As a preservationist this is a question I often ask myself. When I’m driving around the Swedish countryside I see the most amazing houses. Small cottages, big mansions, dilapidated rectories. Often they stand empty and majestic in the most stunning surroundings and not a single soul seems to care. Overgrown orchards and tiredlooking flowerbeds that hasn’t been tended to for a very long time. The cheap plastic paint is falling off façades by the bucket load, and the panelling needs looking after. It all gives the impression of being weary and forgotten. And in the midst of all this, the beauty lies. Like a budding flower, with the right amount of love and attention these houses will bloom if someone just decides to take care of them. But it is a costly business, so who will?
In general, municipalities, borough councils or the state won’t do anything as long as they can avoid the responsibility. On the other hand, why would they. It is not (always) their immediate fault that the imaginary building for this post is in such a dire state. What happened to the responsibility of the owner? But one has to remember, we can never know what the whole story behind a dilapidated building is. There might be a single owner who could not care less, but there are numerous examples with siblings or cousins having been left houses in a will and they can’t agree what to do with it, so they simply let the house stand empty. A shame, but that’s a reason as bad as any I guess.
This takes me back to my initial query; does caring for a house or a building always have to be for our own financial gain? It is as though if we can’t sell a house for a healthy net profit in a few years it is not worth having. If we can’t make money out of refurbishing there is no reason to invest. But what about our built national heritage? What about the importance of a specific regional architecture, or building style which is a more prudent phrase for the vernacular buildings in some parts of the European countryside. What about preserving localy important buildings like old dairies, post offices or railway stations. They might not have been used for a hundred or so years, but does that mean they are of no importance to us today? Hardly.
This is where the hardcore preservationist comes in to play. When someone is prepared to invest their own hard earned time and money in a house simply to save it from demolition or from falling down, other people shake their heads and call them ”crazy idealists” and, sometimes, less flattering names. Though, when the village post office from 1863 is saved for the future these same people stand looking on, saying how marvellous it all looks and isn’t it great some people are prepared to preserve these building for our grandchildren and future generations to come. And it certainly is. There are times when we have to be prepared to save cultural national heritages, also the built, even if we might not become millionaires on the spot. But our local region, our town or village will for sure have become much richer. That can be reason enough.
Ever since I started working at the age of sixteen I have had the privilege of working in the most fantastic historical environments. Living in and travelling to equally fascinating cities and countries has also been amazing. And from this I have learned one thing: architecture counts and matters enormously for cities or countries identity and the picture it sends to visitors as well as the people living there. Imagine New York without its high rising buildings, London without the Houses of Parliament with the fairly famous clock tower attached. Imagine Paris without the Tour d’Eiffel, Rome without Colosseum (though the Romans do everything they can making it crumble down piece by piece, but that’s an issue for another day) and China without the Great Wall. Even though one might not be an architectural nerd like myself, these buildings matter. To everyone.
The famous Swedish architectural preservationist and spokesman for the built cultural heritage Lars Sjöberg speaks about an internal, almost like an inherited compass for beauty, when he talks about the history of buildings. If we are to believe him they help us see and understands the world we live in. And I believe he has a point. When buildings are demolished and by bulldozers loaded on a truck to later be driven off to become landfill somewhere, we have lost a part of what we could have referred to as “home”. When big parts of Europe’s old city centers were demolished in the 1950s and 60s we lost parts of our identity. There were good reasons at times, I am the first to accept that, but there were also times when the demolishing frenzy was due purely to laziness from politicians that found preserving our built heritage too tiring and expensive. When the same thing happens today I feel obliged to cry out “hey, wait a minute! Haven’t we done this mistake before?” When this happens I think we have to start thinking very carefully about how we want our children and future generations to experience their environment. Not just when it comes to recycling and the biological environment. The physical environment is equally as important, and often these two causes go hand in hand.
Wanting to preserve the built heritage, whether it’s a Georgian country estate in the Swedish countryside or a Victorian office building in central London, the will and passion to preserve and care about earlier generations historical footprints, the architectural ones being the very rare exceptions one can actually see and touch, the engagement does often coincide with a general passion to take care of the environment too. If only more of us could see the common objectives. The more of us that get engaged in the case of saving our built heritage all over Europe, the more beautiful will future generation’s environments be. And as opposed to us, they will thank our generation for it and not berate us like we berate the generation that demolished the world we could have lived in. World War II made a terrifying and effective demolishing-job for us, though how some people found that an excuse to start a War on Beauty is astonishing. Let’s not continue that war. Let’s make peace and embrace the architectural beauty of our cities and the built heritage in our countrysides. This will be my New Years resolution for 2012.
Happy New Year everyone!