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Making History Matter

Research

UEL’s School of Architecture puts materials and heritage at the heart of its programmes, but this is not the case everywhere. Conservation is often perceived as a specialist area of architectural study – as a science in itself.

Alan Chandler is challenging this tradition. His research, entitled ‘New Conservation’, moves away from a practice that has historically been concerned with analysing materials in labs, to address the socio-political context in which all buildings are made. Today he is changing the educational landscape and redefining the idea of architectural conservation across the world – from London homes to historic monuments in Chile.

The purpose of Chandler’s research is twofold: to raise awareness of how relevant conservation-based practice is to architects now, and to move conservation away from a specialism that only exists within museums, towards a more people-focused practice. Chandler explains:

“The word conservation means everything and nothing. I’m all for conserving things, and understanding the right mortar, stone and weathering is vital, but I think there’s so much more to it. New conservation is about how you engage modernity with conservation.”

Conserving historic buildings is a pressing issue. Half of all construction work in the UK is carried out on existing buildings – there are six million UK houses pre dating 1914 – so dealing with old buildings makes up half of the sector’s economic activity. But when it comes to expertise within the field, there are estimated to be only 500 registered building professionals in the country:

“There’s little real knowledge out there and most of it is highly specialised, it’s the kind that you would apply to a Hawksmoor church but not to run-of-the-mill housing stock.”

In 2004 Chandler was commissioned to work on a John Nash building in Regent’s Park. The building belonged to the Crown Estate whose plans proposed to retain only the facade. Working with the support of local community groups, Chandler’s team won the commission by demonstrating they could retain the whole building while meeting the Crown Estate’s development criteria:

“That process got me thinking about wider issues to do with conservation. It’s not just about fixing things with the right cement – it can become much more philosophical and political.”

He went on to expand his portfolio with work on a significant Wealden Hall House in Kent, a distinctive type of medieval timber-framed building, which was completed in 2009 and published in the journal of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings.

“Through working on these projects I’ve developed the view that historic buildings are in a cumulative process of change which need to be intervened with in critical ways. You can’t preserve everything in aspic nor should you knock everything down. There’s a middle way. You have to understand the process of making, how people engage with buildings at a social and political level. It’s not just about using the right stone.

“A lot of inhabitation requires absolutely new materials so you’ve also got to deal with modern materials, otherwise you’re missing an opportunity to discuss how modern life engages with the evidence of past life in a critical way.”

Chandler has recently contributed the Conservation Strategy for the award-winning Palacio Pereira scheme in Santiago, one of two major projects to commemorate the bicentenary of Chile. The strategy provides the Chilean government with an exemplar on how to manage the change of historic monuments, as well as recommendations for the redevelopment of Santiago’s Palacio, one of the country’s most important historic buildings.

Closer to home Chandler has been integrating his research with teaching practice through a commission by Camden Conservation to provide a series of retrofit options for London homes. The project, which was to analyse retrofit options for unlisted properties to support the government’s ‘Green Deal’, was used as a case study for students - a live brief that married his teaching and ongoing research:

“This is really an eye opener for students because they don’t have conversations about building construction and the ways you can identify the significance of older built fabric. My role is to set the agenda and contextualise conservation in an engaging fashion – it’s really a fusion of my research into teaching technology and my research into conservation.”

In 2013 Chandler will teach on the first RIBA sponsored academic programme for conservation, which he has devised, linking material, social history, technology and philosophy as integrated strands of pre qualifying architectural students’ practice. But he says the big strategy is still to engage the debate in mainstream practice:

“It’s about transforming old buildings while respecting their heritage... and using the right materials. Architecture is simply a record of people – we should care for buildings because we care for people.”