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Book Review: Architectural Conservation in Europe and the Americas

Preserving historic buildings may seem like a modern idea but is, in fact, a centuries old practice.

Architectural Conservation in Europe and the Americas
by John Stubbs and Emily G. Makas
John Wiley & Sons, Inc., Hoboken, NJ; 2011
729 pp; hardcover; numerous b&w photos; $110
ISBN 978-0-60385-7

Reviewed by Raymond Pepi

Stone watch towers from the 10th to the 15th centuries in war-ravaged Grozny, Chechnya, were damaged in recent conflicts and are in need of conservation.

Stone watch towers from the 10th to the 15th centuries in war-ravaged Grozny, Chechnya, were damaged in recent conflicts and are in need of conservation.

Pope Martin V issued a decree in 1425 for the repair, maintenance and preservation of Roman bridges, gates, walls and buildings. Subsequent popes and monarchs initiated their own protective measures, but rules were inconsistent, enforcement wavered, and each initiative was subject to the lifespan of the ruler.

Today preservation is vigorously practiced around the world reflecting widely accepted standards. And many countries have enacted laws that survive political administrations. What was, in the past, left to chance or the whim of individual rulers is now part of governing machinery, systematized and instituted for public benefit and mass consumption.

Whether preservation stems from enlightened leadership, popular or academic interest, world heritage affects design, real estate development, and is big business because of tourism, so an understanding of how individual countries deal with their heritage should be of wide concern. In an attempt to document the status of preservation across national borders John Stubbs and Emily Makas have written Architectural Conservation in Europe and the Americas, National Experiences and Practice, a compendium of the heritage policy of roughly 90 countries and the second of a three-volume opus. The authors' previous volume, titled Time Honored: A Global View of Architectural Conservation; Parameters, Theory & Evolution of an Ethos was published in 2009 and there are plans to publish a third volume covering the remainder of the world: Asia, Africa, Oceania, and the polar habitats.

Even countries that have little else in common now share standards used to measure historic and architectural significance and appropriate care. As codified doctrine, these standards transcend geopolitical and cultural boundaries. Consensus across borders is one of the most remarkable and overlooked attributes of the preservation movement.

Architectural Conservation

Stubbs and Lukas prefer the term "architectural conservation" to heritage conservation or historic preservation, so it is worth noting that their book is not a manual about conserving materials. There are, in fact, technical books with similar titles, notably: A History of Architectural Conservation, by Jukka Jokilehto, (Butterworth Heinemann, 1999) where the emphasis is conservation treatment rather than public policy. Unfortunately this important distinction is glossed over, so the authors' point of view is sometimes not obvious. Not surprisingly Architectural Conservation contains professional jargon, but there is no glossary, so if you seek a definition you must consult their first volume,Time Honored! I didn't consult that book to find out what "high conservation science" was.

The book is organized by country, roughly 90 nations grouped into six regions: Europe, North America, Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central and South America. If you are interested in the heritage policy of Albania, Azerbaijan, Malta, Belize, Cuba, Eleuthera, Panama, Guyana, Suriname, Uruguay you will not be disappointed. Highlighted sections (several penned by expert contributors) are devoted to key topics such as sustainability. The result is a combination history and cultural policy for half the world.

In light of preservation's tremendous impact, Stubbs and Makas stress the daunting problems facing workers in regions decimated by war, as in Chechnya, or where religious sites like the destroyed Bamlyan Buddhas in central Afghanistan are targets of religious or cultural terrorism. Nonetheless, historic sites still get saved and the story of how this has happened – and is happening – during times of peace or war over the last several centuries is compelling.

Without the influence of now widely accepted standards such as the Venice Charter, adopted by the international community in 1964, early restorers used their own judgment to make treatment choices. Structural repair to the Coliseum by Rafael Stern and Giuseppe Camporesi in the early-19th century was, we are reminded, the "first great architectural conservation Italy," while "Giuseppe Valadier's program for the restoration of the Arch of Titus in 1821 incorporated modern principles of materials conservation." The underlying technical details of these pioneering projects are beyond the scope of this book, but readers can find more information by following the citations.

Nationalized protective measures countered the modernization of European cities. Public works projects like the widening of roads were a logical response to increasing density, but such improvements had the direct effect of razing untold numbers of historic buildings. To counteract this trend we are reminded that the first protective law in Italy was the 1902 Monument Act.

An astonishing range of heritage types is documented, from the megalithic moai of Easter Island to the topiaries of Wales. The authors report on the statutory status of not just buildings but also archeological sites, monuments, industrial sites, landscapes and maritime heritage. The broad outlines of western heritage policy may be familiar since there is a recognizable pattern in nearly every country, beginning with loss of important sites, followed by critical reaction, the identification of threatened resources, surveys, inventories, preservation plans, lobbying, landmark recognition and legal protection.

Architectural Conservation is available in digital form. Its size really lends itself to software that can quickly locate obscure information and that reformats large pages of text and illustrations onto handheld devices like a Kindle or an iPhone. Having the ability to hyperlink from citation to web link is, in my opinion, the most productive way to use this book. The website for the Time Honored series is largely promotional, but has the potential for posting of future updates:

It is no small achievement that all 36 chapters maintain a consistent pace and level of detail, especially when you consider the heroic effort of researching and describing so many countries, but it reads like a textbook. Each chapter is supplemented with endnotes and there is a reading list for each region.

Architectural Conservation is comprehensive, but not exhaustive, which is understandable given its geographic scope. It is a summary report, not an operational manual. There is little critical discourse; the assumption is that preservation is inherently good and protection is its own reward, a belief that is never questioned.

The book opens with a concise but far-reaching contribution from Frank Matero on the relevancy (currency) of heritage conservation in the modern world. However, I was not at all certain I found a satisfactory answer to this profound question. On the other hand, the authors have succeeded in documenting preservation movements in a large part of the world. Assuming there are periodic updates to keep it current, Architectural Conservation will be an important reference work for years to come. TB

Raymond Pepi is president of Building Conservation Associates, Inc., New York, NY.

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