Does heritage dogma destroy living history?

A practitioner argues that the conservation charters’ definitions of ‘authenticity’, ‘heritage’ and

‘monument’ present a frustrating obstacle to creativity in traditional design.

St Malo: a type of reconstruction condemned as inauthentic in the Krakow Charter

The Venice and Krakow Charters

The Charter of Venice and the Charter of Krakow are the documents that set down the principles that guide our management of the historic environment.

The Athens Charter for the Restoration of Historic Monuments of 1931 set the scene for the whole phenomenon of international agreements on
heritage practice and law. The Venice Charter for the Conservation and Restoration of Monuments and Sites was drawn up in 1964 and ICOMOS was founded a year later as a response to the international adoption of the charter.

The Charter of Krakow on the Principles for Conservation and Restoration of Built Heritage of 2000 was an EEC initiative but a number of other
countries also subscribed: non-EEC European countries, the USA, Canada, New Zealand, India, Indonesia, China and South Korea. Clear evidence of these charters can be found in national and regional
laws and regulations throughout the world.

There is much that is good in these documents but locked into their philosophy are assumptions about the relationship between architecture, society and history which, I submit, not only undermine the character
of our historic environment but damage the very relationship between built heritage and the community which they seek to protect.

Each new charter claimed only to reinforce the principles of the previous document, but they are classic cases of mission creep. To illustrate this we can start with the way the meaning of the word ‘monument’ has progressively changed.

The 1931 Athens Charter does not define ‘monuments’ but in the text monuments can be ‘of artistic, historic or scientific interest’ (although by its title the charter is only concerned only with historic monuments) and most references are specifically to ‘ancient monuments’. It is safe, therefore, to assume that the word ‘monument’ in the 1931 charter pretty well accords with common usage in Britain: a building or object of some antiquity and of particular and significant interest, or something that records an
important person or event.

The first article of the 1964 Venice Charter defines ‘historic monument’: ‘The concept of an historic monument embraces not only the single architectural work but also the urban or rural setting in which is found the evidence of a particular civilization, a significant development or an historic event. This applies not only to great works of art but also to more modest works of the past which have acquired cultural significance with the passing of time’ (my emphasis).

The implications of the article 1 definition are clear: monuments can be ‘modest works’ the significance of which can be gained culturally by no more than the passage of time. What these modest works might constitute is open ended. Historic monuments can now be much more than buildings or objects of particular and significant historic interest. It is implied, however, that they must at least be reasonably old.

Age may seem to be an obvious precondition for acharter on heritage, but not so in the 2000 Krakow Charter. The word ‘monument’ is only used once in the text but is the second word after ‘heritage’ to be defined in an annex of definitions. This definition is highly revealing: ‘A monument is an entity identified as of worth and forming a support to memory. In it, memory recognises aspects that are pertinent to human deeds and thoughts, associated with the historic time line. This may still be within our reach, even though not yet interpreted.’ Once you have got through the curious terminology, this definition finally reduces monuments to pretty well anything. History is reduced to an association with ‘the historic time line’.

Even this is qualified as something that ‘may still be within our reach’ and so is, one can only assume, quite recent and ‘not yet interpreted’, which I take to mean not yet even the subject of any historical consideration. In fact, the only reasonably objective qualification is that a monument is ‘identified as of worth’, but there are no criteria and identification alone seems to be enough. It is hard to know why a word used only once in the text carries such a detailed definition at all – unless it is to spike the potentially slightly restrictive use of the word in the Venice Charter. Whether or not this was the intention, it is the effect. Monuments are reduced to anything physical that anyone might identify as of worth.

Further and conclusive evidence of mission creep lies in the definition of heritage, the word which has displaced the word ‘monument’ in the title and text of the Krakow Charter.

The first definition in the annex of definitions is ‘heritage’: ‘Heritage is that complex of man’s work in which a community recognises its particular and specific values and with which it identifies. Identification and specification of heritage is therefore a process related to the choice of values’. There are two things to note about this. The first is the lack of any reference to
age, time or the passage of time, and the generality of the definition. Heritage is effectively anything with which a community can be said to identify. The only history involved is the practical expedient that for a
community to identify with a ‘complex of man’s work’ it has to exist and so must have some history, even if only a year or two.

Plymouth: a type of reconstruction virtuous for its authenticity, according to the Krakow Charter

The second is the lack of any indication of just how a community identifies its heritage in practice. While there is one reference to community participation even this is to be managed by ‘the appointment of a competent and well educated leader’. The emphasis throughout, however, is to the primacy of ‘professionals’, ‘specialists’, ‘administrators’, ‘appropriate qualifications’, ‘legal regulation’ and ‘permits for practice’. The charter marks out Built Heritage as a place for experts or civil servants who, through their knowledge of their speciality, or position, are qualified to represent the whole community.

To summarise: the identity and so the preservation of a building or place as heritage on behalf of the community is most likely to be entrusted, as part of a bureaucratic process, to individuals schooled in archaeological and historical methodology; the definition of heritage is so open that the very act of identification is sufficient; and those who make the identification are most likely civil servants whose careers are advanced by an expansion of the buildings and places so identified.

One way or the other, we now have either monuments or built heritage which have been identified by someone somewhere as significant or of worth. But what is the aim of preserving or conserving them?

Article 3 of the Venice Charter, entitled ‘Aim’ is quite clear: ‘The intention in conserving and restoring monuments is to safeguard them no less as works of art than as historic evidence.’ Paragraph 1 of the Krakow Charter, entitled ‘Aims and Methods’ is also clear: ‘The architectural, urban and landscape heritage, as well as artefacts, are the result of an identification with various associated moments in history and social-cultural contexts. The conservation of this heritage is our aim.’ In these fundamental statements of aims, a central role for archaeological and historical
methodology becomes clear.

The Venice Charter refers to ‘historic evidence’ and the Krakow Charter to ‘moments in history’. The idea that buildings or places are ‘evidence’ or representations of historical ‘moments’ is an archaeological or historical concept. Archaeological sites, for example, can provide evidence of some period of the past or some past civilization. Equally, buildings can be used as evidence for economic activity or to indicate the balance of power at one particular moment in history.

Such deductions from the remnants of our past are the very stuff of archaeology and history. In order to give some order to and so study the confusing and random events that make up our past, archaeologists and historians seek evidence and isolate what they consider to be critical moments in history.

This is all very fine in the study and so in the protection of the remains of antiquity, which seems to have been the primary concern of the Athens
Charter. Generally such remains were only of interest as evidence of lost moments in history. But as the definition of monuments is extended charter by charter until it becomes an all-embracing heritage and encompasses so much of our every day built environment, these principles just do not fit. Most of our historic buildings and places have long histories of continuous occupation that is still under way. Evidence has not only been piling up for some time but is still doing so. History has not stopped. Moments in history are in fact a continuous series of moments that are still going on.

The expansion of archaeological and historical methodology to living buildings and places is like the study of wildlife through taxidermy. It has the effect of turning living organisms into dead specimens and takes away the life that made them worthy of study in the first place. We know that the life of these buildings and places was and is often a rough and ready affair, messy and at times destructive. Left alone, it would continue to be so. This was not only an essential part of their life; it was also an essential part of their character. To attempt to stamp out this raw edge of life for the sake of the preservation of evidence, or to conserve an identification with certain moments in history, takes away a vital part of the life and character of a building or place. It reduces it to a specimen in the interests of academic objectives.

Partially rebuilt house at Pompeii: popular, evocative but not in accordance with the Venice and Krakow Charters.
The academic objectives of these charters are further demonstrated by the demand for and even the obsession with authenticity. In the Athens Charter, the authors were only really concerned that ruins should generally be restored with the original fallen fragments, a process called anastylosis. The use of new materials for restoration was not ruled out, but authenticity was to be safeguarded by making sure that new materials should be recognisable as such. It does not stipulate by whom – the most ignorant visitor or the archaeologist.

The Venice Charter, however, rules out any restoration of ruins other than anastylosis and, critically, moves the Athens Charter principle for the restoration of ruins to any act of restoration. Article 12 says: ‘Replacements of missing parts must integrate harmoniously with the whole, but at the same time must be distinguishable from the original so that restoration does not falsify the artistic or historical evidence’. (Note the use of ‘evidence’ again.)

The Krakow Charter is even more explicit: ‘The purpose of conservation of historic buildings and monuments… is to maintain their authenticity and integrity’. Strict limits are placed on any reconstruction in that it should only be ‘very small parts having architectural significance… as an exception on condition that it is based on precise and indisputable documentation.’ Authenticity is defined in the annex: ‘Authenticity means the sum of substantial, historically ascertained characteristics: from the original up to the current state, as an outcome of the various transformations that have
taken place’. So, the authentic parts of a building or place are everything that has happened to it up to now that can be historically ascertained – ascertained meaning, I think, proven.

An existing building or place is, by the Krakow Charter definition, only authentic up to the moment someone identifies it as being of worth. Anything that happens after that is not authentic. According to the Krakow Charter, only very small parts of a damaged building should be repaired and only if you know, precisely and without any dispute, what they were like originally. Presumably, permanent disfigurement is better than the slightest risk of historical inauthenticity. The Venice Charter is a little kinder, but repair to damaged buildings or places must in some way look different from the rest of the building or place, in case someone, again we do not know who, is fooled by it.

Authenticity and the tyranny of history
Why is heritage control obsessed with authenticity?
To whom does it matter?

Does it matter if a casual visitor to a building ‘of worth’ mistakes a new repair for an original part of the building? How far do you have to go to make sure this does not happen? Do you have to go so far that you contradict one of the key objectives of doing it in the first place – to restore the wholeness of the original work of art so that it can be appreciated? Indeed, this seems to be case.

The restoration of the stonework in the courtyard in the British Museum, for example, is patched in with new unweathered stone that, now there is a new roof, will never weather down to match the original. This destroys the visual coherence of Smirke’s original design. Is the coherence of the design less important than making sure that every visitor knows for sure which stones are new and which are old? Surely not. But this is the ridiculous situation these principles force upon us. This kind of thing only matters to
academics and experts and, if they really want to know, they can find out anyway.

Hardly any of the people who visit the monuments in Rome are aware that Giacomo Valadier restored a great deal of detail in the early 19th century. The stone has now weathered down to match the originals and the distinctive stripped-down column capitals, for example, different by their lack of decoration but very well done for all that, now look original. This
really does not matter for most visitors and it is a boon to be able to see the Arch of Titus pretty much as a whole architectural composition, in spite of the fact that it is about 50 per cent restoration.

Visitors to Pompeii, more often than not, have no idea that the more complete houses are partial reconstructions. They do, however, get a much better idea of what a Roman house looked like than they can with the houses stripped bare and abandoned by the archaeologist. It really does not matter if they are fooled into believing the reconstruction, even if it is
not 100 per cent accurate. These are by far the most popular places to visit, and they fire the imagination more than a thousand grey remains.

Even when heritage is genuinely identified by a community, as the Krakow Charter suggests it should, there is no evidence of any public demand for precise authenticity.

Iconic buildings such as the Tower of London and iconic places such as Williamsburg, Virginia, without question come under the Krakow Charter’s definition of heritage, that is a ‘part of a complex of man’s works in which a community has recognise[d]… particular and specific values and with which [they] identif[y]’ – in these cases identified without the intervention
of ‘competent and well educated leaders’, as recommended by the Krakow Charter. They are also not at all authentic.

The Arch of Titus before and after Valadier: a speculative restoration so old that few recognise it and which now has an historical importance of its own.

The Tower of London is an imaginary 19th century reconstruction of the Tudor tower, largely by Anthony Salvin. Williamsburg is a late 20th century imaginative and often hypothetical reconstruction of an 18th century town. The lack of authenticity is public knowledge, to a greater or lesser degree, but some might be fooled. It does not really matter to anyone except an academic or an expert. Would most people prefer to have Plymouth or St Malo as models for reconstruction? I do not think it needs an opinion poll to find out the answer. But, according to the definitions of the Venice and Krakow Charters, St Malo is inauthentic and Plymouth is authentic. (Reconstruction of the St Malo type is, in fact, actively discouraged in the Krakow Charter.)

This public attitude to authenticity should be no surprise to any student of culture. These buildings, in common with many things by which large and small communities establish their identity, are largely symbolic. Generally, such things are traditional and so must have a credible historic pedigree, but they do not have to be wholly genuine to be accepted. No one really cares, even if they know it, that most British royal ceremony was made up in the first part of the 20th century. Even when Scotsmen know that an early 19th century English tailor made up the clan tartan system, it does not stop them from wearing their ‘clan’ tartan. For the community that traditionally identifies itself with an old building or place, apparent (not wholly genuine) antiquity is much more important than
genuine academic authenticity.

This academic or expert obsession with authenticity has drawn the authors of both the Venice and Krakow Charters beyond their concern for history into the muddy waters of modern architectural theory and style. The combination of authenticity and history is the path to this folly.

Architectural history, as all history, makes a story by selecting things out of the vast confusion of the past. To make a readable story it must have a continuous dialogue – one thing leads to another and leads to another, and so on. It must also have chapters and each chapter must have a subject. So there will be an historic progression and there will be distinct periods
that are usually given names for ease of identity: the enlightenment, the industrial revolution and so on. The history of art and architecture will identify artistic movements and styles and how one led to another: renaissance, high renaissance, mannerism, baroque and so on. In more recent historical study, these art historical periods will be tied to social and economic periods, and presented as the authentic outcome of aspects of society that run deeper than just style.

Eventually, the historian and the reader may come to believe that there was an inevitability about this relationship between society and art, that it could not have been any other way, that the artistic type that has been selected to represent the period (and there was never only one type) is the only authentic representation of that period possible. They forget that not only did no one at the time actually realise that they were being gothic or baroque, but also that such rationalisation can only ever be done in retrospect. Whatever we do must be authentic to our age because we are doing it now. We have no idea what history will judge to be the authentic representation of our society, as we have no idea how the immediate future will assess what we are doing.

Historical determinism distorts the richness of the past by over-simplification. Much of what was considered to be important at the time is consigned to the dustbin of history. Isaac Newton was more interested in the occult than he was in gravity, but this does not fit with the authentic spirit of the enlightenment and so is hardly ever mentioned. Lapidary pictures were as highly valued as the work of major painters in the renaissance, but we hear nothing of this, as it does not fit the historians’ interest in the authentic genius. Inter-war architecture was almost all traditional everywhere but this is now virtually wholly ignored in favour of fledgling modernism, as this is now seen as the authentic architecture of the modern world.

Robert Adam is a director of Robert Adam Architects, one of the largest firms in Europe specialising in traditional design. His work includes new traditional buildings and work to historic buildings. He is the chairman of the International Network for Traditional Building, Architecture and Urbanism (INTBAU) and honorary secretary of the RIBA.

But this is all the rough and tumble of history. It does no harm and keeps a lot of intelligent people employed discovering new directions, revealing forgotten works and finding new pioneers. Apply it to the present and give it authority, however, and it becomes a dangerous tyranny. This is just what has happened in the Venice and Krakow Charters.

In the Venice Charter the aim of restoration ‘is to preserve and reveal the aesthetic and historic value of the monument and is based on respect for original material and authentic documents. It must stop at the point where conjecture begins, and in this case moreover any extra work which is indispensable must be distinct from the architectural composition and
must bear a contemporary stamp.’

The Krakow Charter goes further: ‘The reconstruction of entire parts “in the style of the building” should be avoided… If necessary, for a proper use of the building, completion of more extensive spatial and functional parts should reflect contemporary architecture.’

Both charters specify the use of a style of building that is ‘contemporary’ for any new work to monuments or built heritage. What does this mean? Whatever we do today is, in one sense, contemporary; we have no choice but to be contemporary. If we decide to build, as it says in the Krakow Charter, in the style of the original building, this is a contemporary decision. So clearly this cannot be what ‘contemporary’ means in these charters, or the stipulations would have no meaning. There is little doubt that what is meant is that new work must be obviously and overtly different from its historic predecessor.

Architects will recognise this as a central tenet of the theory of modernism. To modernists, only architecture that is obviously different from architecture of the past is an authentic representation of the present day. This theory is based on an erroneous projection of historical methodology into the present – historical determinism. If you categorise history by style or artistic movement (often ignoring awkward examples that do not fit the
theory) and make one style an inevitable reflection of its contemporary social, political and economic context, then you will believe that not only must new art and architecture be easy to identify and so quite different to what went before, but that to do otherwise would not be authentic to its social, political and economic situation – it would not, to use the familiar catch phrase, be ‘of its time’.

We can now see how the theoretical underpinning of the Venice and Krakow Charters follows the same modernist philosophy. In the charters, as in the theory of modernism, we have the projection of historical methodology on to an environment that has yet to become history. In the charters, as in the theory of modernism, we have an obsessive concern with historical authenticity. Finally, in the charters, as in modernism, we have a claim for the dominance of the objectives and philosophy of the professional and the expert over the everyday built environment.

It should, therefore, come as no surprise that the terminology and meaning of the extraordinary stylistic requirements for new building work in these two charters should not only be modernist in intention but also share the same vocabulary. In modernist thinking, so inevitable and self-evident is the authenticity of modernism to the modern world that the appropriation of the very adjectives for the present condition – ‘contemporary’ and ‘modern’ – seems both natural and right. And so it is that in the Venice and Krakow Charters we have the raw modernism of conservation concealed under a cloak of moral righteousness.

Lest anyone think that this outlook has any inevitability or historic legitimacy, we need to remember that much of the art and architecture of the past sought precisely to emulate, imitate or capture the spirit of some past age. These movements or styles are today recognised retrospectively by all historians as authentic expressions of their age. There is no logical reason whatsoever why this age has to be any different. Lest anyone think that overt contrast between the new and the old is protecting (to quote the Krakow Charter) the ‘particular and specific values’… ‘ which a community recognises’ in its heritage, remember that the stylistic continuity of the new sculptural work on Westminster Abbey was attacked by experts, whereas the overt modernity of the new sculpture on Wells Cathedral was attacked by the public.

There is a long tradition of literate continuity in the repair and extension of historic structures. Examples include the 17th century extension of Lichfield
Cathedral in the original style; Wyattville’s creation of a new castle around the medieval core of Windsor Castle; most of Whitehall, where classical building piles upon classical building until only the expert can distinguish the antiquity of the Banqueting Hall; Finsbury Square, rebuilt as the original style after the war; and Blois, rebuilt in the original style (not as a copy) in the 1950s; or you can contrast Burnett’s Edward VII Galleries at the British Museum with Foster’s work to the courtyard. History was not all
revolutions. There is a tradition of literate continuity which is just as authentic as glaring contrast.

The demand for academic authenticity is nothing to do with the study of our heritage (a ruin is no more or less open to study than a reconstruction if you have access to the records and the facts). It is aesthetic, patronising and moralising. Why should it be wrong for people to be deceived if they prefer to have a satisfying, if academically inauthentic, reconstruction rather than a bare ruin, or a disfigured and incomplete building? This is not science. It is the protection of the traditions and symbolic identity of communities.

We must not be bullied by the weighty words of international experts. We must recognise a theory for what it is. Stripped of its factual disguise, it can
be brought out into the open and compared with alternatives. The conclusions of the Venice and Krakow Charters are not infallible. There is another way.

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