21 December 2008

Preserving Heritage Buildings

At the 2008 AAANZ conference at Griffith University in Brisbane, Ann Toy presented a paper on Public Art and Vice-Regal Patronage at Government House, Sydney.

Government House Sydney was built between 1838 and 1845, to a plan by an architect in Britain, Edward Blore. Fortunately the builders, contractors, designers, craftspeople and materials were all local. It was built in the neo-Gothic taste, crenellated and turreted, with various coats of arms. Additions have included a front portico (1873), an eastern veranda (1879) and extensions to the ballroom and Governor’s study in (1900). From 1845-1996, it served as the Governor’s residence, office and official reception space. Since 1996, the Governor has not used it as a residence.

Government House, Sydney
Many Vice Regal families have come and gone over the decades. Conservation and refurbishment have been ongoing issues for the Historical Houses Trust of NSW , even now, since the building is still used for Vice-Regal, state and Commonwealth government functions.
The Trust's task was to respect the instrinsic historic values of the building's original fabric, decoration and collections, while integrating new technologies, new design and new art into the interiors. I realise that the old clutter needed to be pared back, but the result sofar seemed somewhat jarring. Nonetheless history will tell whether they achieved the ideal balance, or not.

The conservation Vs modern refurbishment debate reminded me of an earlier visit to Monticello near Charlottesville in Virginia, which I loved. Monticello was the private estate of Thomas Jefferson, the third President of the USA. Designed by Jefferson himself in the Palladian style, work on the house continued intermittently from 1768-1809. Many changes were made to the original plans within Jefferson's own era, making Monticello virtually a lifetime's project.

By 1879, Jefferson Levy was the new owner of Monticello. He restored and preserved Monticello, which had been deteriorating seriously for many years.

The Thomas Jefferson Foundation purchased the house in 1923, had it restored yet again by architects and opened the building to the public.

A correspondent to the AIA Archiblog [2] recognised that buildings have to change, as each generation finds new needs not being met by the existing architect­ure. “This house as architecture is a disaster, mishapenly proport­ion­ed, awkward, which is unsurprising given the interations it went through over the years. Monticello is a mess of a building. He (Jefferson?) can't even resolve the facade and interior well”.
Of course I cannot compare Monticello with Government House Sydney directly. Monticello now runs as a museum, fixed in time, not as an active arm of government. But that raises another important question: what extant design features in Monticello came from Jefferson himself, which belonged to Levy 100 years later and which elements arrived in the 1920s?

A line in The Design Public Blog [3] was right on topic for this discussion: “Anyway, it was meant to be a museum, full of artefacts from the territory in the Louisiana Purchase, maps, Natural History and American History”. Who decided Monticello was meant to be a museum? and was the decision made after the intial building plans were finalised?
Monticello <-library and bedroom ->


Will said...

It is a constant dilemma faced by architects in projects involving restoration, i.e., winding back the clock. How far back to you go? How much of the everyday changes which happen over time do you erase? What does authentic really mean? And, even if you labor diligently to restore something to a particular point in time past, time continues to elapse and changes layer themselves inexorably upon even the most precise restoration.

I have always found it interesting how the popular culture views the past -- not as it was, but as one might imagine it to be. The costumes, set design, and make-up used in period movies represent how contemporary designers imagine a time in the past. For example, if one looks at the costumes of the great classic film Gone with the Wind, set in the mid-19th century American south, the film still exudes its own period - Hollywood of the 1930s -- and one reads both times and places in the images on the screen.

Museums may strive for authenticity and accuracy, but frequently working buildings better communicate their stories through carefully chosen architectural conceits, not unlike cinema.

Unknown said...

I particularly enjoyed this post, as I live not too far from Monticello and visit it annually. Jefferson was a complicated man and his home reflects that. He once wrote "architecture is my delight, and putting up and pulling down one of my favorite amusements." No doubt his house was a work-in-progress even at his death in 1826. I am certain the residence and the grounds are exceedingly more beautiful and sublime today than at any point during Jefferson's lifetime. Well worth a visit. I believe it is still the only residence in America on the UN's World Heritage List.