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Architectural Purity - Does It Exist?

06 Mar 2018

A view of St Kilda Pier a famous location in Melbourne, Australia at sunrise.

A view of St Kilda Pier a famous location in Melbourne, Australia at sunrise.

When the Glasgow School of Art Library burnt down in 2014, architects drew on the meticulous plans and photographic documentation to bring it back to its former glory. But does this lessen the authenticity? Even here in our own hometown?

The Glasgow School of Art, designed by Charles Rennie Macintosh and built between 1899 and 1909, was extensively damaged in a fire in May 2014 when a student preparing for an exhibition left a can of expanding foam too close to a digital projector. Heated by the projector, fumes from the can caught fire. The flames quickly spread through the buildings innovative ventilation system and set much of the eastern end of the building alight. The iconic Library, amongst other areas, was extensively damaged. Almost as soon as the fire was extinguished debate arose as to what to do next. Should a contemporary architect be invited to renovate the historically important building, updating it for the 21st century? Or should the building be restored to its pre-fire condition as faithfully as possible? Alan Dunlop, Professor of Architecture at Robert Gordon University in Aberdeen, put the case for renovation: “(Macintosh) was driven by a lifelong search for new forms in architecture and technology and was never a copyist. I have no doubt that he would reject the approach of building a replica.” The Guardian 20 April 2015 But Rowan Moore, Architecture Critic for the Observer newspaper, put the opposite view:  “There have been calls to give up on it and commission something wholly new by a leading architect of today, as is often the case with losses such as this. I can’t see the point of this. It is impossible to think of a single living architect who would do as good a job of putting a library in a Mackintosh building as the ghost of Mackintosh himself, speaking through his original designs” The Guardian 15 Feb 2015 Macintosh, having died in 1928, was silent on the subject. We cannot know what he would have said, and have to choose our own course of action. However, given that the original drawings of the Glasgow School of Art are available, and that the building as built was meticulously photographically documented, I cannot but agree that careful restoration is the better course of action. Of course the restored building will never be exactly as it was, but it can be very, very close. Macintosh was a master architect, and the Glasgow School of Art was / is perhaps his masterpiece. 99% of a Macintosh, or even 95% or 90% is surely better than 50%. Innovative contemporary architects can practice their design skills elsewhere.

Architectural purity - does it exist?

In any case, architectural purity is an illusion: no building is ever exactly as the architect left it. Minor changes and repairs are constantly made, dirt accumulates, steps are worn down through usage, walls and ceilings re-painted or re-stained, new services are installed. Given a competent and exacting restoration, only a purist could complain that the re-constructed parts of the damaged sections of the building are not “real”. The general public- and indeed future architects unaware that there had even been a fire- are unlikely to care. The restorative approach appears to have the overwhelming support of the students and staff at the Glasgow School of Art, as well as of the Glasgow public and it was announced in November 2016 that restoration is what is going to happen. Work is now underway, with a forensic level of attention to detail, and work is expected to be completed at the end of 2018, with students back in the building in time for the start of the academic year in 2019. The Guardian, 25 November 2016 In the contemporary world, we often obsess over what is authentic, what is genuine. A “genuine” Brett Whitely is worth millions, a fake, even one which has been accepted for decades by “experts” as “genuine”, is worthless. The painting is the same, only the attribution has changed, and in the modern world apparently, that is what matters.

What's the real difference?

This is perhaps a reflection of our brand obsessed society, and it shows how trivial and silly we can be about “name”. We pay more for “brand name” products than for the “home brand / no name” equivalent, even when they are produced in the same factory with the same ingredients and it is only the packaging that differs. We have all heard stories of the wine experts praising cheap wine served in a posh bottle or damning posh wine in a clean skin. If we cannot tell the difference between a genuine Rolex and a knock off maybe that is because there is no real difference. All around us are examples of what might be called the good fake: buildings and works of art, mass-produced products, which are not the genuine original article, but which are good enough to pass a first and often a second or third glance, even from so-called expert professional observers.

North Melbourne History

The shopping precinct in Errol Street North Melbourne is a prime example of this. Errol Street boasts a largely intact, well preserved inner city Victorian era streetscape. The majority of the buildings are Victorian or Edwardian, the scale is as it has been for more than a century, and at the corner of Queensberry Street stands the magnificent North Melbourne Town Hall, built in 1878 and the attached Municipal Buildings, built slightly later, both designed by architect George Johnson. Errol Street is also graced by elegant, broad Victorian verandah awnings, the cast iron Corinthian columns of which are occasionally demolished by careless drivers. A streetscape preserved by 80 years of benign neglect and another 40 years of hawk-eyed urban conservation. Except that it isn’t. It’s a fake. The original Victorian verandahs on the Municipal Buildings and the adjoining buildings were torn down in the 1950s, replaced with the “modern” cantilevered awnings that 1950s architects approved of- the sort that weren’t embarrassing in front of overseas visitors, and which presented no barrier to motorists driving on the footpath. The cantilevered awnings lasted 20 years, but with the growth of the urban conservation movement in the 1970s they were pulled down and reproductions of the original Victorian verandahs constructed, using historic photographs, original architectural drawings, and the original molds to cast the columns and lacework to achieve as accurate as possible a facsimile of the 1870s verandahs. Not 100% accurate, but good enough that most members of the public- and indeed most of the architectural profession- are unaware that they were not the originals.

The genuine article?

As a trained architect with experience in heritage work and having lived in North Melbourne for more than 20 years, I had no idea that most of the awnings in Errol Street are not original until I was told the truth by someone involved in the reconstruction. The fact is that, unless you are an expert in Victorian verandahs, or remember the street before the restoration, very few people would ever know that the awnings are reproductions. And if you don’t know that they are fakes how could you possibly care that they are not the genuine article? A similar issue arose when the kiosk at the end of St Kilda pier burnt down on September 11, 2003. While only of local significance, the kiosk had been a part of the St Kilda scene for 99 years, and its sudden loss came as a shock. Predictably there were calls from some in the Melbourne architectural community for the much loved kiosk to be replaced by a modern design, preferably selected by competition.

The New Beauty of St Kilda Pier

As with the Glasgow School of Art this purist demand for authenticity and originality was universally rejected by the wider community. The old kiosk was much loved by locals and was well documented. A facsimile was built more or less exactly as the original had been. Again only a few purists were unhappy, almost everyone else approved. Again, I think the wider community got it right and that some in the architectural community got it wrong. While the old kiosk was still standing no one would have suggested it be knocked down and replaced with a contemporary building, but once it had burnt down that was a different matter. To the architectural purists, a reproduction would be a fake, so better to have something new and original. They seem to be at odds with the wider community in this regard, the favoring instead originality over collective memory, and (perhaps) spurious ideas of authenticity over careful reconstruction. As a practicing architect, I am all in favour of originality, but architects also need to understand that there is a place for careful restoration, and sometimes even for wholesale reconstruction. Architects our notions of authenticity are often ill-conceived or illusory and are generally not shared by the wider community. They may even be grounded in an elitist snobbery that alienates the profession from the public we are supposed to serve. Perhaps it is time we, as a profession, dropped our “purist” approach for a more pragmatic – and populist- one. Peter Hogg. February 2018   Enquire today about the Bachelor of the Built Environment here