Living Conservation Districts

We were just invited to present a paper at the Society for the Study of Architecture in Canada at it’s national conference in Annapolis Royal.  Here’s an extract:

…There are fascinating questions regarding the very possibility of meaning and authenticity in stylistic revivals, which I know other people have addressed. But I
think that actually most of the blame for problem of the incoherence of “heritage‐harmonizing” architecture – comes well before that point, from simple human
ignorance and lack of capability in the process of developing these houses. It isn’t reasonable to expect that an isolated team of one contemporary client, one architect, and a builder can pull off a really convincing imitation of a period style house, even if it were possible for such a recreation to embody any real presence, about which I’m dubious anyhow. These projects are just expected to be, at best, weak sisters to their genuinely old and genuinely expressive neighbors. And I think that all this is taken as a given. I’d wager that If any of us hear that s a new house going up in a heritage precinct our first thought would be something along the lines of “that’s a pity.”

What in the circumstances surrounding the design and construction of these infill projects gives rise to this unfortunate state of affairs? There are, in the broadest terms, two filters through which proposed infill designs are shaped. The first is the relevant design guidelines themselves in the Conservation area by‐laws. Although obviously a point of friction for architects, I don’t intend to take direct aim at these. They are generally written with care, after a process of study and development. They take the overall goal of period preservation, atomize it into dozens of individual elements, from roofs to windows to fences to signage, and together these coalesce into a whole which sufficiently echoes the existing historic fabric.

Interestingly, if we take Lunenburg bylaw for example, it explicitly eschews mandatory imitation, stating that “The requirement for compatibility does not mean that new buildings must be built as replicas of historic styles… Creative adaptations and interpretations of traditional styles are permitted…” The difficulty is that conservation guidelines overall are understandably geared to preservation achieved in that reductive, elemental way. So, despite the liberality of this clause, the design guidelines follow directly afterwards with a list of 37 design aspects which should apply in the judging of essential compatibility.

It’s pretty hard to effect a creative adaptation and interpretation when crosschecking historical conformity in 37 different areas. Though not malevolent, conservation design guidelines have an inadvertent yet systematic deleterious effect on architectural design quality: By establishing a web of prescriptive requirements, the process tends to encourage designing to the lowest common denominator. Instead of the architect arraying inspirations on the drafting board and pursuing a simple, lucid design concept, he or she digests 37 requirements and builds a whole design out of just meeting them all, to make sure his design isn’t ignominiously and expensively rejected. Again, I’m not here to advocate against conservation bylaws – but this is a measurable downside where they are implemented.

The second filter through which proposed infill designs are judged is public perception and taste, and in its amateur arbitrariness this can be far more damaging than the first. Canadians are often a quite reactionary lot when it comes to new and old architectures blending. I feel that currently we are in a downward cycle where the public mistrusts architects, so the architects water down their designs to throw a bone to the public. Then the design ends up mediocre, and the public’s mistrust is confirmed. In the case of heritage infill projects, the random, reactionary public can enter the process at the level of the client and also the town councils. So the process surrounding the development of new infill in heritage districts has strong tendencies to compromise the design process.

These forces combine with the sheer difficulty of constructing accurate, convincing architectural recreations, so that together we get the circumstance that infill housing is typically a profoundly compromised approximation of the original fabric. One could say that the new projects always weaken the overall integrity and impact of the whole. Indeed this seems like the assumption that underpins most heritage conservation standards. Concessions to creative adaptations and interpretations notwithstanding, the idea, essentially, is to try to get new buildings to achieve compatibility by looking as much like their neighbors as can be reasonably expected. They never really look like their precedents, though. They never actually present themselves as new valuable nodes on the heritage trail. Instead, there is the inherent resignation that the infill will be mediocre – that it will fill the gap and above that hopefully blend in and blend out.

From the perspective of the design architect, there’s a sense of inevitable resignation to mediocrity in these circumstances. We have the irony that it is in the areas of our towns which are identified as most architecturally inspiring, most cohesive and expressive, that the designers trained and entrusted by society to understand and develop cohesive, coherent architecture are asked to leave that training and that mandate at the door and to please just replicate as best as able an obsolete architectural style book.

I think that this is partly because, to our own detriment, we persist in thinking of heritage districts as somehow ossified. So that when the body of the neighborhood needs healing, we call the mortician, instead of the doctor. We replace the body’s lifeblood with pickling solutions meant to arrest further organic change. We apply superficial makeup to cover imperfections and reanimate the subject. And we dress the body often incongruously to project wholly imagined stature. More properly stated, the conservation area is seen as an archival text. Created in a different age, we can examine it, cherish it, preserve and patch it. But the message coming out of the stultifying context for any creative architectural design in these districts is that we can never share it its authorship. In some ways this might be reasonable. At some historic sites in Canada there is perhaps no place for contemporary creative additions ‐ though I doubt it. But Heritage conservation districts are surely not of this ilk.

First of all, if we follow Derrida, all texts, including heritage buildings, are endlessly re‐interpreted by their audience. Buildings aren’t expressing frozen cultural transmissions from bygone ages ‐ they are reflecting to us whatever we bring to them each new day. That’s not to discount the value of heritage buildings; rather it is to credit the role we play in their importance. But we needn’t invoke deconstructivism to appreciate that it is us, now, who give Heritage districts their meaning and their value. We judge them attractive or meritorious, and so we decide to preserve them and inhabit them. There are after all other old areas of town and other architectural relics we don’t have much affinity for and so don’t care to preserve. These are areas which appeal to our contemporary aesthetic sense and our contemporary sense of history.

So this brings me to part 2: my humble proposition, which goes like this: “Lets stop thinking as though Heritage Conservation Districts are magic time capsule from the past, and lets stop trying to weakly darn in vaguely historicist houses doomed to fail in their hopeless attempt to straddle history. Let’s approach design for Heritage areas as current design problems. Living neighborhoods require living design solutions using a contemporary mindset, understanding, and approach to value and meaning which is the very same approach which holds up the value of the Heritage fabric in the first place. I am not saying that we have to rip up any conservation guidelines. A little more latitude would be nice, but, whatever. In principle, the principles and guidelines in, for example, Lunenburg, and in the Standards and Guidelines for the Conservation of Historic Places already provide this opportunity.

Its more that we have to change our mindset. To quote the the Standards and Guidelines, general standard #11: additions or new construction [should] be visually compatible with, yet distinguishable from, the historic place. To accomplish this, an appropriate balance must be struck between mere imitation of the existing form and pointed contrast, thus complementing the historic place in a manner that respects its heritage value. Under “not recommended” for exterior form the Guidelines say Duplicating the exact form, material, style and detailing of the original building in a way that makes the distinction between old and new unclear.

What we have been trying to do in our work is to approach infill projects in conservation districts with the same rigour and the same aesthetic standards as all our work. To this end, we’ve been focussing on what I could perhaps call root form. This is no revolution in design thinking – Focus on essential form and mass is really a part of any thorough orthodox design process. There’s a sense that any good building should be reducible to a quick sketch. And that sketch reveals the fundamental “good bones” of an idea, upon which any manner of further dressing might be overlaid. At its heart of this basic basic thinking is an understanding within the profession that the fundamentals of architectural design have barely budged for millennia – and that, beneath the veneers of style, ideas regarding essential building form and function are universal ‐ almost Platonic.