Ancient buildings exude LIFE!

SCARAB sees ancient buildings as alive. Just as it is never appropriate to ‘preserve’ a still living person, so we should not seek to preserve a living building, but rather to sustain it in good health. Some historic structures should indeed be preserved as is; such works of art are monuments that are no longer living, and are the exception that proves the rule.

Unlike monuments, living buildings have an ongoing usefulness and purpose; the unthinking restriction of that utility is the biggest threat such buildings face.

Most living buildings have been authored by their communities across many generations; most have a purpose that points beyond themselves. With few exceptions, they are terminally incomplete, always as much about process and journey as about product and destination.

Living buildings cannot be reduced solely to art history or archaeology; they are living expressions of heritage that are nurtured by the continuity of past, present and future. A conservation based on cultural discontinuity will suppress their life, and that of the communities that use them.

Buildings of any kind have agency; they are actors in the unfolding drama of human culture. Conservation can help an ancient building to exude life or, through preservation, to exclude life. To exude or exclude: that is the question.

Ancient buildings expect CHANGE!

History is the study of change through time, and is narrative in structure. A genuinely historic building is also narrative in structure, and thus as much future facing as past facing.

A building valued only for its past ceases to be historic; removed from the flow of history, its life drains away and it becomes a monument. To remain historic, ancient buildings can, should, and indeed must, be allowed to change.

Of course not all change is good. For conservation to be credible it must address a fatal omission by developing a means of judging good change from bad. Change itself should not be feared as a threat, but welcomed as evidence of life.

Ancient buildings provide a model; many have changed every generation. Change is in their nature, and has given them their character. It is their lifeblood, a lifeline that binds them to their community. Who would wish to obstruct it?

SCARAB sees ancient buildings as ICONs –Intergenerational, Communal and Ongoing Narratives. Each generation writes a chapter in the communal story; in writing ours, we have a duty to enrich the plot and move it forward, while allowing space for future generations to write their chapters.

A narrative approach opposes the privileging of one particular historic period over any other. Old is not necessarily more important than new. What is essential is to safeguard character, continuity, and the coherence of the whole. We should expect change to be subtractive as well as additive; otherwise, over time, any building will choke and die.

The alternative, to stop the narrative through the sclerosis of preservation, dishonours the past and dispossesses the future; this ahistoricism is the death of conservation, and of culture.

Ancient buildings embody TRADITION!

SCARAB views ancient buildings as objects of tradition. A tradition in good health is constantly changing, but its fluidity is bounded. Tradition has little place for individual genius, but great respect for creativity in community.

Continuity of tradition should not be confused with keeping things the same; that is the task of preservation, not conservation. A continuity of sameness fixates on answers; continuity of tradition is concerned with questions, specifically with maintaining and developing the questions that sustain a culture. It is the role of tradition to keep those cultural questions alive. This can only be achieved by a radical tradition of dynamism, and not by modernity’s pseudo-tradition of stasis in the service of political conservatism.

A conservation of answers literally ‘has no future’. Only a conservation of the question is able to reconcile the claims of past, present and future. This  ‘balanced heritage’ allows for creativity, making space for the uninvited guest, and for the young alongside the old.

It is not possible to deal well with the objects of tradition without a comparable pre-modern understanding of tradition. The new wine of modernity threatens to destroy the old wineskin of a living building because it does not understand the subversive vitality of dynamic tradition.

Ancient buildings form COMMUNITY!

Of critical importance to the health of ancient buildings is their relationship with the local communities which created them, and which they continue to co-create. The relationship is reciprocal, the feeling mutual.

Culture starts with the most local forms of community, and works from the bottom up. Culture ‘dwells’, is always from somewhere. Living buildings make this dwelling manifest; they are owned by their community, and are convivial.

By contrast, high culture is by instinct ‘contravivial.’ It defines a canon, invests in a collection, and then defends against change through preservation. Dealing in universals, it controls from above, marginalising the local and communal.

The resulting democratic deficit is not resolved by introducing intangible as distinct from tangible forms of heritage, which offer no account for the ‘co-dwelling’ of people and buildings. Adding the communal to a significance of discrete values cannot resurrect the life of a heritage once it has been embalmed; preservation by any other name would smell as sick.

SCARAB stands for the continuity and renewal of living buildings. It promotes a balanced heritage of past, present and future that integrates the communal with the aesthetic and historical. It favours localism over nationalism, continuity over separation, movement over stasis and celebration over the ‘contravivial’.

One Reply to “Manifesto”

  1. This is very interesting and a very thoughtful contribution to the ‘conservation debate’. It may be too philosphical for some people but without thinking seriously why and how we conserve we are either locked into accepted but conflicting modes of preservation, restoration or making all things new. I think the SCARAB manifesto should challenge to this quote (or another) from the SPAB manifesto “and otherwise to resist all tampering with either the fabric or ornament of the building as it stands; if it has become inconvenient for its present use, to raise another building rather than alter or enlarge the old one; in fine to treat our ancient buildings as monuments of a bygone art, created by bygone manners, that modern art cannot meddle with without destroying.”
    It is this piece of the manifesto in particular which why I am not a member of SPAB but we use and promote their brillaint technical advice.
    If we are to have historic buildings and churches which are to serve their communities in the 21st century it is this impediment to change which needs to be removed from the mindset of the conservation sector

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