Modernists misrepresent charter

Artbeat column no 453 by Peter Entwisle
Published in the Otago Daily Times, 27.7. 2009

The modernist fox is invading the heritage hen house. The plan to redevelop the Dunedin Centre shows it. I said the proposal to put a glass cube at the rear of the Town Hall on Moray Place is unnecessary. The rationale used to justify it illustrates the foxiness.

Jacquie Gillies, proprietor of the firm which produced the conservation report on the complex, spoke at the public presentation of the latest plan. Hands off Harrop’s newsletter no 10 reported:
‘“Heritage,” she said, “can’t be preserved in aspic, and additions and adaptations need to be accepted, guided by agreed principles of best practice.”  These, she explained would normally include the following:

  • There should be no replication.
  • There should be clear differentiation between old and new.
  • The alterations should not dominate.
  • They should be reversible.

Ms Gillies illustrated these principles with a number of examples, including the glass pyramid outside the Louvre Museum in Paris, and Auckland’s Britomart Station – both generators of much controversy at first, but now largely accepted.’

Are these really the principles of “best practice”? The International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) New Zealand Charter for the Conservation of Places of Cultural Heritage Value lists aims, general principles, conservation processes (elsewhere describd as “guidelines”) and definitions. It was frequently referred to at the meeting. What does it say?

On replication it says only that “replication, meaning to make a copy of an existing place... [is] outside the scope of this charter.” That’s fairly clear as it is also clear it isn’t saying “There should be no replication”. With this project in any case we aren’t talking about replication so no issues really arise. But it is significant that talking about “best practice” and mentioning the ICOMOS charter in the same presentation you might think it is the source of this prohibition. In fact it isn’t.

But the charter does have things to say about “Adaptation” (Conservation Processes para 20) which is what we are talking about when it comes to the glass cube. It says in effect that to keep a heritage building useful it may be “acceptable” to make alterations or additions. “Any change, however, should be the minimum necessary and should not detract from the cultural heritage value of the place.  Any additions and alterations should be compatible with original fabric but should be sufficiently distinct that they can be read as new work.” How does this stand with what is proposed?

You would think firstly this would mean keeping the existing 1980s canopy – the eyebrow – unless you had to remove it for functional reasons. I’ve pointed out there aren’t any. But the proposers may feel that by removing it and reconstructing the original 1930s façade they’re doing better in heritage terms. Perhaps, but how does the glass cube compare with the charter requirements? It is true it can “be read as new work” but how is it “compatible with original fabric”? The Town Hall is made of concrete and Oamaru stone in a revived Georgian style. How is glass in a modernist style compatible with that?  It simply isn’t.

Before the eyebrow was built it was proposed to make an extension there to serve the purpose in masonry and/or concrete in Georgian style. There are Georgian precedents for building onto such a façade in ways which could do this. Another such solution has been informally suggested this time. Why have such alternatives not been considered?

Basically because people of a modernist persuasion have managed to so influence the conservation discussion that they have got people persuaded that “best practice” enshrines one of modernism’s key principles: never imitate the styles of the past. The ICOMOS charter doesn’t actually embrace this but people are being effectively persuaded that it does.

In a city like ours this is important. This sleight of hand was used to justify the glazed extension to the Otago Settlers Museum building where the precinct values clearly excluded using glass. It’s being offered again here and I daresay this won’t be the last time.

It was also suggested that people will ultimately come to accept such glaring contrasts. Perhaps they will or perhaps they won’t. But that’s a different question from whether such a solution is best in a particular case. I have also said before I think the Louvre’s pyramid is a good solution but it is a different case from the settlers museum or the Town Hall.

What we need to remember, and should stop just ruling out as beyond reasonable discussion, is the possibility making additions to heritage buildings, or new buildings, in solid materials, including masonry and in revived styles. There is nothing inherently wrong with this. Some of the great buildings of the world exemplify it. We must beware of foxes trying to steal those eggs.

© 2009, Otago Daily Times