Modernism not always best practice

Artbeat column no 444 by Peter Entwisle
Published in the Otago Daily Times, 13 April 2009

Best practice or an aesthetic ideology-driven agenda? It is increasingly being said that best practice in modifying or adding to an historic building requires making the modifications or additions clearly different from the original. This is then being used as a justification for building onto, for example a stone or brick building, in glass and steel and often in a very contrasting style. The result can be very jarring additions. Is this really best practice? You don’t have to look very far to see not everyone thinks so.

The best-known case is the addition of the Sainsbury Wing to the British National Gallery in London. The existing building was a classical revivial structure the first part designed by William Wilkins and variously added to later, but in the same materials and style. Until 1982 when a new wing was proposed and Ahrends, Burton and Koralek won a competition for the commission with a design, heavily influenced by one by Richard Rogers and uncompromisingly Modernist and dissonant.

It was famously abandoned after the Prince of Wales described it as a “monstrous carbuncle”. Another competition was held, won by Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown with what is usually called a Postmodern design. It visibly references several sources from the past, mostly varieties of classical revival and was constructed in 1991 in complementary materials. It looks like a natural extension of the existing group and is generally well liked. Was that not “best practice”?

Certainly there were and still are some disgruntled Modernists who would rather have had the earlier scheme. But do they have any reasonable grounds for complaint? The short answer is “No”.

In conservation, whether of a building or a painting, it is indeed a good principle of practice to make it evident, if not glaringly obvious, where repairs have been made to the original. This is so as not to create a false impression the original hasn’t been damaged and repaired. It’s a good principle because it enables us to read the object more accurately and it also acts as bit of a brake on an earlier tendency to pile modification on modification until the original was virtually lost. With a building this can be achieved by making repairs to the stonework evident.

When it comes to adding to a historic building an extrapolation of this is desirable. When David Mowat designed the Donald Reid wing as an extension to the Otago Settlers Museum in the 1920s he didn’t strike a contrast with J.A. Burnside’s original modest classicism. He used the same combination of cement rendered pilasters and brick, with the same modest classical treatment for his addition. It isn’t too hard to pick it is an addition. But it fits very well with the original.

This is not what we’re doing now when the present extensions are in concrete and glass without any attempt to match the original despite the precinct rules for the area saying they should have been. And here the justification was given that best practice meant the extensions should be visibly different from the original. Well, not that different, is all one can say.

There is an agenda here. Modernism’s theorists have said theirs is the style for the modern age; reviving styles of the past is bound to result in aesthetic failure; therefore additions to old buildings should be like the one rejected for the National Gallery in London and accepted for the Otago Settlers Museum.

Modernism is a style like any other. It has its successes as well as its failures. It is true it arose in the 20th century and came to dominate 20th century building. But it wasn’t the only available style even in the 20th century and sometimes using it to an extend an old building will not be aesthetically optimal – or even good.

This has relevance for us now because a modification is being planned for the Dunedin Town Hall. We have seen off our own mini carbuncle – the proposed glass atrium in Harrop Street but all is not yet sweetness and light.

The Town Hall’s Moray Place front has a canopy added in the 1980s. It is proposed to remove that and replace it with – what? Some people consider that elevation, below the canopy as not historic or anyway free for them to do something visibly different. The phrase “best practice” has been used in connection with this project. While visualisations for this extension have been shadowy and notional the signs are the designers are not thinking of anything like an extrapolation of the Town Hall’s neoclassicism in anything like the same materials.

There is scope for making some modifications in that vein. If anything is to be done there that’s how it should be. But we may find we’re looking at another glass addition.


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