Preservation or modernisation?

Sunday 21 October, 5.00pm until 6.15pm, Fountain Room

For most of the twentieth century, the preservation of buildings or townscapes reflected a judgement that they were, in some way, of architectural, historic or cultural value. In recent years, however, there has been a parallel trend to preserve buildings and urban areas for different reasons. Reflecting a fear that globalisation and a quickening pace of change are creating ‘social amnesia’ and undermining our sense of place, many European cities are turning to ‘urban memory’. Using objets trouvés, past events, or fragments of the urban fabric, designers and urbanists seek to refashion cultural identity and boost emotional attachment to the post-industrial city. By contrast with static heritage industries, advocates of urban memory see their brand of nostalgia as a creative process; less living in the past than using memory to fortify the future.

English Heritage’s Simon Thurley has argued that an interest in heritage is ‘inbuilt in the psyche of the human race’. But architect Rem Koolhaas claims preservation is actually the invention of modernity; it was only the transformations wrought by modernisation that raised the issue of what to keep. Yet where once modern architects and urbanists celebrated the idea of erasing the past to create the future, today such confidence has long gone. Sometimes the past is romanticised: for example, critics of Clone Towns yearn for the independent shops and boutiques of old, rather than faceless supermarkets, fast-food chains and global fashion outlets. But as the heritage and memory industries have expanded, preservation has shifted from being retroactive to being proactive. So we see the growth of legacy-focused events such as the London Olympics; future memory is almost more important than present reality.

What lies behind the current interest in preservation and memory, and who should decide what is worth keeping? Given many buildings and historic cities are great human achievements, and that regenerated historic areas of cities are often highly popular, is today’s more circumspect approach to modernisation appropriate? Is conservation on the basis of social inclusion an appropriate way to judge the worth of a place or a building, or should such judgements be more practical or aesthetic? Either way, does the obsession with memory threaten to freeze us in an unchanging present?

Listen to session audio:


Download mp3 (Right-click and choose “save link as”)

Alastair Donald
associate director, Future Cities Project; architecture programme manager, British Council

Dr Tim Edensor
reader in cultural geography, Manchester Metropolitan University

Jeremy Musson
writer and historic buildings consultant; former architectural editor, Country Life

Luis T Pereira
founding partner, [A] ainda arquitectura architecture studio, Porto

Dr Tiffany Jenkins
writer and broadcaster; author, Keeping Their Marbles: how treasures of the past ended up in museums and why they should stay there

Produced by
Alastair Donald associate director, Future Cities Project; architecture programme manager, British Council
Recommended readings
Liverpool Waters – review

If it goes ahead, the multibillion-pound Liverpool Waters scheme will destroy the city's historic character

Rowan Moore, Observer, 7 May 2012

Overlooked heritage

A world heritage site award from Unesco is seen as a boon for tourism and those looking to raise the status of a city, but there can be unforeseen consequences when it comes to development

Simon Thurley, Financial Times, 30 March 2012

Istanbul sees history razed in the name of regeneration

Turkey's cultural capital is undergoing a huge construction programme that is driving out communities

Constanze Letsch, Guardian, 2 March 2012

Can Rem Koolhaas Save Architecture From Preservation?

Over time, Koolhaas argues, the kinds of things that have been considered preservable have broadened — originally just monuments, now expansive and maddeningly indistinct

Ben Davis, Artinfo, 24 May 2011

False Urban Memory Syndrome

Removed from any political context, the result of urban memory practices is often simply the celebration of attachment to place for its own sake.

Austin Williams, Future Cities Project, 14 May 2004

Losing our marbles? Who owns culture?

"The Battle of Ideas does what it says on the tin, providing a rare platform for a robust exchange of views on some of the biggest issues facing our world at a time when it is desperately needed"
Wes Streeting, chief executive, Helena Kennedy Foundation

follow the Academy of Ideas