Published in the April 2018 edition of Real Review
Simmering throughout 2014 and 2015, and eventually boiling over in condemnatory newspaper inches and their correspondingly defensive ripostes, was an unlikely, but intensely passionate popular international controversy. Chartres Cathedral, that great inspiration to sensitive architectural romantics the world over, with its sublime interior gloom, its scarred and stained piers and dark, mysterious vaults, was undergoing a major project intended to insure its long-term preservation. As the scaffolding began to come down in the first part of the nave to have work completed, visitors were greeted not by the millennial patina, the layered material scars of time-passed they had come to visit, but were instead confronted by a super-bright, brand-new beige painted finish, complete with Colgate-white applied false mortar lines. The interior suddenly more resembled a neon-luminous faux-medieval French resort hotel than the awesome gloom to which visitors were accustomed.
The declared intention, it became clear, was not just to preserve, but to restore, and to restore to an arbitrarily chosen point along the timeline of the great building’s long and complex history. The decorative scheme conformed to the earliest layer of paint that had been uncovered during exploratory works, the custodians of the cathedral claimed, and so it was ‘authentic’. The “patina of time” that was so beloved by so many generations of visitors was just the accumulated dirt of centuries combined with fire damage, they maintained. This wear and damage had left the layers of paint looking like real stone, which in fact it never had been, it was all just a distraction from the original building’s true architectural clarity, apparently. Critics responded that the accumulated traces of history, and the ability to experience the passing of time as an atmosphere, as a composite of subsequent alterations, transformations and events, as an intricately interwoven concatenation of irreconcilable visions for the same space, was destroyed. The cathedral’s chaotic chronology was eradicated in favour of an impossibly simple, and reductively unitary (and archaeologically dubious), notion of the past, one predicated on the idea of a “perfect moment” in which a building, or a place, was the way it was meant to, that we can discern that moment, and that we should always endeavour to return to it, no matter the “stuff” that stands in the way.
Nostalgia is inherent to the development of modernity. The more our society progresses along the path of economic and material development, the faster change becomes, rendering even historical periods immediately preceding our own -we are talking only a matter of decades- almost incomprehensibly distant and strange. A pervading sense of frantically untethered, abstract and uncontrollable velocity finds in a need for rootedness, a sense of place, and a shared past, its antidote. In other words, Modernity is a form of constant uprooting and travel, and it always and without fail produces a yearning for home. The choice is not whether to be nostalgic, it is woven into the fabric of our epoch, the choice is how we choose to engage with our nostalgia, how we allow it to manifest itself.
In The Future of Nostalgia, the late Svetlana Boym posits two forms. On the one hand is “Reconstructive Nostalgia”, the easiest, most common, and most dangerous kind, in which a false, ideal past is imagined that must be returned to, one which stands outside of history as the paragon of perfection in the eyes of those who long for it. Anything that does not conform to this necessarily imaginary arcadia is at best not worthy of valuing and is at worst to be swept away. On the other hand there is “Reflexive Nostalgia”, in which the past is to be yearned after, grasped at, and preserved where possible, its traces valued and meditated upon, but above all is an awareness of both the impossibility of its return, as well as the impossibility of comprehending it in its full richness and plenitude. The former abhors complexity, it wants to freeze the process of change, to end history. The latter values the layered and the ambiguous, it welcomes the continued effects of time, it is aware of its own position in a continuum and embraces history as something that progresses into the future.
In the instance of Chartres Cathedral, French authorities decided upon a reconstructive approach, while those (it seems) with a romantic persuasion, erred towards a Reflexive position. The eerie, plastic-surgery-gone-wrong results of the reconstructive approach are now clear for all to see on the building’s interior. The reconstructive mentality, the desire to freeze, to wind-back history towards a perfect moment that never actually existed, is seeping into our consciousness in far less obvious, and far more destructive ways than the occasional heavy-handed preservation project.
Before the second world war there was almost no protection for buildings that today we would consider to be of historic importance. The notions of preservation and heritage were mostly understood as applying to objects of art, and the intangible cultural assets of regional and national traditions. With regards to buildings, the city, and the physical fabric of the nation’s environment, it was individual property rights that trumped all, with a landowner’s right to develop his property as he saw fit, and the protection of this right being the primary motivator of the law. Imagine if Prince Charles decided he wanted to build a whole new façade for Buckingham Palace, completely obscuring the now historic frontage behind (this is exactly what happened twice, in the 1850s, and the 1910s), if Nash’s terraces facing Regents Park were demolished en-masse the way his Regents St was between 1895 and 1927, or if GE Street’s High Courts were demolished to make way for a large office building as Soane’s incomparable Bank of England was in the 20s. This kind of development at the loss of historical buildings was commonplace prior to the 1940s.
The idea that the government, or the public, should deign to restrict what a person could do with their own property, let alone stop them from doing anything to it at all, was extremely problematic. It would take the trauma of the war, and the consequentially massive loss of historic buildings, together with a reorientation of the national political sentiment away from the strictly interpreted primacy of individual rights in general, and towards the custodian’s care of a benevolent state on the behalf of all citizens, to introduce the Listing system that designates which buildings are of special importance to the nation’s collective memory, and should have their preservation enforced by the power of the law.
The post-war period was one of profound national metamorphosis, of large scale construction and the reordering of the country’s existing urban centres, as well as of the creation of numerous -entirely new- metropolitan areas through the New Towns Act. The Listing system was complementary to this national project of modernisation and development. It was intended to pinpoint key projects, important markers in the country’s architectural and social trajectory, whose preservation would benefit the population overall, acting as officially-recognised anchors to a shared and state-sanctioned past, whose presence would actively aid the transition to a new and different future by providing a sense of security that the past was not being completely lost. Not only was the preservation of heritage not mutually exclusive to radical redevelopment, it was intrinsic to it. This was a reflexive relationship to Notsalgia writ large. There was a mutual understanding between the past and the present, in which the best of the past was retained under the tacit agreement that it would not prejudice the future. Preservation was an integral driver of change, it was one of the main ingredients that allowed for and fostered the spatial continuation of history.
What was intended as a limited tool for preserving key buildings within a radically evolving spatial landscape, has since ballooned into something quite different. 2% of the entire building stock of England is now listed in one form or another, adding up to roughly 374,000 listed properties. Added to this are Conservation Zones. Since 1967 whole city areas that are deemed to be of special interest must have all new buildings or renovations preserve or enhance the “special character” of the local area. These were instituted in reaction to a prevailing tendency towards wholesale redevelopment and large-scale infrastructure projects in the 1960s, which were sometimes either endangering, or demolishing whole neighbourhoods. These preservation districts have however since spread across the country (There are now 9,800 of them across England, with the number constantly rising), preserving the “character” of any number of built-up areas that are not in the least danger from anything other than their normal evolution. Conservation Zones are too often simply areas that wistfully conjure up the picturesque image of a previous historical era for which those with political wherewithal are nostalgic. I mention political wherewithal, because it is chiefly those with the time, the inclination, the financial resources, and the know-how, who are able to push for an area they care for, or buildings they care for, to be designated, leading to a disproportionate number of these protections being in areas inhabited by the middle and upper classes.
During the intervening period, the scale of national infrastructure development, and of planned new urban construction has been in precipitous decline, in an inverse numerical relationship with the degree of preservation that is being enforced. Whereas previously Listing and the occasional, surgical use of Conservation Zones, were an ameliorating aspect of universal progress and development, which affected everyone, development and preservation are now in stark opposition, and it is a divide which is marked above all by wealth, with the effects of both being divvied up with stark inequality. On the one hand the wealthier a person is, the more likely -in England at least- they are to live in a ‘historical’ neighbourhood, and on the other hand, due to their access to specialist assistance and consultation, as well as the extra time they are likely to have at their disposal, often combined with an acquaintance towards bureaucratic and professional jargon, the more likely they are to be successful in their campaigns to have their historical areas and buildings protected. They themselves end up defining what is actually considered historical. Many working class and less affluent areas are of historical significance and could be argued to be of such through a new set of heritage parameters, but it is rare for these areas to be looked at, let alone recognised.
It is no coincidence that the value of real estate assets in Conservation Zones is significantly higher than those outside. These areas, and the enforcement of “in character” planning criteria that force all new architecture to progressively reinforce a frozen historical image of the local district in which they are built, effectively lock capital in through the elimination of any future risk of change that might be detrimental to real estate asset values. As each new project is added, and each property is ‘restored’ in idealised heritage form, these zones evolve into reconstructed caricatures of perfectly faux “authentic” pasts, much as the French authorities returned Chartres to its supposedly superior beginnings. In an urban-scale, more drawn-out version of Chartres, the traces and architectures of intervening periods are gradually replaced with buildings resembling (sometimes in abstract form, other times in direct pastiche reconstructions) solely the alleged perfect point in the past that residents and authorities deem valuable. 1950s cosy-modern premises are replaced with brick townhouses, 1960s concrete is replaced with painted stucco and code-stone. The rich get to live in their dream past. Time is arrested, reversed, artificially reconstructed, and it is all done at a profit almost entirely devoid of risk.
Development of course still occurs, less planned, less for the communal benefit, but the economy churns, and flats are built, areas demolished and redeveloped. Only this doesn’t happen in wealthy, preserved areas. The burden of Modernity, which is first and foremost that of dramatic change, now falls squarely on those unlucky enough to not live in reconstructed zones of privileged preservation. The ultimate luxury in 21st Century England is the luxury to live free of change, to live in an area that is spatially static, in which the only possibly modification is that which goes backwards towards the image of a comforting past, towards an ever more tasteful and sanitised safety deposit box of authentic Britishness. Reconstructive Nostalgia is fused with a form of spatialised economic ghettoization, in which the right to maintain physical connections with shared memories of the past is granted only to those who have gamed the system for their own benefit, while everyone else is excluded even from the cathartic balm of Nostalgia, while nonetheless bearing the full force of constant architectural and economic instability, uncertainty, and perpetual change. What was once a restriction of individual property rights for the benefit of the common good, has come full circle to become a tool to increase the stature, wealth, and environment of those with the most valuable property.
Over the past 35 years the culture of preservation has metastasised from a positive participant in the flux and growth of England’s spatial landscape, into a toxic blockage of the system that does not just reflect the injustices of a late neoliberal country, it actively enables and accelerates them, whilst providing a perfect cover for those benefitting from it most. What is actually individuals taking care of their own, and ensuring unceasing private gain and freedom from the stress of change, is dressed up as a public good solely through the socially acceptable and heretofore unassailable doctrine of ever-expanding Preservation (“look, we are preserving this area, it is so special, who on earth could say that was a bad thing?!”).
We should protect the best from our past, no one nowadays would disagree with that, but it is time that we profoundly question what is protected, why, and by whose pressure, whilst disentangling the image of our complex cities from the reductive, picture-postcard language of preservation, to halt the precipitous rush towards a reconstructive tendency that has taken hold since the 1970s. Nostalgia is fine, it is to be expected, but let’s reflect on it, and lets once again ally the past with progress.