 8,000 in 30 years. In excess of 1.5 million buildings are now under the control of heritage law, and the number grows every year.

Adam said: 'From a single post-graduate conservation course in 1970, there are now 26 courses turning out over 300 graduates every year.

The culture has changed from architect conservation officers to an archaeological and historical culture.'

The central role of archaeology and history in the administration of conservation has led to an overriding concern with historical 'authenticity'. All aspects of the history of a building are now 'authentic' up to the moment it is identified as being of worth.

Anything that happens after that is not 'authentic'. This expansion of archaeological and historical methodology to living buildings and places is like the study of wildlife through taxidermy, said Adam.

Conservation has come to have a deadening effect on the historical environment, with often bizarre consequences for the continuing life of buildings.

For example, the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage's Charter for Conservation of 2004 defines 'authenticity' in quite different terms: 'The traditional knowledge systems and the cultural landscape in which it exists, particularly if these are 'living', should define the authenticity of the heritage value to be conserved.' Archaeology and history, and concern for authenticity, are based on a concept of the past as 'forever past'. 'This separates us from heritage as a living and developing part of our cultural life. Our connection with our past is through traditions. Traditions use past practices, narratives and ideas in the present with the aim of passing them on to the future. Traditions create continuity in change and, while they are our direct connection with our past, are little concerned with absolute accuracy and historical authenticity, ' concluded Adam.

He suggested that conservation needs to be freed from the sterility of authenticity and the isolation of history.

It must be re-connected with the life, memory, traditions and identity of the community.

Brian Waters is principal of Boisot Waters Cohen Partnership (www. bwcp. co. uk)

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