Architects build a new approach to carbuncles and conservation

Architect Norman Foster's modern addition to the Hearst building in New York.
Architect Norman Foster's modern addition to the Hearst building in New York.
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Forget glass towers and steel skyscrapers, Sarah Freeman reports on the campaign to bring a sense of tradition back to architecture.

Ever wondered why when blueprints for a new addition to an historic building are unveiled the design is about as far away as you can get from the original architecture? Blame the Venice Charter.

Back in the 1960s, a group of conservation specialists concerned about the preservation of historic buildings pooled their not inconsiderable talents to produce a set of guidelines to help architects of the future. At its core was an insistence that any extension and any restoration work should be significantly different from the original fabric of the building.

The idea was to prevent bodged copies of ancient pillars, architraves and mouldings – the result was a rash of steel and glass alterations as architects, desperate to put their own stamp of a building, embraced modernism and rejected traditionalism.

“The Venice Charter basically said that there should be a differentiation between new and old work,” says Keith Davies, building surveyor at the Fitzwilliam Estate in Malton, who has long been frustrated by the trend. “At the time, a lot of historic buildings had been lost in the massive post-war redevelopment and I have no doubt it was introduced with the best intentions, but the results are often questionable.

“All across the world, historic buildings are being despoiled by modernist additions. Yes, the changes are distinctive, but you wouldn’t treat a painting this way.”

However, time may yet be called on what critics call the modernist carbuncles. Davies, one of a growing number of industry experts who believe the Venice Charter must be rewritten before more crimes against architecture are committed, is behind a day long seminar in the North Yorkshire town which will bring together professionals from the likes of English Heritage and Historic Scotland together with the public to discuss the problem.

“In the past people have been afraid of speaking out in case they seem like they are out of touch with the zeitgeist and stuck in the past,” he says. “However, I think the tide is turning and more people are willing to stand up and be counted and it’s time we at least opened up the debate.

“I believe – and so do many others – that most people wish for old buildings to be retained and sympathetically restored not because they see them as museum pieces, but out of genuine affection for them.”

By way of evidence for the prosecution, supporters of traditional architecture cite buildings like Norman Foster’s Hearst Tower in New York. Retaining the original 1920s stone facade, the British architect’s addition of a 46-storey steel and glass tower may have won the best skyscraper of the year award back in 2006, for others it’s a prime example of where style has triumphed over substance.

“It happens everywhere from major cities to small rural villages,” adds Davies. “The prejudice against new traditional design is having a knock-on affect on the availability of skilled craftsmen. It’s a vicious spiral which leads to ever fewer craftsmen and ever fewer apprentices.

“If we don’t do something, eventually there will simply be insufficient people able to repair and conserve the heritage assets we have.”

To take part in the Traditional Architecture Group event at the Milton Rooms in Malton on June 4 go to