All posts in Review
Crème de la Crematorium
New book prepares crematoria for the architectural spotlight
Drawn and Quartered
Drawing Codes ironically gets the rules all wrong
Preserve the Past
A British preservationist considers: How do you keep a building alive?
Conservation architecture has never been glamorous. It is simply a reflection of contemporary society that the careful continuation of what already exists is always going to be overshadowed by the creation of wholly something new. Yet from Berlin’s Neues Museum to London’s St Pancras Station, if we look across a range of globally significant architecture projects from recent decades we see that a conservation approach has been instrumental in many of them.
While there is a tendency to lump conservation architects in with their traditionalist cousins—and this book by leading conservation architect, Donald Insall, actually contains a foreword by HRH The Prince of Wales—it is wrong to see the conservation movement as necessarily conservative, or even reactionary. The Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (SPAB) was founded in 1877 by, among others, William Morris and Philip Webb—figures to whom certain aspects of modernism can also be traced—and the histories of modernism and traditionalism have run in parallel. Both, in a sense, were cultural responses to the conditions of industrial modernity.
Even in the 1960s, when conservation became the clear counter to modernism’s excesses, particularly in town planning, the relationship between the two remained more complex than one of straightforward opposition. One could even argue that the conservation movement actually played an enabling role; its very existence freed modernism of the past so that it could focus wholly on how architecture might bring about a better future.
Postmodernism, of course, fundamentally challenged these frameworks and distinctions. One of its most pervasive and important legacies has arguably been the gradual infiltration of a conservation approach into the mainstream. Every architect today when approaching a project considers questions of context, place, and history. For that reason this book should be of interest not just to those concerned with conservation, but to all architects and, indeed, everyone with an appreciation of architecture and its past, present, and futures.
For over 60 years, Insall has led one of Britain’s most respected practices of conservation architects, working on a range of highly significant conservation projects. Part manual, part theory of conservation, this book’s chief proposition is that buildings are not fixed or static entities but are “living” things—and that this idea should inform approaches to their care and upkeep.
Early in the book, Insall states that “every building is a product not only of its original generator…but of the continuing effects upon its materials of time and weather, and of generations of successive occupants, each with his own set of values and requirements.” The starting point for every project should therefore be to look for “each project’s unique identity and character.”
Such is the passion with which Insall proclaims that “buildings are alive;” one might infer that to his mind it’s more than mere metaphor. Yet as a metaphor it proves a useful way of organizing the various aspects of his approach, whether it’s assessing the role of “locality and materials” (“materials have their own story, and in old buildings speak eloquently of their local origin”), the role of “weather and the elements” as “a continuous force in shaping a living building” or the way “cyclical renewal is part of every building’s life and history.”
One of the striking things about this book is how it ranges from the micro to the macro. It is rare, for example, to read in the same book a reminder to close the door to a library if building work is going on outside and reflections on the philosophy of conservation. But it’s this broad scope that allows it to be both a primer and of interest to the expert. Aimed at both experts and general readers is Insall’s core argument that the approach to “old buildings” should be open and led not by preconceptions but the innate qualities of the buildings themselves. One only wishes that the same principal might be applied to the very notion of heritage and what is deemed “significant,” which so often claims objectivity but is in fact reflective of ideology. But that is not Insall’s subject.
There are moments of the book that jar, notably the relentless “he” and “his” in relation to the architect, and as a distillation of half-a-century’s work, there are inevitably some aspects that feel dated. But the underlying message remains fresh—and important not just for conservation, but for architecture as a whole. The challenge for architecture today is not necessarily about building more or even better, but adapting and making more equitable use of what already exists. Of course, this is far from simply being an architectural issue. But architects can show how it can be done, perhaps even with conservation architects leading the way.
Syria Before the Deluge is a poignant photographic journey through prewar Syria
In 2009, architectural photographer Peter Aaron set out to Syria with his wife Brooke Allen, an author and professor of literature at Bennington College, and their two daughters. Armed with a Canon 5D modified to only register infrared light, Aaron began a two-week journey in a minivan to visit 15 sites across Syria. Put on exhibition at the 2018 Venice Architecture Biennale, what began as a personal collection stemming from a family vacation has developed into the photographic project that is Syria Before the Deluge.
Since the start of the Syrian Civil War, there has been no dearth of imagery and footage bringing the horrors and destruction of the conflict to an international audience. The country’s history has been relegated to a veritable carousel slide projection of architectural and human destruction; Aleppo lies in Stalingrad-esque ruins while pent-up political and sectarian animosity has unleashed one calamity after the next, at a level not witnessed since the Yugoslav Wars. Syria Before the Deluge presents the country's ancient architectural heritage in 40 images of breathtaking detail, clearing the fog of war by casting a humanizing light on the war’s victims with scenes of daily life and placing the conflict within the vast continuity of the region’s civilization.
Traversing the country’s ancient urban centers of Damascus and Aleppo, through their many souqs, mosques, and labyrinthine streets, Aaron’s images display a vibrant contemporary society inhabiting the successive layers of the old. Remains of Roman civilization are embedded within these urban ensembles, sites such as Damascus’s Bab Sharqi, a Roman arch topped with a medieval minaret, have collected the accretions of time with Islamic and Roman architectural pieces—towering minarets and geometric spandrels—abutting contemporary concrete construction.
Outside of the country’s principal demographic centers, past the Aramaic-speaking mountain towns of Reef Demashq, the “dead cities” of northwestern Syria are depicted as moraine-like vestiges dotting the rugged arid landscape. The abandoned urban settlements, numbering over seven hundred, are the hallmarks of a Byzantine civilization that gradually vanished, with its Greco-Roman architectural language of archways, colonnades, and carefully proportioned stone ashlar. The author notes that the current refugee crisis afflicting Syria has led to a renewed life for the "dead cities" as an embattled shelter for those fleeing the civil war's armed factions.Where Syria Before the Deluge rises to a work of historical record is in Aaron's depiction of UNESCO World Heritage Sites now ravaged by the conflict. Palmyra's Temple of Bel, infamously exploded by ISIL, which documented the event for the world to see, is captured in its ruinous magnificence as a global exemplar of Greco-Roman and Middle Eastern architectural syncretism, with nearly 50-foot tall fluted Corinthian columns and detailed Middle Eastern scenes. Located less than 15 miles from the Turkish border, the Church of St. Simeon Stylites, now subject to multiple military incursions and aerial bombardments, still stands—complex stonework along its archways, pediments, remnants of vaults, and all. Considering their historical role as military bastions, it is none too surprising that the imposing Crusader castle of Krak des Chevaliers and the Citadel of Aleppo have renewed their intended functions. Over their millennium-long existence, the forts, like Syria itself, have passed through the hands of Kurds, Christians, Ottomans, and Arabs, with Aaron capturing the layering of one civilization's architectural character over the next. It is on this note that the author expands: the general audience cannot "comprehend the intense concentration of ancient structures; many of them have been in continuous use for centuries and even millennia, through waves of different civilizations.” Through pictorially contextualizing the current civil war within Syria's successive waves of invasions, cultural flowering, and internal strife, Syria Before the Deluge inspires a degree of hope that the region will emerge again from the ruins.