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Coming out of the closet about subjectivity and
contradictions in an architect's conservation practice

by Erich Theophile

October 4, 2001

(click on images for full view)

This article grows out of my introduction to building conservation in 1988 while assisting architect Götz Hagmaller in the restoration of an 18th century palace to house the Patan Museum. At that time he was designing the necessary rebuilding of the roof which involved a complex intersection of balconies, galleries and towers on the principal facade. This involved attempting to reconcile historical photographs, striving original structure, various layers of 19th and 20th century additions, as well as project budget constraints and the practical concerns of a new museum. There was clearly no "correct' solution based oil the contradictory information and multiple goals of the project.

I witnessed with pleasure a great architect solving a complex design problem, balancing numerous considerations to arrive at an elegant solution. The realisation that building conservation had a symbiotic relationship with serious architectural design much influenced my own career choices. I stayed in Nepal to take advantage of such opportunities combining design and historical buildings. That week, twelve years ago, I even sat down excitedly and wrote about and document "the design process" I had been so fortunate to witness.

I never published that piece, however, because in a subsequent meeting with an international conservation expert associated with the project I was told that although "fascinating", the article was better not circulated. "It might raise doubts about the scientific-ness of the project," he explained. This cloak of secrecy about the creative process was considered critical to the politics of the conservation scene in Nepal, to ongoing foreign funding, not to mention competitive plays between various experts in the field. Even Götz himself in later documentary articles played down his architectural contribution, preferring a sanitised, "politically correct" construct of the story which made the restoration and museum design a rather inevitable, scientific outcome based on rational deliberations to preserve historical fabric.

After twelve years of practice in the field, I'm tired of downplaying subjective design choices in historic preservation. I'm saddened by recent conservation program graduates' reports that everything is taught like we know all the answers. Closer to dentistry than design, the conservation architect supposedly follows a scientific process to solve a design problem. "Authenticity" and retention of historical fabric constitute the only acceptable design criteria, while gaps between theory and practice are not touched on. It is not that I don't cherish authentic historical material, I just think that suppression of the multiple agendas which drive historic building projects is destructive to intellectual development in the field. Following are some personal formulations for expanding discussion in the field.


"De-vilification" of the architect

There are stereotypes in our field, for example, that non-architects emphasize the choice of technically up-to-date chemicals and repair techniques and that architects "destroy" historic buildings. Even such greats as Sir Bernard Feilden resonate a generally negative picture of the architect's role in his textbook Historic Building Conservation. Are conservation technicians similarly disparaged when fabric is maintained at the expense of a better solution? New formulations for the field of conservation must include at least the possibility of a valuable, perhaps irreduceable contribution by the architect. Somehow only the field of adaptive reuse specifically invites this role. But presentation of a historical building in a conventional conservation assignment can be an equally design-intensive question. To vilify the architect's contemporary contribution suggests not a small contradiction with the generally accepted notion to preserve multiple layers of historic structures. It also suggests the philosophically weak contention that we today are able to separate ourselves from history.

The power of beauty

Much of the restored Patan Museum could have been designed in a different way to preserve more historical fabric than the present configuration. The project was even condemned and almost shut down by a later visiting ICOMOS conservation conference. But the brilliance of the whole with its mix of modern, historical, fake, and authentic fabric is an undeniable success. Its impact is significant in this region where historical buildings have only rarely been considered for new or contemporary uses. It's also the first time the Nepalese public has seen a historical building artistically presented and has already spawned a number of adaptive reuse/repair schemes where historic buildings would have been otherwise lost. Do we think we know enough to discourage diversity in conservation practice that would allow such breaking of the rules?

Living design

It's not an accident that we have this discussion in Nepal where norms of international and local practice collide. Given the infrequent, short visits of foreign critics and the vagueness local norms, one has to solve problems for oneself. In the context of the success of the newly made Sulima struts, I was very curious to hear from John Stubbs about a comparable question back home in the United States, the replacement of the porte cochère of New York's Ellis Island Visitors' Center. The reconstruction of the lost feature was proposed based on surviving working drawings. The parallels to our Sulima project were remarkable: Indrakaji, the mastercarver, seemed a living comparable to the surviving shop drawing of the porte cochère. The reconstruction was judged "misleading" by the Landmarks Commission and disallowed. This story suggests the valuable opportunity Nepal offers to engage designers and artisans in the design and realization of historical architecture. In New York only the memory survives.


Diversity and terminology

While working on the Sulima Temple, I had never considered doing anything to the exquisite and time-worn wall niches. They were exquisite (I used photos for the fundraising literature) and didn't seem to need any intervention. I was hesitant when my partner Niels Gutschow, proposed replacing the lost colonnettes, imagining that these new elements would disturb the presentation of the timber elements' patina. We discussed our approaches measuring Niels' belief to repair the building as a local carpenter or carver would against my instinct that the new additions would be distracting. We decided to try an experiment on on facade. During the installation of these new pieces, I was moved by the transformation of the niche and the reading of the facade -- suddenly the original depth of the facade was made palpable by this new layer. The depth of carvings and brickwork is in fact an extraordinary feature of this architecture, especially in these earliest structures where carvings are generally deeper. The lesson of the story is that collisions of viewpoints are educational. But how to incorporate a dialectic method if aesthetic impulses, alternative ideas, and maybe even obsessions are not invited by professional discussion?

Beware of technological and quantifying arguments in conservation projects, they are inevitably invoked to justify more important, but disallowed choices. We often chuckle at the overuse by our Asian partners of the word "scientific", but as conservation architects we consistently use such constructs to organize presentations of our work - like the ubiquitous "historic structure report" universally used to package repair and design proposals. A good historic structure report should be seamless and include little mention of contradictions, compromises, and subjectivity.

Patan Museum: Main elevation

If accepted as an art, the field of architectural conservation might live more easily with the undeniable diversity of practice. Until today, this diversity has not been reconciled except when identified as an historical, autochonous approach like the over-cited Japanese cyclical rebuildings of Ise. But, we need new approaches. That UNESCO reprimands of Nepalese practice today read the same as antiquarians' condemnations of "over-restorations" in the 19th century suggests that we still don't know how to assess our own work. If the goal of "aesthetic unity" or the practice of "design beyond the point where conjecture begins" are disallowed by norms and international charters, is our professional involvement not a lie?

Recently, when my partner in this publication project, Niels Gutschow, was preparing a conservation brief for our next project he very spontaneously added a section entitled "Wishes". I vowed never again to use the term "Historic Structure Report" for my conservation designs and started writing this essay that night.