• Julian Smith Editorial, Musings about the State of the Heritage Conservation Field

    by  • January 12, 2012 • Uncategorized • 1 Comment

    Welcome, reader. This is the first of a series of bi-weekly musings about the state of the heritage conservation field in Canada and internationally. These comments are written from a Willowbank perspective, although they are personal and subjective and without any formal approval from our Willowbank Board or anyone else.

    The idea for a series of commentaries came from Shelley Huson, our Director of School Programs. She and I often talk about people and places and events, and she felt it was worth including more people in the conversation.

    Comments are always welcome. Willowbank is a centre for discussion and debate about what is going on in this evolving field. There is nothing better than a challenge or question or story to create an ongoing conversation.

    It seemed appropriate to devote this first commentary to what Shelley and I refer to as Type One, Two and Three Personalities in the heritage conservation field. We are always searching for Type Three people, as Willowbank students, faculty, Board members, and Friends. A sprinkling of Type One and Two people is essential, but then they are more common and more likely to show up without asking. The tough part is finding Type Three.

    What does this mean? Some of heard me speak of Phases One, Two and Three in the evolution of the heritage conservation field over the last fifty years or so, and essentially these types refer to people most comfortable with one or other of these phases.

    Why is it important? Because there is a shift going on, and there is a younger generation with more confidence and commitment than I have seen since the 1960s, who are defining this shift. The heritage conservation field is going to change with this generation, and the ones who are comfortable with the shift are going to be in demand.

    Type One personalities are feisty and confrontational, with a strong community-based sense of values and a suspicious view of the military-industrial complex. They seem themselves as the ‘other’, operating on the margins of society. Their heyday was the 60s and into the 70s, and they were leaders in both the historic preservation and environmental fields. They created movements where none existed; they generated a sense of camaraderie and support as fellow travelers; they began to understand the importance of the media and the nurturing of public support.

    I studied historic preservation planning with Antoinette Downing, a prime example of the type. She created the first historic district in Providence, RI when such a thing was unknown, and although a prominent society lady herself, enlisted the help of a hippie low-income housing activist, realizing that historic preservation needed both the architectural historian and the social justice advocate to gain political support. Type Two personalities are professional and competent, and tend towards a more elitist view of themselves and their position as experts. Despite this sense of importance, there is always a complaint about a broader lack of recognition, especially by historic preservations who envy the success of their environmental counterparts. These personalities are proud of their academic degrees, their professional associations, and their familiarity with the legal structures into which the preservation and environmental movements have insinuated themselves. They enjoy the power that designations and heritage reviews and environmental assessments give them, and are often fretting about the erosion of such powers. Their suspicions are not directed so much to the larger military-industrial complex as to evil developers and uninformed politicians and bottom-line economic advocates.

    Type Three personalities are quizzical about the depth of the split between historic preservations and environmental advocates, on the one hand, and the broader design and development community on the other. They see the success of the two protest movements as having created the option of breaking down distinctions between the margins and the centre. They see the possibility of mainstreaming both ideologies and marrying them with a holistic view of good design and good development. They tend to be less interested in confrontation and blame and legal wrangling, and more interested in interdisciplinary exploration and new paradigms. They love the word ecology, and include humans in the ecological equation. They listen to the aboriginal community with its insistence that nature and culture never have been separate and distinct, and are interested in what ecological equilibrium might mean in some large and inclusive sense.

    Type One, Two and Three personalities don’t always have an easy time talking together or agreeing on very much. I was at an OAA Con-Ed session a few weeks ago, where the architects in the room were annoyed because I was typecasting most of them as Type Two personalities, on the mainstream side of the ‘expert’ equation. And I myself was labeled as a Type One person, which was fine. But I left feeling that Ottawa does not have Type Three leaders, and is not waking up to what is going on in Montreal and Toronto and Europe and parts of the U.S. I don’t see it happening at Parks Canada, which could be a leader in creating a new vision of what ecological integrity means when applied to both natural and cultural resources. A few days ago I was talking with the Mayor of Ottawa about Lansdowne Park and although he himself fits comfortably into the Type Three category he knew that the Horticulture Building, in particular, was going to have to be dealt with publicly within a Type Two framework. The day after meeting with the Mayor, I was in Toronto speaking with Brian Arnott and Leslie Wright and Alan Dudeck, and found a far stronger sense that with the Centre for City Ecology and the Brickworks and the Wychwood Barns there are at least places where Type Three people can get together and converse. I also have the same sense when working with Greg Smallenberg and some of his colleagues such as Gerry McKeough in Vancouver – they understand the emerging convergence of cultural resource and natural resource conservation with creative contemporary design and development.

    Internationally, the Recommendation on Historic Urban Landscapes, formally adopted by UNESCO only a few weeks ago, is the first Phase Three document of any significance. It has caused significant waves of unease and resentment from many, while simultaneously being embraced by others. It succeeds, I think, in sorting out the Type Two and Type Three personalities. I was at a meeting of the Theory and Philosophy Committee of ICOMOS at the Paris General Assembly in early December, and there was a clear disdain for this document by some of the same people who have vilified ICOMOS President Gustavo Araoz for his even raising the possibility of a new paradigm. But Gustavo is right – the question is not whether the new paradigm is arriving, but whether people choose to resist it or welcome it.

    Phase Three is not the opposite of Phase Two, and this is sometimes a problem in setting the terms of the discussion. Phase Three may be dynamic rather than static, but it is not about the ‘management of change’. I agree with Wilfried Lipp – President of the Theory Committee and a critic of Gustavo’s – on this matter. It is about equilibrium, not evolution. It is just that equilibrium is an ecological issue, it is about relationships among objects, rather than about components in isolation, and it is therefore something Type Three people have an easier time with.

    Willowbank is about Phase Three. It is about the fact the heritage preservation is no longer a growing fad, promising ever-greater rewards and prestige. That may disappoint some people, but on the other hand it’s significance is fading not because it is irrelevant but because it has become mainstream. And once you are swimming in the mainstream you no longer have the luxury of being a self-satisfied specialized niche, with special degree programs and designations and rules and regulations. You are simply part of how communities develop and evolve, and you better be able to talk with all the other actors in the game. And also realize that many of those other actors are also trying to find their bearings, because most of them have no clue how to deal with cultural and natural resources. The Type Two among them are almost impossible to have intelligent conversations with, because they are ‘experts’ who need the letters after their name and the silos they have created to retain their sense of identity and self-worth. But the Type Three among them are realizing that design and development and resource conservation and cultural heritage are all mixed up together. They are intrigued by ways of rediscovering older wisdom and knowledge drawn from a time when this convergence was still taken for granted. They are also interested in creative new ways of understanding and applying it in a contemporary world.

    The relationship between an architect, a planner and a carpenter is another way of looking at this issue of personality type. That is perhaps a topic for another day.

    Julian Smith

    One Response to Julian Smith Editorial, Musings about the State of the Heritage Conservation Field

    1. Tracy Gayda
      January 15, 2012 at 11:25 AM

      Interesting article Julian. There is definitely a new generation of heritage enthusiasts evolving in this information age. I noted in a G&Mail article this morning that Parks Canada has hired a PR company to update their look. Perhaps this will start to happen in Canada. Canadians tend to be so much more patient and “wait and see what happens” in promoting new ideas. Look forward to reading more articles from you and Willowbank.

    Leave a Reply

    Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *