The Post-war Revolution in Urban Conservation

Joint Conference

DOCOMOMO-International and The Architectural Heritage Society of Scotland


Friday and Saturday, 1 and 2 May 2009Edinburgh College of Art, Scotland


Miles Glendinning (ECA/Docomomo)
Introduction to conference (morning chair)

Welcome to this two-day conference, ‘Mirror of Modernity’ - organised jointly by AHSS and DOCOMOMO International and hosted by our Scottish Centre for Conservation Studies research centre here at ECA.  As the conference name and the very names of the two organising bodies make clear, this is a conference with a twin focus – on postwar modern architecture and on conservation. These are two things that have often in the past been seen as intrinsically hostile or even mutually exclusive, as I’ll explain in a minute. But recent years have increasingly thrown them together.  The reason for that, of course, is the long established convention that one of the main avenues of expansion of the heritage movement is chronological – that it must expand its scope ever forward. This is something that has, since the 1980s and 90s, projected and embedded the scope of heritage ever more deeply into the three postwar decades of reconstruction, decades dominated generally by the Modern Movement.  Modernist buildings have become the object of increasing enthusiasm, research and publication at a national level – for example, here in Scotland the AHSS National Conference in 2002 focused on postwar architecture - and increasing numbers have been protected by state agencies. But this task posed some really thorny new problems for traditional conservation values, contradictions, even, in reconciling conservation values to the specifics of modern architecture – for example, the fact that much modernist architecture celebrated values of Progress, newness and the future, as against the past.

And because of the international character of Modernist architecture and discourse, these problems could only really be investigated and resolved properly at an international level, which is where DOCOMOMO has come in, with its very clearly set out programme of first, documenting and researching, and then, conserving – as embodied in the very name DO-CO-MOMO. It coordinated national efforts in recording and research: that work began mainly at the level of individual key monuments, including interwar as well as postwar, which have been extensively inventorised in the DOCOMOMO International Register; but more recently, DOCOMOMO has begun tackling more challenging aspects of the MoMo – what we call ‘other’ modernisms – modernisms that may not look particularly stylistically modern, but which may be just as modern in social, cultural or technological terms. Today, though, the inexorable forward march of the heritage movement has continued beyond the early postwar decades, with the scope of listed buildings now potentially embracing the 1970s and even later.

That brings us unavoidably to a new and more subtle challenge for DOCOMOMO and national heritage bodies like AHSS: how to come to terms with built environments of even more ‘modern’ periods, even though they may not ‘look’ modernist at all – in other words, really stretching the concept of ‘other’ modernism even further still.  Now here, it will no doubt be easy enough to research and ‘list’ the key examples of the postmodernism that dominated new architecture from the 70s and 90s. But, there’s a potential ‘heritage’ even more important to take notice of from these years: that is, the urban environments of conservation.  Because new architecture was arguably proportionately less important in the built environments created in those decades than existing buildings that were conserved, by whatever method.

Of course, there had been lots of conservation prior to that, including pioneering work across Europe at an urban rather than individual-monument scale as early as the turn of century – a movement that had, for example, embraced the entirety of the cultural and natural landscape, in the German concept of Heimat. But only with what we in this conference have simplistically labelled the postwar revolution in urban conservation, did it gain so much critical mass as to become dominant. This was a position that had been building up over decades, but suddenly achieved dominance, in the West, in the 70s.

So – for the first time, the conservation movement is obliged to study its own prehistory as an object of heritage on a major scale – a tricky task!  But it’s here that DOCOMOMO, because of its track record in confronting the awkward issues of definitions of modernity and ‘otherness’ in modern architecture, can arguably make another potentially useful contribution. And so the aim of DOCOMOMO and the AHSS in this conference is to try to begin looking for a more nuanced picture of the way in which urban conservation in the postwar years fitted into the broader currents of modernity, both cultural, social, technical and visual. As I’ll explain in a minute when I do a quick overview of the programme, we’re going to be looking both in detail at the moment of conservation victory in the late 60s and early 70s in one country, Scotland, in Day 2, as well as setting the scene for that today with some more chronologically wide-ranging papers on the wider international context.

But first, a few words on the relationship between conservation and the Modern Movement. Well, for the last 40 years or so, that relationship has widely been assumed to be one of deadly enemies: that enmity is, indeed, one of the foundation values of post-1960s conservationism. At first, during the Postmodernist years, that relationship was seen as one between victor (heritage) and vanquished (modernism): in the minds of fundamentalist critics like Prince Charles, new (Postmodern) architecture was of course seen as an ally of heritage, as against the nasty, slain monster of modernism. Equally, modernist complexes became seen as prime candidates for mass demolition. Even today, many standard conservation texts still routinely refer to the alleged failures of postwar modernist urbanism – its supposedly alienating scale, flouting of traditional urban grain, and so forth – as bogeymen against which they can highlight their own concepts. More recently, though, the tables have been turned, with the sudden rise of a new kind of aggressive, revived modernism, the so called iconic or signature modernism, looking in some ways like the old modernism but dominated by completely different values, of competitive capitalism. This neo-modernism has itself found it convenient to target conservation as a bogeyman, and, for example, in countless world heritage sites, there have been well-publicised clashes between conservationists and the developers and architects of iconic buildings – for example in St Petersburg over the Gazprom tower project, and here in Edinburgh over the signature iconic tower being planned for Haymarket by Richard Murphy. And now, of course, in a fresh phase of this sterile battle of artificial extremes, unbelievably, the monster of Prince Charles is once again struggling from its grave and, in the Chelsea Barracks row, beginning to spout fresh anti-modernist diatribes.

Our view, in both DOCOMOMO and the AHSS, is that the time has come to cut through all this, and try to embed the triumphal years of urban conservation within the wider historiography of the postwar modern city.  In doing this, the ideological difficulties of the task are offset by some shortcuts that we can take, compared to the usual heritage formula of documentation followed by conservation. Firstly, conservation of this heritage of the conservation movement isn’t so much an issue here, as most of the built-environments concerned are already, by definition, conserved! For the same reason, we don’t need to spend so much effort in recording or researching these environments themselves, as they are often already recorded. What is far more urgent, as many of the key figures involved are still around, is to document recollections of people and values. 

But this is something that can only be done on a country by country basis, which is why we’ve chosen to focus on the case study of Scotland in the 60s and 70s, which will be addressed in the session tomorrow and in a follow-up round-table discussion of some speakers on Sunday. At this point I think I should say a bit more in explanation of the conference programme. The speakers in our Scottish day tomorrow, mostly key participants from the time supplemented by a few present-day speakers, have been divided up into two very broad groups, a morning group focusing on issues of ‘civic amenity’ conservation, including the internationally renowned drive to rescue the Edinburgh New Town, and an afternoon group focusing on community and housing rehab in Glasgow and elsewhere. Obviously, the division between these two categories is rather artificial, and they overlap in practice. And, in a further complication, in Glasgow, the rehab movement significantly fed into more recent urban design and new architecture.

Today’s session is intended to set the stage for that concrete case study at an international level, by sketching out some of the complex and ambiguous links between postwar urban conservation and the wider modern built environment. Those connections and ambiguities go right back to the two parallel Athens Charters of the early 30s: one for modern architecture and the other for conservation. Now you could see that dualism as a symptom of the irreconcilable difference between the two. Or, especially in the surprisingly sympathetic words on urban conservation drafted by Le Corbusier in the modern architecture charter, or in the growing focus on the pedestrian heart of the city by CIAM, the foremost modernist organisation, in the late 40s and 50s, you could see them instead as two halves of the same phenomenon. What both undoubtedly shared was an absolute conviction that old and new must be clearly distinguished. That was how many in both the modernist and conservation establishments saw things right through the 40s, 50s and 60s, even if they differed over individual causes celebres. Someone like Raymond Lemaire of Leuven, conservationist co-author of the Charter of Venice as well as planner of the new town of Louvain-la-Neuve – in his delightful small late 50s chapel conversion of St Lambertus at Heverlee, would likely have seen substantially eye-to-eye with a modern architect such as Scotland’s Robert Matthew, saviour of the Edinburgh New Town as well as chief redeveloper of Edinburgh’s George Square and early bogeyman of the AHSS.   In some places, the strong polarisation between old and new was foregrounded through rhetorical architectural devices, such as in the 1950s old-new juxtapositions of Basil Spence’s Coventry Cathedral or Egon Eiermann’s Kaiser Wilhelm Gedaechtniskirche in Berlin.

Kaiser Wilhelm Gedaechtniskirche, Berlin (rebuilt by Egon Eiermann, from 1958).

Albrecht Durer Strasse, Nuremberg: reconstructed in early 1950s.

In some other places there was a more subtle interaction of the two, for example in many Italian cities, in work like that of Franco Albini in Genoa (or at the Rinascente in Rome) or BBPR in Milan; or in some of the reconstructed German cities, such as the Altstadt of Nuernberg, an exquisite and unmistakably 1950s amalgam of prestige monumental restorations and background urban fabric ‘in character’; or the similarly reconstructed, brick-built Altstadt of Luebeck.

But these diverse architectural relationships between old and new formed only one part of a wider Weltanschauung of modernity in the C20 built-environment, a collective world-outlook that combined impassioned utopian idealism with a respect for rationalistic, even bureaucratic organisational methods. As far as utopian zeal was concerned, there was little to separate the 1970s social community passions of, say, the communist conservationists of  the centro storico of Bologna, or the local community rehab activists of Govan in Glasgow, from the community concepts of slightly earlier modernist architectural groups like Team 10. And as far as Taylorist efficiency goes, conservation had no qualms about simply taking over the state bureaucracies previously developed to support modernist planning: in some cases, as with the work of Frank Tindall here in Central Scotland, the Modernist planners themselves were already following a conservation-sensitive path. Of course, we should recall that the original apparatus of conservationist inventorisation had in any case been an early administrative offshoot of the French Revolution, and thus at the leading edge of cultural ‘modernity’.

Those are some of the considerations we could keep in mind, in listening to the papers this afternoon (Friday), with their range of perspectives and accounts of postwar urban conservation – as well as the specialist Scottish papers tomorrow. But we need also to recognise that there were, at the same time, more intractable areas of intrinsic difference between heritage and the Modern Movement. One of the most important of these is tackled in the four papers this morning – namely, the very significant movement for reconstruction of destroyed buildings and environments in facsimile. This was something that directly flouted the idea of clearly separating old and new, and so was looked on with suspicion both by modern architects, who condemned design of new buildings in ‘pastiche’ styles, and by orthodox conservationists, who saw it as a throwback to the ‘bad old’ days of Viollet-le-Duc. Yet this movement was unmistakeably an integral part of ‘modern life’, as its early European setpieces were provoked by the blanket destruction of modern warfare – in Ypres in World War 1, or Warsaw in World War 2 (where the city’s 6 years rebuilding plan showed the Old Town as just one in a constellation of planned neighbourhood units).

Reims Cathedral, France, World War I French cartoon.

German propaganda poster about Danzig/Gdansk in 1939: the city was devastated in 1945 and the Old Town was rebuilt in facsimile under its new Polish administration.

The war devastated centre of Ypres, Belgium, in 1918.

Orleans Cathedral - on early example of 'postwar facsimile reconstruction', over the
two and a half centuries following its destruction by Huguenots in the 16th century.

And in North America it formed a precocious part of the tourism-driven process of building replica ‘old environments’ (beginning in the 20s with Colonial Williamsburg, and after World War 2 linking to the parallel movement of ‘Disneyland’-building): we’ll be hearing two papers on Polish postwar reconstructions, in their broader ideological contexts, and two papers on North America.

More recently, in the 1990s, those European and American strands of facsimile building have been to converge, especially in the post-reunification copy-reconstruction projects in Dresden and many other German cities, and slightly earlier in the 1980s reconstruction of the war-destroyed Knochenhauer-Amtshaus in Hildesheim (see p.6 and front cover). Such projects were driven as much as anything by strategies of economic revival and tourist growth.  Now this conference does not cover in any detail the present-day issues of conservation in today’s age of neo-capitalism; but we have included at the end of Day 1 a lecture by our visiting research fellow at SCCS, Prof Zhu Rong of Jiangnan University, on the conservation challenges of contemporary China – a place where many MoMo programmes, rather than being a matter of heritage, are still in full cry today.

The 'original' Knochenhauer-Amtshaus, Hildesheim, in 1900.

Present-day view of the Market Place and the monumental, timber-built Knochenhauer-Amtshaus in Hildesheim - in fact, a 1980s facsimile reconstruction of a building completely destroyed in 1945 by bombing, and replaced for over two decades by a modernist hotel on the site.

Finally, I should mention that, as part of the process of researching and disseminating the subject matter of both days of the conference, we hope to publish the proceedings in some form or another: the Scottish papers and round-table discussion may well be published in a forthcoming thematic issue of the AHSS Journal, and the international material hopefully in a special electronic issue of the Docomomo International Journal.