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Taking the long view

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Martin Ashley, surveyor of fabric at the Old Royal Naval College, Greenwich, hits out at the marginalisation of conservation architecture

To be a conservation architect is often to go unseen – after all a significant part of what we do is to preserve the work of those who have gone before us rather than to highlight our own. But what we do typically goes unseen by many of our fellow architects, in architectural education and in the press. This oversight is both foolish and prejudicial – and not only jeopardises the development of conservation skills and practice, but also ignores the relevant benefits of what those skills can offer to the wider profession and the built environment.

This oversight is both foolish and prejudicial

Conservation architects enjoy a unique and privileged position. Unique, because understanding old buildings provides insight into the way that construction works or doesn’t work in the context of conditions and climate in Britain. Privileged, because while conserving and adapting old buildings we are walking in the footsteps of master-practitioners, learning from their skills and knowledge of the crafts and trades passed down through the centuries. These are as relevant now as ever before.

To feel part of that time-continuum is remarkable as it gives us ‘long sight’ in anticipating how our work will be viewed by those who come after us: a pleasure but also a responsibility as we want to be judged well in the future by that work. Conservation professionals repeatedly deal with past failures of design and detailing, highlighting persistent hazards that have been encountered by designers through the centuries and helping to avoid them now. We learn what happens when structures act and react with their environment, when materials fail through thermal stress, harmful interaction, exposure to UV light, etc. Conservation professionals’ long-sight is relevant and indispensible in designing for responsible longevity in our carbon-conscious 21st century world, irrespective of whether using stressed-skin panels, steel and glass, concrete, masonry, or timber-frame.

Why the ‘disconnect’ in the mainstream architectural press?

So why then the ‘disconnect’ in the mainstream architectural press? Why does conservation barely get a mention except in an occasional special issue? Why is this knowledge disconnected from mainstream education, and our place as designers in the time-continuum from historic times and into the future not valued and celebrated for the lessons that it can teach us?

Conservation doesn’t get much of a look-in at most architecture schools except as a specialist option. It is inevitable that the focus of mainstream education is upon the perceived values of the day, but that is what our heritage is - the built form of evolving skills and fashions reflecting society throughout the centuries. With long-sight we see how fashions come and go and we know a deeper truth – that what is important is the remarkable people with crafts and skills in their hands as designers, practitioners, crafts and trades-people. Valuing them and passing down their knowledge and skills to inform our work should form part of an intelligent architectural education and media.

Excellent conservation training does exist in specialist courses at universities such as York, Chichester, Bath and Kingston; at a splendid range of full and part-time courses for example at the Institute of Historic Building Conservation Studies and West Dean College, and the remarkable scholarship and craft-fellowship programmes run by the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings. However it is time to re-connect the disconnect, to re-integrate conservation and crafts into mainstream architecture and education so as to inspire current and future generations, and to pass down the knowledge and skills of long-sight in construction to those coming after us in the industry.


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