Seven Things to Know about Heritage Conservation

There seven things to know about heritage conservation on our contemporary world today. This is a message for designers, architects, planners and managers of heritage buildings and places. I set them out as follows;

Fig.1 – Kogarah Hotel, Kogarah NSW – Australia circa 1930.

1. CULTURAL BUILT HERITAGE IS IRREPLACEABLE.
The decisions we make today will forever affect a heritage building or place. Therefore, we need to be conscious and judicious in the way we treat heritage fabric because what we decide now will affect every future decision to come. This places a heavy onus on the design of heritage buildings and forces the designer/ architect/ planner/ manager to be very circumspect in regard to each and every decision affecting a heritage building or place.

2. LOST FABRIC CAN NEVER BE RETURNED.
Heritage buildings are all about their fabric. If you remove an element – it’s gone for ever. Nothing but a replica can be returned, and replicas are not heritage. Its not about what it looks like – its about what it actually is. I cannot replace my grandmother with a fake replica – it just won’t be the same person. This is how we need to think about heritage buildings.

3. THERE IS AN EXPECTATION THAT OWNERS AND MANAGERS OF HERITAGE BUILDINGS WILL CONSERVE THEIR ASSETS AND NOT WILLINGLY DAMAGE OR DEMOLISH THEM.
Although councils cannot force owners to conserve their heritage-listed buildings, there is an expectation that they will care for them and repair them as necessary.

4. OWNERS OF HERITAGE BUILDINGS ARE CURATORS OF THE ASSET.
Current owners stand as one link in a long chain of previous and future owners. The fact that a heritage building has made it safely through the vicissitudes of change to the present day is itself a miraculous feat. This is how we need to think about heritage buildings i.e. that current owners are merely the custodian of the asset and its not for them to make decisions about the building that will compromise future owners in their enjoyment of the place.

5. OWNERS OF HERITAGE BUILDINGS SHARE THEIR ASSET WITH THE COMMUNITY.
This will strike the average owner as odd because the community which gets the benefit of the asset does not contribute financially to the asset. In fact, the owner contributes 100% of the cost. This is inequitable and for many years I have argued that the government (council) should have a fund in place to compensate owners for the imbalance either by way of financial compensation or offsets in planning controls. Sydney City Council does have a transferrable development rights scheme but no other council in NSW does. Incentives are essential for heritage owners in order to allow for the maintenance of heritage buildings to be shared equitably between owners and the community. There are many ways to tap into funding and there is nothing to stop councils from setting up a hypothecated tax on visiting or using heritage assets by non-owners in order to lessen the burden of the cost for heritage owners who are more restricted with their properties than non-heritage listed owners.

6. ALL HERITAGE BUILDINGS CAN BE CHANGED, MODIFIED, ALTERED, EXTENDED OR RE-PURPOSED.
Even the Sydney Opera House which is a world-heritage-listed property is being changed as we speak. In fact, new uses for heritage buildings do need to be constantly sought as there is nothing more dangerous to a heritage building than it being unoccupied or abandoned. Therefore, there is an onus on the heritage management system i.e. Councils or the State Government to actively encourage new uses to be found for otiose buildings – its part of urban regeneration and it is tantamount to good heritage management.

7. CHANGING HERITAGE BUILDINGS IS A HIGH ART AND A RARE SCIENCE.
Without belabouring the point, there is an art to changing heritage buildings and it is not part of main stream architecture or planning. It is based on a deep understanding of heritage buildings, the aspirations of the original builders and users and an understanding of the building technology associated with old buildings and their materials and how these materials perform in current day environments. To this end, conservation architecture has become a specialty in the same way that for instance neuro-science has become a speciality of general medicine. Notwithstanding, good design can faithfully bring an old building into current usage, but bad design can destroy it.

Paul Rappoport – Heritage 21
10 July 2018

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