Context 138 - March 2015

28 C O N T E X T 1 3 8 : M A R C H 2 0 1 5 In many senses, David Mullane’s concerns, both in the Herald article and in public debate 2, are ones with which I can sympathise to an extent. Mullane is motivated by respect for Mackintosh and his work, and by fear of the result looking less than it should. There is, however, a more doctrinaire objection to reinstate- ment. This argument centres around a perception of authenticity as a static and unalterable state – unalterable without destroying it – which is vested exclusively in the original materials with which a building or structure is built. It is best explained by a short parable: the tale of Theseus’ ship 3. After the death of the ancient Greek heroTheseus, his ship was preserved in Athens as a cultural icon and a visitor attraction. As decade succeeded decade, repairs were carried out. After some centuries, the necessary repairs had been so extensive that they became the subject of debates in the philosophical schools of Athens. Was this still Theseus’ ship? This dilemma of decay, loss and replacement is often taken by conservation thinkers as a conservation nightmare, a worst-case scenario. Many professional theorists exhibit symptoms of suspicion regarding renewal beyond the simplest repair. This approach has often advanced its cause through international conservation charters. We can see the ramifications of this theoretical or abstract dilemma in recent events at another Mackintosh building, the Hill House in Helensburgh (in the care of the National Trust for Scotland). There the relevant conservation professionals appear to have been almost paralysed by process of thought, study and debate over some years 4. During this time damp has threatened the interiors and the structure, resulting in the commis- sioning of studies and consultants, and the holding of a conference. The problem was caused by increasing failure of the harl or roughcast with which Mackintosh had covered the exterior. One can see how this issue, in reality only a technical one, assumed the proportions of a major philosophical dilemma.Was this not the very harl whichMackintosh had seen workmen attach to the walls? Was it not, therefore, hallowed and made sacred by its authenticity? Surely, according to this logic, it can not be replaced? Detached pieces had already been pinned on in the 1980s using carbon rods at the insistence of Historic Scotland. Will the authenticity of the building be partly erased by the harl’s replacement? Mackintosh himself knew that the harl must be renewed sooner or later.The greatest threat to the building’s true significance, continued wellbeing and authenticity is, in any common-sense assessment, continued practical inaction in the face of a serious and potentially very damaging problem. Theseus’ ship ought to provide a message different from that usually attributed to it. The ancient philoso- phers and academics who debated the authenticity of Theseus’ ship were interested in purely abstract issues. It seems extremely unlikely that they ever considered conservation solutions to preserving the ship. Who were the real conservationists in the story of Theseus’ ship, if not the philosophers? It was the Athenians themselves, who ran the actual regime of care. It was they who made the best conservation decisions they could, replacing this plank or that rib when it had rotted, in order to save something from the march of time, by extending the existence of the overall structure. Conservation is not the exercise of perfect solutions in an ideal world. It is the exercise of judgement and the making of hardy decisions in a real world. It is about fighting a rear-guard action to take with us as much cultural baggage as we can carry from the wreck of time. It is about what we can manage to do, and do well. A study of the various charters since 1964 reveals more mixed, even contradictory views among conservation academics than is often assumed.The ICOMOS advisory report of 1980, in support of the inscription of the historic centre of Warsaw as a UNESCO world heritage site, sanctioned the prior rebuilding of the centre ofWarsaw and praised its identical appearance to the original. The 1982 Declaration of Dresden implicitly allows reconstruction where information is available, and the Riga Charter of 2000 allows for reconstruction after disaster under applicable circumstances. In these cases the spirit of a building or place is thought to reside not in material authenticity alone but in a more emotive, inspirational or traumatic reality: in the magic of emotive engagement or reaction to the loss and tragedy of war. Millions of people during the last 100 years have seen the great campanile rising over St Mark’s Square. Have they all been cheated? Should we refer to the reinstated Loggetta as ‘pseudo-Sansovino’ with the same derision or contempt as some now apply when they suggest that any reinstatement at the Art School will result in ‘Mockintosh’? By reproducing the Mackintosh interiors erased by the fire, we are doing a great service to the continued enjoyment and understanding of Mackintosh, to the Art School and to posterity.We only have to ensure we do it well. Acknowledgements This article is a shortened version of a paper delivered at the public debate in September 2014.The author is indebted to Peter Trowles, Taffner Curator at Glasgow School of Art, for answering questions, to Charlotte Rostek for helpful criticisms, to Dennis Rodwell for advice on international conservation charters and documents, and to Robert Adam’s article Does heritage dogma destroy living history? (Context 79, May 2003). References 1 Miller, Phil (2014) ‘Mackintosh library plan should be ditched, says expert’, Herald , Glasgow, 3 September 2 A public debate organised by the Charles Rennie Mackintosh Society was held in Queen’s Cross Church on 19 September 2014. 3 Plutarch (1960) The Rise and Fall of Athens: nine Greek lives , translated by Ian Scott-Kilvert, London 4 ‘The situation at the Hill House is an example of just how complex the conservation of our heritage can be…The technical complexities of dealing with such serious issues on a building of such significance are immense.That’s why the trust is being very thorough in its research before beginning any work.’Terry Levinthal, National Trust for Scotland director of conservation, explaining already considerable delays in a short statement (written as long ago as 2011) in the NTS members’ magazine, Scotland in Trust , Summer 2011 Michael Davis is an independent architectural writer Would the authenticity of Mackintosh’s Hill house be partly erased by replacing the harl (roughcast)? (Photo: Remi Mathis)