Published in 5/2022 - Refurbish or Demolish?


Building Conservation Is About More Than Putting Up a Front 

Erkki Mäkiö

Tämän kuvan alt-attribuutti on tyhjä; Tiedoston nimi on kolumni_erkki_makio_piirustus-849x1024.jpg

Whether preserving the old or building the new, architecture should be about more than putting up a front. When we write about buildings, we tend to write about their surfaces, both internal and external, while the structures that support them go unremarked.

A building, once completed, creates space both in and outside of itself. If the external space is deemed to be demarcated by the external surface of the wall and the internal space by the internal surface of the wall, then what do we call the structure between the two? But the structure is the building! 

This superficial take on what a building is means that the facade has been assigned the role of supreme representative for the entire building. It has become the building. Our paradigms of architectural history, our use of zoning as a conservation mechanism, our professional literature and our public discourse on architecture all serve to perpetuate this phenomenon.

It seems that it is the facade that belongs to society and to the authorities. The consensus appears to be that we’re content to preserve the external surface of the exterior wall and to leave the interiors to the owner. This is not building conservation. The facade is not the building.

In June this year, Finnish daily Helsingin Sanomat reported on a new leisure complex due to be built at Narinkkatori, a busy public square in the capital city. Under the plans, the external walls of a historic, 200-year-old building here will be incorporated into the new development. Effectively a ruin, the building protected under an sr-2 is described as a “building of note with protected status”. My criticism is not directed at the proposed development but rather at building conservation, its practices and its terminology. 

The building in question is an example of a protection designation that concerns the most hard-wearing segment of our building stock, namely brickwork buildings. They ideally lend themselves to facade protection designations. Often intricate in design, they are highly regarded aesthetically, and they tend to be found centrally located in desirable areas. It has not gone unnoticed that fresh land for development can be found also in densely built areas if only one looks behind the facades. Under current urban development regulations, it is not difficult to obtain a demolition permit for the structures built beyond the frontage. 

It seems that it is the facade that belongs to society and to the authorities.

The practice of affording protected status to building facades only has led to a series of interesting consequences. For decades now, planning officers have effectively waved through the repurposing of these solid brick walls as external walls for new build developments in apparent contravention of planning rules. Has it really escaped everyone’s notice that when you preserve the outline of a building, you are by definition incorporating some of the structure to which it originally belonged? The outline is not just a separate, superficial feature.

Facades tend to endure, with or without protected status. A radical internal reconfiguration amounts to largely the same as the preservation of a frontage only: the destruction of the building as a whole. We should focus our efforts on protecting the interiors, preserving our buildings as a complete entity. Our solid brick buildings from one or perhaps even two hundred years ago are perfectly capable of continuing to withstand the test of time. What they cannot cope with, however, are people, the latest design trends and innovations in building services systems. Before too long, all our buildings will be identical on the inside, whatever their age. We ought to view them as shared cultural assets that, over time, pass from owner to owner and occupier to occupier. Whether we own them, live and work in them or maintain them, we only ever visit them briefly.

What we see is an image of what we see, as René Magritte tells us. His mysterious-sounding claim refers to the object we’re observing and our memory of it. When we view an urban landscape and then move away from it, the sight that we have just beheld is replaced by a memory, a physical sketch or perhaps some other reproduction of it. They are an image of the city.  

It now seems that the “image of a city” is becoming an actual physical reality, and a misunderstood one at that. Terms like “building”, “conservation” and “preservation” have been assigned new meanings that facilitate this process. Preserving a facade is not an act of built heritage conservation. It allows the visual identity to be retained, but the buildings themselves are reduced to mere three-dimensional urban images. Gradually, they will come together to form the image of a lost city. ↙

Retired architect since 2008. Worked a quarter of a century at the Finnish Heritage Agency with repair and restoration of old stone buildings. Nowadays writes and draws about what he remembers from working life.