Context 162 - November 2019

56 C O N T E X T 1 6 2 : N O V E M B E R 2 0 1 9 Book reviews The new complexity Historic Cities: issues in urban conservation Edited by Jeff Cody and Francesco Silvado, Getty Publications, 2019, 632 pages, 114 colour and 60 black &white illustrations, softback, ISBN 978 1 606059 38, £60 A few years ago, I took a group of civic design masters students on a field trip to Manchester.We looked at the regeneration of Ancoats, close to the city centre, one of the oldest industrial urban areas in the world. As we wandered through the restored old factory buildings and canals, a Chinese student turned to me and asked: ‘Why are you keeping all these old buildings?’ I was caught off balance, stumbling out an answer based on the importance of industrial history, the significance of the buildings, the need to save the carbon embedded in the bricks, and so on. But the question left me unsettled and the student unconvinced. Later I understood why: she was directly questioning widely accepted values. These values may seem fundamental. Yet they are surprisingly recent in origin. In 1965, the authors of the Liverpool City Centre Plan proposed the clearance of some 80 per cent of its 19th-century city centre, to be replaced with eight- lane motorways and concrete megastructures. All this was supported with huge enthusiasm by the leader of the city council. Fifty years on, everything has changed. Most of the plan was never implemented. Vast areas proposed for bulldozing and rebuilding are now in a world heritage site and buffer zone. Conservation, not clearance, is in the ascendant. What has prompted this huge shift in values? The answers can be found in this sumptuously produced and masterfully assembled collection of readings. In all there are 67 separate contributions (some quite short, others longer) grouped into eight different thematic sections. The editors should be congratulated on their internationalism, with contributions from Chinese, African, Japanese, and European writers alongside the usual voices. Not all the international perspectives bring fresh insight, yet some are astonishingly rich and thought provoking. In several reports on planning principles for Indian maharajahs, dating back to 1915, the planner and polymath Patrick Geddes is in sparkling form, anticipating by several decades the critiques of conventional master planning offered by Jane Jacobs. Similarly, Carmen Tsui offers remarkable insights into Chinese conservation ethics in her 2002 paper on urban conservation principles for Huizhou. Tsui argues that in Imperial China people had neither the concept nor the practice of conservation. Chinese respect for the past was not manifested in the conservation of historic structures, but in the transmission of knowledge and memories inherited from the ancients: Chinese philosophers argued that all tangible objects must eventually disappear and that only intangible values can remain eternal. Thus, memory is what links present-day China to its past. It is a profound conclusion, and one highly relevant to the difficulty western conservationists appear to have in weighing intangible values against what might be ungraciously described as architectural fetishism. Alongside these international perspectives the book works as a carefully plotted introduction to the rise of conservation ethics, beginning with the thoughts of Victor Hugo in 1832 and John Ruskin in 1854. All the great names in 20th-century conservation planning and urbanism have their say: Lewis Mumford, Leonardo Benevolo, Jane Jacobs, John Summerson, Gordon Cullen, Jan Gehl, Patrick Geddes, Camillo Sitte, Donald Insall, Jukka Jokilehto and many more. I would have preferred a direct reading from the core of Jane Jacobs’ hugely influential The Death and Life of Great American Cities rather than its later foreword; and an introduction to Ruskin’s core principles from ‘The Seven Lamps of Architecture’, rather than his piece on the opening of