Context 146 - September 2016

36 C O N T E X T 1 4 6 : S E P T E M B E R 2 0 1 6 NIGEL WALTER Conservation as action and reaction In helping people to discover, access and safeguard their heritage, the role of conservation professionals as experts is needed more than ever, but on different and non-elitist terms. The central question the conservation community faces is the renegotiation of the role of the public in conservation decision making, so it is fitting that the theme of the 2016 IHBC annual school was ‘People Power!’.We like to think of the conservation community as a plucky David pitted against the mighty Goliath of blind economic self-interest, and that the public on whose behalf we fight will be necessarily grateful.The view from outside can be quite different, with persistent accusations of detachment from the interests of the public, and a lack of both flexibility and accountability. The customary response within the conservation community is to suggest that all we need is better communication and public education.This article suggests that both the issues at stake, and the opportunities on offer, are more fundamental. The story of modern conservation can be read as the response to the twin traumas of 19th-century restoration and 20th-century post-war reconstruction. William Morris and John Ruskin stand tall among our 19th-century heroes, and Morris’s still influential 1877 manifesto for the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (SPAB) drew heavily on Ruskin, most obvi- ously his Seven Lamps of Architecture of 1849 with its eloquent evocation of ‘the golden stain of time’, and so on. Less frequently cited is Ruskin’s 1854 essay ‘The Opening of the Crystal Palace’, which both attacks restoration and calls for the formation of a society to catalogue, monitor and, if necessary, purchase threat- ened monuments, a call answered by the foundation of SPAB. The appeal in Morris’s manifesto is ‘to treat our ancient buildings as monuments of a bygone art, created by bygone manners, that modern art cannot meddle with without destroying’. Another figure of interest is the novelist Thomas Hardy, who had first trained as an architect, working on a variety of church restorations, including with Arthur Blomfield in London. Hardy was an early supporter of SPAB, including acting as a case-worker in the west country. He addressed the issue of competing interests in Memories of Church Restoration, his 1906 paper delivered to SPAB: ‘To the incumbent the church is a workshop; to the antiquary it is a relic. To the parish it is a utility; to the outsider a luxury. How to unite these incompatibles?’ He goes on to propose that ‘If the ruinous church could be enclosed in a crystal palace... and a new church be built alongside for services... the method would be an ideal one.’ Entirely compatible with the SPAB manifesto, this is a vision of built herit- age divorced both from the history, and the community, which produced it. Whether this assumption of radical discontinuity was ever a culturally literate response to the historic environment is questionable; in an age of increasing public participation it is potentially disastrous, both for the buildings themselves, and for the place of the conservation community in the wider culture. Our second trauma, that of the 20th century, is closer at hand. After the extensive destruction by aerial bombardment, including the deliberate target- ing of heritage, it is often remarked that post-war replanning of British cities completed the work the Luftwaffe had started; Coventry is one frequently cited example. The 1961 destruction of the Euston Arch was the first major battle for the recently formed Victorian Society, but its loss spurred greater activism and led to future victories, including saving St Pancras Station. Resistance to the loss of heritage also came from within the architectural profession, notably expressed through the Architectural Review, not least in the townscape cam- paign, with its focus on context and genius loci , and the pivotal role it played in saving Covent Garden. Others, of course, saw things differently; for example, critic and