There’s an interesting paradox that crops up when designers work in heritage settings – the course of action that seems correct and obvious almost never is. This tendency is fueled by a mindset that clients and stakeholders almost inevitably bring with them. It’s a bias that many, many people have, and the trouble is, it’s the most natural thing in the world. Believe me, designers get caught up in it too. It’s our respect for the importance of the heritage setting that leads us astray, and why not? Special historic places engender a reverence all their own, it beguiles us, and I think makes us a bit too cautious. That caution too often leads to a belief that the best design solution for any new intervention must be to match what exists as closely as possible, and that is almost always a mistake.
Heritage settings abound in the world of museums and sites, and if they are not the entire point (eg- historic sites) they often are a key part of the ambiance (think grand old museum buildings). These settings generally have a strong, if not unique, aesthetic that can carry itself very well, but sometimes our interventions can dilute these special characteristics unintentionally. I’ve been fortunate enough to work on projects at some of Canada’s most important historic sites and buildings, and I’ve learned a lot from the experts at the Heritage Conservation Program (HCP) and the Federal Heritage Buildings Review Office (FHBRO). These organizations talk a lot about the idea of any of these heritage sites and buildings not being cast in amber, but instead being living and evolving things. They think about new interventions as being another layer of history being built upon the old one. That’s a compelling way of envisioning changes, it resembles the way archaeological digs peel back the layers of history to reveal the realities of much earlier times.
One of the cornerstones of best practice in a heritage intervention builds on the model of the archaeological dig: the importance of creating a clearly identifiable new layer built upon the old. The first thing that this means is that new interventions should not slavishly match what exists in the setting. Yes, they should be sympathetic, they should be respectful, but ultimately they must be identifiable as new interventions – a clearly contemporary layer built on the old. An extreme example of this from the world of architecture would be the Louvre in Paris. Nobody would ever mistake the glass pyramid in the forecourt for being part of the original building, although many would debate the appropriateness. Designs don’t have to be this extreme, but often a very modern intervention in a heritage space will contrast and highlight the rich detail that already exists. The kind of projects I work on – exhibits, interpretation and signage, will never have the kind of huge impact on an existing space that the glass pyramid does at the Louvre, but if not done carefully, they can have a pernicious and cheapening effect on their surroundings.
The second important consideration of the “archaeological” model of heritage intervention is that the new work be reversible. In other words, non-destructive changes are always best. In the exhibit and signage world this can mean using self-standing elements rather than things permanently attached to walls. Sometimes it can mean using adhesives where possible, rather than fasteners. If fasteners are essential (and they often are), they can be strategically located – perhaps in a mortar joint or panel reveal. It’s all about preserving the option to go back and reinstate the original, should it ever be necessary. It’s also about respect for the history of special heritage places.
So let’s respect important heritage places, but we shouldn’t be so intimidated by them that we don’t look for bold and interesting design solutions that add a strong contemporary layer. The most successful contemporary interventions will have some elements of the old about them, some way that connects them, but will make a strong statement of their own time and purpose. When we see projects that achieve this balance, we recognize it intuitively, they seem new, but they seem right.