Photo: Andrés García / Flickr.com

Historical Heritage: Preservation as Development

An interview with architect Natalia Dushkina about the ways in which heritage preservation will influence the appearance and texture of future cities

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An interview with Natalia Dushkina

An interview by Irina Shmeleva and Valeria Tabakova

The preservation of historical heritage is an attempt of a society’s self-identification. We preserve monuments of architecture and culture in order to understand who we are, where we come from and where we are going. It’s impossible to predict the future without considering the theme of heritage preservation, since the relationship between societies created in the past determines those of the present and future. Observing the process of what is preserved and restored in different cities and countries, we can speculate on how things there will be developed. New methods of preservation, new criteria on selecting the heritage, further diversification of types of heritage, even the selective destruction of historical monuments – all this will influence the appearance and texture of future cities.

Natalia Dushkina was born in Moscow into the family of a famous Soviet architect. She is an architect, professor at the Moscow Architectural Institute, and an expert on the protection of architectural heritage. Dushkina is a member of Docomomo and an expert on World Heritage sites at ICOMOS. She is an author of numerous articles and monographs on the history of architecture and historic preservation, published in Russia and abroad.
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In 1964, the Venice Charter was accepted, which became a code of professional standards for heritage preservation and restoration. Even though it is widely accepted, it still contains a lot of controversies on how heritage should be restored, and what should be preserved. Why?

This document was created at the crest of the wave of post-​WWII reconstruction, in 1964. Europe acknowledged that everything that was destroyed should be reconstructed as soon as possible. It was important from the moral and economic points of view. It seemed necessary to do and to show that all could be restored as it was before, to show it to the people who survived the war. However, reconstruction was done in huge hurry, and it demonstrated a lot of negative examples of renovation.

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Restored architecture of the “White city”, Tel-​Aviv, Israel /​Photo: Andrew Nash /​Flickr​.com

That’s why the Venice Charter was born. It is based on negative experiences of quick renovation of historic areas. The Venice Charter states: ‘It is our duty to hand them on in the full richness of their authenticity’. What does it mean? We should remember that we are temporary users of the valuable things that we have inherited. We are the people who can ensure their preservation and transfer them forward into the future. In a historical perspective we live in extremely tiny moments of time. From the pyramids to the Eiffel tower, everything made by humans are the tracks which define human life. If you demolish them, a part of human life will be erased.

Authenticity is a key definition for understanding what heritage preservation means. However, it is also the most controversial. On one hand, authenticity now has an ephemeral, outdated definition. Many modern architects say: ‘Let’s build on top of it, or attach something to it, it won’t be worse’. On the other hand, everyone understands that authenticity has been altered. What exists now will be the subject of a new culture. When I hear discussions about preserving a building by way of destroying and rebuilding it from scratch, I understand that it doesn’t relate to restoration at all. It’s ridiculous to call it as method of conservation.

You can’t oppose development to conservation. They’re not antagonistic

There is one more controversial idea. ‘The city isn’t a museum, it has to develop’. Cities are always developing! You can’t oppose development to conservation, they’re not antagonistic. It is very important to understand that preservation is part of development.

In Russian context, which role does preservation play in processes of cultural development?

Russia has its own specifics. There is the desire to get money from a building immediately, to find a way to instant wealth. There was a post-​Soviet period of wild capitalism, everything was changing rapidly. This challenged heritage, since old objects are concentrated in the very center of the city, in the most desirable areas. If somebody invests in the center of the city, the most expensive part, it must have the highest profit – it’s a rule dictated by money.

In reality, a restoration project should have a long-​term payback period, approximately 15 – 20 years. However we can see the examples where large, famous companies get revenue from a restoration after 5 – 7 years. That is impossible in case of real restoration. Thus we understand what is restoration and what is repairment.

Western countries have similar problems, but at least there are specific institutions which were able to create schemes and tools to resist these conditions. In Moscow we have very weak institutions of preservation. As soon as a conflict arises, the decision is escalated and made by the person with authority and money. Nevertheless, this is a learning process. A lot of new good, positive trends appear, which signify that there is light at the end of the tunnel.

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Graffiti reproduction of work by artist D. Prigov, microrayon Belyaevo, Moscow, Russia (photo by Chistova Margaria /​ag​.mos​.ru

What are these trends?

These are not really trends, more likely methodologies, based financially between the state and the private sector. The same companies which refurbish buildings instead of restoring them introduce a correct model: association of state and private investment aimed to restore historical objects. Keeping in mind the size of our country and the terrible condition in which most heritage is maintained, the only way to preserve historical objects is to use private capital.

A lot of economic programs are developed just for that: projects for public restoration, crowd funding, private investments and so on. Moreover, a recent addition to Federal Law #73 ‘On Heritage Preservation’ introduced an important point benefits for the investor. In my opinion, that is enough to attract private capital, but only if the investor is well educated and cultural and understands the importance of heritage preservation. Otherwise, the restoration project will fail.

In addition, the position of civil society has great importance. There some positive trends also can be seen. For example, our Moscow ‘Archnadzor’ is a necessary organization; it is a real patriotic movement, in the best sense of the word.

Speaking about trends in heritage preservation, is important to mention The White City in Tel-​Aviv. In the process of restoration, the owners were allowed to build up several stories on top of historical buildings. After that, the city started to bloom. What do you think about this project?

Tel Aviv as a city went through several stages of fading away. Due to the climate and wars during the 20th century it was turning into a terrible gray crust. There wasn’t any restoration, just layers cement to smooth the damages. The city was terribly distorted. A new company popped up that understood that this city is not only the heritage and symbol of Zionism, but a symbol of the nation. The state had no money for restoration, so some economic schemes had to be launched in order to attract attention to restoration.

Nitza Szmuk, who at the time was the head of the heritage protection department, understood that the money can only be taken from the owners of historical houses themselves. But she had to offer them something in exchange. They created the concept that you mentioned: accept funding from private owners and restore their buildings, but allow them to build several floors on top on those houses, to make the payload bigger. The owner got a profit from that. This is a method I call ‘putting hats on’.

The city was restored. Nitza Szmuk performed a miracle. Historical buildings were reconstructed in a quality manner and with good details, and – the most important thing – the restoration has created an amazing effect: people realized that these buildings with ‘hats’ are very attractive from an aesthetic point of view – they represent national identity. The district became a fancy one, since it’s located in the center of the city. The word ‘fancy’ is not a random one. When a historical object becomes fancy, it immediately installs itself on strong legs, gets a second life. This happened in Tel-​Aviv. The same thing happened in Berlin, when it became fancy to buy or rent an apartment in worker’s districts.

London morning sunrise. London eye, County Hall, Westminster Bridge, Big Ben and Houses of Parliament.

Ferris wheel “The London eye”, built in the historical district of London, UK

Speaking of unusual approaches to heritage preservation, or absolutely new forms of heritage: what do you think about preservation on unobvious types of objects?

Not only glossy things are valuable. The project of Belyaevo’s preservation is an example. We are clear on understanding that a church of the 18th century or the Shukhov Tower have certain value due to their uniqueness. The microrayon Belyaevo is not unique, it is typical, and that’s why it’s hard to distinguish its value. However, a nice landscape and specific coziness has formed in Belyaevo over the years. A closer look shows us a special environment that made its mark on the people living there. Recently, one of Belyaevo houses had a graffiti painted on the wall – a replica of artist Dmitriy Prigov’s work, who was living in the area. This stunning picture «АЯ» refers to human ego throughout the phrase ‘not you, not he, not they, but ME’. In fact it means what about me?’

We should remember that we are temporary users of the valuable things that we have inherited

I do not know if it is possible for this type of heritage to receive the recognition of UNESCO World Heritage. Most likely at this moment it is practically impossible, since even some of Le Corbusier’s projects are not covered. However, this project defines a direction of conversation, that each generation leave behind its own values, and that they should be subsequently respected.

Nowadays you have to literally fight for each historical object. Why?

First of all, the pyramid of values has been turned upside down. In past, and even in 20th century, people had certain humanitarian, spiritual values. Nowadays this pyramid of values is crowned by money. Profit becomes more important than professional, religious or any other value.

Second: society changed the way it sees reality. The intensity of visualization in the world has reached a crazy level, now it’s all about the picture. Before, we had a comprehensive vision of the world, now everything is split to fragments of mosaic. This is also corresponds to the preservation of history. Society needs picture perfection, beauty, glamour; society doesn’t need ruins, doesn’t need archaeology.

In order to get money it is necessary to create a completed thing. That’s why the world has completely wild examples, when someone starts to reconstruct the archaeological fragments, building something on top, and by that – killing archeology itself.

There’s an ongoing process of completing the Parthenon. For example: Tsaritsyno Park in Moscow. People like pictures, but no one knows who the architect was – nor Kazakov nor Bazhenov – nor who Catherine the Great was and what happened there between them. They like this place, because first of all it is clean, and there are lots of features and a completed picture can be seen. This park is a tool to get profit. That is ‘presentation’ of heritage, not preservation.

Another example is London. UNESCO has named London as worst example of architecture preservation experience. The fact is that London is the commercial center of the world now, and what is happening there directly affects the rest of the cities worldwide. In St. Petersburg and Moscow, the first argument, which is given in discussion regarding destruction of the historical center, is an appeal to London: ‘Why can London do it and we can’t? We want to be London too’.

All these aspects raise the question of professionalism; in the modern world this kind of thing should depend on professionals.

What types of professionals are required today?

I think that professionals have to be more independent. This may sound naïve, but nevertheless, I think that both construction and architectural businesses can be built on top of mutual agreement between all parties, and be sustained as sources of profit and at the same time provide goodness to society. Many architects have dominating egos and are crazy about their own work, they want to implement their projects without taking into account any heritage institutions.I admire this position, but times have changed, thanks to the emergence of powerful heritage institutions.

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Rem Koolhaas explains that over time humanity builds and preserves more and more objects of heritage, at the CRONOCAOS exhibition in 2010, Venice, Italy /​Photo source: Designboom

In fact, there’s ongoing battle for the market between those who restore, and conserve the city and architects who built it. Remember, the first Strelka Institute studio with Rem Koolhaas was about heritage – it is the same desire to refocus architects onto the preservation field and to be the first in this market.

Even some of Le Corbusier’s projects are not covered by UNESCO protection

He is intelligent – that’s why he is appealing, and at the same time scary. It is obviously necessary to oppose him, because he represents a more business, modernist approach to the preservation. He doesn’t reject creative destruction; for him it is sometimes necessary to represent the classical, conservative approach in society in order to reach a balance. With him you can reach a consensus. With an intelligent man it is always possible to find a common platform.

What will happen with preservation in the future, in 20 or 40 years?

After all, from a development perspective, the forecast for the 21st century is not furious development and expansion of development, but actually the opposite. We will be confronted with problems of ecology, demand for green architecture; we produce more than we consume and preservation is related to this by elaboration and filling of what already exists. We can’t destroy any longer, because there is no place to store such huge amount of waste. Where did they put all the trash from the demolished Hotel Russia? We have to stop destroying and fix and develop the things that already exist.