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Arch-i-text: Flawed protocol for heritage architecture needs new vision
The Royal Ontario Museum’s crystalline carbuncle is a direct legacy of the Venice Charter modernist leanings and in no way is it respectful of the heritage architecture - asserting dominance of the Bloor Street facade. MAKSIM SOKOLOV

You are sitting in an architect’s office explaining your vision for an addition on the historic building you own.

As you explain your concept for an addition that is sympathetic and stylistically in keeping with the original architecture, you see the architect shaking his head.

“What,” you ask, “is the problem?”

The architect responds, “Following best practices in dealing with historic architecture, we cannot design the addition in the style of the original building. Such a design would be considered to be diminishing the heritage attributes of the historic structure but, we can develop a modernist addition that will provide all the functional requirements you have outlined.”

“Look,” you reply, “I’ve done my homework and understand that any addition to an historic building needs to be subordinate to the original structure and identifiable from the heritage build.”

“But that shouldn’t be difficult since a simple, dated cornerstone and modern building techniques would serve to identify the new addition from the historic building.”

But the architect is intransigent, arguing that those measures will not suffice and a modernist design is the only approach that will “pass muster.”

You leave the meeting wondering, where did these best practices come from?

Well, to answer that question, we have to go back six decades and examine a multitude of issues that include French to English translation errors, period prevalent modernist architectural biases and vested bureaucratic imperatives — which doubled down on the wrongly interpreted criteria for heritage conservation and restoration established during the International Congress of Architects and Technicians of Historic Monuments held in Venice in 1964.

Now, there had been previous guideline charters — most notably the 1931 Athens Charter adopted by First International Congress of Architects and Technicians of Historic Monuments.

But, in the aftermath of the Second World War, which destroyed and/or damaged a significant number of historic buildings and neighbourhoods, it was widely believed in the professional community that new guidelines for conversation and restoration were required.  

Thus, in 1964, a small working group, the majority of whom were European conservation professionals and decidedly modernist, got together in Venice and wrote what became known as the Venice Charter.

Under very tight time constraints, this working group produced an admirable document. It spoke to many of the overriding concerns of the congress’s membership while still offering a measured level of ambiguity that allowed for regional interpretation.

After its adoption by the congress, the charter — originally written in French — was translated into English by UNESCO.

Unfortunately, in several areas, the translation was not accurate to the original but, nonetheless, it was used as the template for subsequent translations into various other languages and serves as a central pillar in the heritage policies of many countries.

It is fascinating to note that almost immediately the shortcomings of the Venice Charter were evident.

In 1962, the University of Leuven (Belgium) commissioned the 10-year renovation/restoration of the Great Beguinage of Leuven under the exclusive direction of Raymond M. Lemaire, one of the principal framers of the Venice Charter.

One would think that this project might be a poster-child for the charter but, au contraire. In fact, Lemaire often set aside the articles of the charter when those directives conflicted with the reality of the heritage.

For example, Lemaire is generally credited with Article 9 of the charter which reads, in part: “Any extra work which is indispensable must be distinct from the architectural composition and must bear a contemporary stamp.”

In the Beguinage, while some of the additions are clearly, but discreetly, identifiable, others, replacing demolished houses or annexes, are reconstructed using the style of the former without any ‘‘contemporary stamp.’’ 

Claudine Houbart of the Université de Liège — KU Leuven (Belgium) in the paper entitled “Deconsecrating A Doctrinal Monument” writes: “These deviations clearly show that reading the Great Beguinage renovation through the Venice Charter’s prism would be absurd, leading to the merciless condemnation of a project that was considered, even before its completion, to be a model by experts all over Europe.”

“Rather than an illustration of the application of the charter’s principles, the project has been an early challenge for the document, almost immediately negating the evolutionary preservation principles it established.”

In fact, as early as 1971, Lemaire, Piero Gazzola (also a contributor to the charter) and many others began arguing for significant revision of the Venice Charter.

To this end in 1976, the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) established a working group led by Lemaire, who was the council’s president at the time.

The revised charter was rejected by the ICOMOS general assembly in 1978 and additions (as opposed to revisions) to the charter were written but the documents were never adopted.

Instead, the 1981 general assembly in Rome under a new president doubled down by reaffirming the validity of the Venice Charter despite widespread opposition.

It should be noted that, by this time, a significant number of countries had enshrined the precepts of the Venice Charter — duly clarified by the prevailing government experts’ opinion — in their national heritage policies. This constituency alone would have underwritten a weighty influence on the direction of ICOMOS.

In her paper, Claudine Houbart also writes, “In southern Belgium, at least, the over-simplified application of the charter’s principles is one of the major causes of heritage exhaustion. This effect stands as the reason why we wonder whether, facing the inability of the charter to clearly display its intended meaning without ambivalence, we should not dare to rewrite it, in order not to betray the spirit of its fathers.”

Of course, the call to revise the flawed Venice Charter and its “over-simplified application” continued within the professional heritage preservation community.

In 2006, the International Network for Traditional Building, Architecture & Urbanism held a conference in Venice with the broad objective of providing theoretical underpinnings for creating new buildings and additions that are in greater harmony with their historic surroundings.

This included a deep delve into the text of the Venice Charter, a full examination of contemporary preservation work and an exploration of how new traditional design might be used in historic contexts.

This conference has been captured in the book, “The Venice Charter Revisited: Modernism, Conservation and Tradition in the 21st Century,” (Cambridge Scholars Publishing, Newcastle upon Tyne, UK, 2008).

In its 64 essays — authored by internationally recognized heritage experts — there is a common thread among all those who have committed their professional career to heritage.

A thread expressed in architect Steven Seames’ essay, states: “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.”

So, at the beginning and end of day, we have a flawed document driven by mid-20th century modernist principles, incorrectly translated, enshrined by governments worldwide and taught as the “truth” to architecture students at universities around the globe.

It is a “truth” that has been contested by experts, including those who originally framed the document.

It is way past time for a new vision and charter.

But that new vision sits firmly in the hands of you, the architect’s customers. You can accept the limitations of the Venice Charter or find an architect who will design sympathetically. The choice is up to you.    

Brian Marshall is a NOTL realtor, author and expert consultant on architectural design, restoration and heritage.

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