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Living history: balancing heritage and progress

Eleanor Young

Fascism, desecration and architecture: Eleanor Young tries to balance the tensions of heritage

Conservation at scale, recognising Jože Plečnik’s Triple Bridges in Ljubljana – along with a host of other Plečnik spaces in the city.
Conservation at scale, recognising Jože Plečnik’s Triple Bridges in Ljubljana – along with a host of other Plečnik spaces in the city. Credit: Matevž Paternoster. Museum and Galleries of Ljubljana

Find out where are you are on the conservation spectrum by taking this test. Circle your preferred option for each of the three choices:

  • Re-paint and preserve the window profile (score 1) or double glaze (score 2);
  • Reapply plaster with horsehair (score 1) or add insulation (score 2);
  • Maintain an empty building (score 1) or knock a hole in the wall for better retail access (score 2).

If you score three or below you are a conservation fascist. Four and above make you a desecrator of the old. You can’t win.

In the UK we have a thing for history. It doesn’t have to be genuine – think Netflix costume dramas and ‘Victorian’ front doors on bungalows – but it is valued. We have our castles and great houses to preserve but also rows of darling streets in this town or that, where encroaching PVC is held off by a conservation area. At the front line of protection are conservation officers and Historic England, Historic Environment Scotland and CADW in Wales with concerns ranging from the colour of your downpipes to the viewing corridors to St Paul’s Cathedral.

My guess is that far more time goes into reactive preservation at a small scale than larger scale proactive conservation (despite the demand for a ‘positive strategy’ for heritage in local plans). Listing and our planning system set the grain for interrogation of proposed change, one planning application at a time. Proactive exceptions are the Heritage Action Zones which are based on high streets and other areas around England, like Kirkham in Lancashire and South Norwood in London, where strategies and cash can make a difference. It is nice to think that the historic fish stones of Kirkham’s market square will soon be joined by a more unified street scape and a restoration of dilapidated local buildings.

The dramatic Slate Landscape of Northwest Wales celebrates extraction for construction

At the international scale the luckiest of the places that pull together to recognise and promote their history secure a Unesco World Heritage Site listing. They use it as an economic driver; an exclusive club that operates a little like Landmark Trust’s lush catalogue of houses to rent, a mark of quality, a promise of interest. It works as badge for tourism and for inward investment. Clashes do come: Edinburgh has been warned of losing its status  over bins and Liverpool actually did, thanks to the incursion of Liverpool Waters development into its heritage bubble.

Dig around further on the Unesco list  and you find an expanding scale; newly crowned World Heritage Sites over the summer included the many public spaces and institutions designed by Jože Plečnik in Slovenian capital Ljubljana. Closer to home, the dramatic Slate Landscape of Northwest Wales (official title) stretches across the mountains of Snowdonia to the coast, celebrating extraction for construction. Another inscription puts 11 spa towns from across Europe on the map. We need more of this scale of thinking about built heritage to put arguments over detail and development into perspective. It should be possible to celebrate and enjoy our built history without preserving it in aspic.

Look at your test score again. Three or below and you are a guardian of history. Four or above then you are an architect. We just need to work out that tension and everybody wins.


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