Book Review: The Venice Charter Revisited

Modernism, Conservation and Tradition in the 21st Century

The Venice Charter Revisited: Modernism, Conservation and Tradition in the 21st Century
edited by Matthew Hardy; foreword by HRH The Prince of Wales
Cambridge Scholars Publishing, Newcastle upon Tyne, UK; 2008
791 pp; hardcover; profusely illustrated with b&w images; $67.99
ISBN 1847186882

Reviewed by Clem Labine

An ironic aspect of this rather thick tome (791 pages) is that it requires all those pages to attempt a reversal of damage caused by just 19 words that were put on paper over 40 years ago.

The trouble started in 1964 when a small group of European conservation professionals got together in Venice and issued what became known as “The Venice Charter.” Article 9 of that document contained this phrase about historic monuments and buildings: “. . . any extra work which is indispensable must be distinct from the architectural composition and must bear a contemporary stamp” (emphasis added).

Those 19 words have had enormous impact on historic buildings around the world. In the U.S., the philosophy behind those 19 words became embedded in the Secretary of the Interior’s Standard #9 as “. . . The new work shall be differentiated from the old . . .” Nothing in Standard #9 dictated how the differentiation should be made – but most interpretations are that interventions and additions should be in Modernist styles. This interpretation has become the de facto preservation policy in the U.S. – even though new work can be differentiated from old by devices as simple as dated cornerstones and descriptive bronze plaques.

There was great dismay in Venice when the 10th-century Campanile di San Marco collapsed on July 14, 1902. The landmark was so beloved that an exact replica was built and reopened in 1912. Ironically, this popular reconstruction by the Venetians violates the Venice Charter’s dictum: “All reconstruction work should however be ruled out “a priori.””

There was great dismay in Venice when the 10th-century Campanile di San Marco collapsed on July 14, 1902. The landmark was so beloved that an exact replica was built and reopened in 1912. Ironically, this popular reconstruction by the Venetians violates the Venice Charter’s dictum: “All reconstruction work should however be ruled out “a priori.””

Because of growing damage to historic settings caused by misguided official policies, in 2006 another conference was held in Venice under the auspices of INTBAU (the International Network for Traditional Building, Architecture & Urbanism). The goals of the conference were to give the text of the Venice Charter a close reading, to examine the range of contemporary preservation work being done, and to explore how new traditional design might be used in historic contexts. The ultimate objective was to provide theoretical underpinnings for creating new buildings and additions that are in greater harmony with their historic surroundings.

As Matthew Hardy, editor of the compendium says in his preface: “Article 9 . . . has been misused to justify contrasting modern additions, alterations and new buildings in historic places worldwide.” He then goes on to declare: “INTBAU seeks to advance a pluralist view that would allow considerations of cultural continuity, tradition and collective memory . . .” in the treatment of historic buildings. The major outcome of the INTBAU Venice conference was this opus, which contains essays by 64 authors from 24 countries. These authors show a variety of ways that traditional design and building crafts are being used in historic areas – while keeping to the spirit of the Venice Charter. But most of these authors take issue with the Modernist bias (dare we say “fallacy”?) that is rooted in the Charter. They also highlight numerous problems and internal contradictions contained in government regulations that have been issued in the name of the 1964 Venice Charter.

Samir Younes, in his chapter “The Dominance of Modernist Ideology in the Charter of Venice” makes it clear that the 1964 document was built upon the Modernist biases of its creators. The Charter’s abhorrence of restoration and reconstruction – with its implicit fear of “false history” – reflects the Modernist theory of historical determinism, rather than the idea of a living architectural tradition. Major advances over the last 40 years in traditional design fluency and building crafts skills have undercut and outmoded many of the assumptions implicit in the Venice Charter. As a result, many now believe that visual harmony, aesthetic balance and the essential character of a place are of greater importance than abstract Modernist theories.

Another essay, by Norway’s T. Nypan and S. Helseth, cites the 2005 Charleston Charter as providing preferred guidelines for dealing with historic areas: “New construction in historic settings, including alterations and additions to existing buildings, should not arbitrarily impose contrasting materials, scales, or design vocabularies, but clarify and extend the character of the place, seeking always continuity and wholeness in the built environment.”

U.S. architect Ethan Anthony was similarly specific when he declared in his essay: “. . . the glass cube orbrut concrete box are inappropriate additions to historic buildings, on the grounds that they destroy the cultural context of the original work.” And Anthony goes on to assert that if the intent of the Secretary’s Standard #9 “. . . was to prevent the diminution of the historic character of [old buildings], the attempt has failed miserably.”

In his essay, “Updating the Venice Charter Forty Years On,” architect Steven Semes declares: “The Charters and Standards guiding professionals should prohibit – instead of encouraging or requiring – new development that displays unnecessary contrast with the historic fabric.” Then he adds: “Modernist architects have plenty of opportunities for exhibiting their theories and sensibilities elsewhere – they should leave historic settings alone.”

Division of the book into 64 easily assimilated essays makes this large volume useful as a textbook for courses in traditional urbanism and preservation – in the U.S. and abroad. Professionals in the U.S. who will benefit especially from this book are urban planners, developers and designers who are creating additions or infill for historic areas – especially when debates with design review commissions might arise.

Most of all, one hopes that personnel of Historic District Commissions and the National Park Service read this book. In the face of all this evidence, the NPS’s current refusal to admit that the Secretary’s Standards and Guidelines need to be modified makes it appear that the National Park Service treats criticism the same way the Roman Inquisition treated Galileo. TB

Clem Labine, editor emeritus of Traditional Buildingmagazine, is the founder of Traditional Building,Period Homes and Old House Journal magazines. He has received numerous awards, including awards from The Preservation League of New York State, The Arthur Ross Award from the Institute of Classical Architecture & Classical America (ICA&CA) and The Harley J. McKee Award from the Association for Preservation Technology (APT). Labine was a founding board member of the ICA&CA. He served on the board until 2005 when he moved to Board Emeritus status. His blog can be found at www.traditional-building.com/clem_labine.

Buying Guide Spotlight

Perma-Chink products


Perma-Chink Systems Products is the building industry’s trusted partner for the tightest, greenest, and most impeccably finished wood homes in the world. It is premier provider of cutting-edge premium wood stains and finishes, log home sealants, and maintenance and wood restoration products.

Related Articles

Durability in Construction

Book Review: Durability in Construction

Alvin Holm reviews Durability in Construction: Traditions and Sustainability in 21st Century Architecture


Book Review: Mughal Architecture Revisited

Eve M. Kahn reviews Mughal Architecture & Gardens, by George Michell and Amit Pasricha.