A provocative question: Why waste time caring for old buildings? Many remain as symbols of yesterday's elite. Many stand as enduring symbols of inequality. They are decaying decadence. How can the socially aware architect allow themselves this luxury? Similar skills could protect vital technical infrastructure from changing climate. Efforts could be spent finding solutions to the perilously uneven distribution of housing. Here I will justify this as a legitimate struggle.
This is about more the pursuit of historic contextualisation and value generation. Engaging with historic architecture is linked to the great challenges I mention above. My argument in itself depends on an appreciation of recent architectural history. The situation we face today is not so different from that caused by the industrial revolutions of the 19th century. Burgeoning populations, freed from previous restrictions upon labour and place, swept across a changed landscape. Scientific innovation blew past boundaries over the horizon. But enticing opportunity was tempered by physical reality.
A rapid adjustment to the way people lived and worked was necessary to contain these technological and biological explosions. The ruling classes lacked precedent. There was a vain period of trying to shoehorn the ghosts of vernacular mnemonics and stylistic fancies in to brick boxes. This ignored the new, collectively powerful urban poor clamouring in their tenements. Soon enough humanity revolted. That is to say: Architecture emerged as a faculty to guide this adjustment a little too late to prevent civil unrest (and ultimately world war).
Once they had landed, 'machines for living in' proposed to placate further unrest by moving people from alleys in the gutter to streets in the sky. As populations continued to rise out of their growing pains, the scale on which this project unfolded was as awesome at it was necessary. But in treating humans as the lubricant in a machine, the 20th century preassigned further friction as soon as this new system began to reach capacity. The modernist classics carved comfort out of creativity. The concrete tower blocks they inspired lacked empathy. Today the streets in the sky are paved in conformity and clouded in pollution. Today’s children once again pasty faced and sickly.
A potential antidote to this had been synthesised before the gears had even started to shift. The so called traditionalism of Ruskin and some of his contemporaries, the parents of the conservation movement, need not be understood as some twee nostalgia. There was a realisation occurring here that health is related to place. Placing someone in a foreign environment, a space that they are neither emotionally nor socially in tune with, is painful. Adaptation was too gradual a process for the life cycle of the working family. Environmental angst was inherited.
We find ourselves on the cusp of a new machine revolution and at the threshold of a landscape of hitherto unknown environments. From the global climate and our agglomerating cities, down to our workplaces and new definitions of private space, technology protects us from the changes it delivers. It promises free energy and engenders personal freedom. It also sows new confusions and strengthens old divisions. The risk is that as society is forced to readapt, moonshot ambitions will once again take us too far over the horizon, or leave too many behind.
Conservation should not be about preserving history. It should be about navigating the future. It should be a tool for interpreting the past to set a framework for moving forwards. The mistake of the previous centuries was to attempt to rewrite the book, let alone start a new chapter. They imagined humanity liberated from the fairytales and oral traditions of its childhood. Romanticising is no longer the right approach. Neither is treating history as an exhibit in a display cabinet, time frozen in time, like the misassembled bones of a Victorian dinosaur.
As our relationship with the built environment increases in complexity, we must remember that humanity is constructed on narrative. We have built everything on the memories of our ancestors. Even whilst virtual worlds drag us from our concrete cities, as cities dragged us from the countryside, we must take care not to interrupt this narrative. Architecture is a language beyond the tongue. Interpreting this language reveals stories we had forgotten. Reading these stories collectively places us. Re-telling these stories will be vital to steering a path through the more prosaic challenges of demand and supply. If the built environment is our collective wellbeing, architectural conservation is its therapy.