I am a structural engineer in...
Objects and places can have enormous, intangible value to communities. Sometimes it is a particular landscape, other times it is a building – or a series of buildings. In some cases it is a tribal homeland or a sacred structure, but often a cherished place is simply one that a community has embraced and values highly, for reasons that transcend commercial value.
As designers, engineers and technical specialists, we need to recognise – and honour – the importance of ‘heritage cultural assets’ and to integrate protection and conservation into our work, as we have done with sustainability.
It is only relatively recently that methods of affording protection to significant heritage assets have been introduced. In fact, it is exactly fifty years ago that the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) was established, with the purpose to conserve the world’s most significant heritage assets.
Each nation has its own history of efforts – official and unofficial – to protect heritage cultural assets. In the United Kingdom, legislation in 1947 led to the compilation of the first list of buildings of “special historical or architectural importance”.
In many places today there is growing awareness of the urgent need to conserve what remains of historic districts or individual buildings in the face of extensive demolition and redevelopment. All of us who care about the protection of cultural assets are keenly aware that statutory protection cannot safeguard a place from either natural or man-made disasters. Recent deliberate destruction of monuments in the Middle East and Afghanistan has been heartbreaking to witness.
I believe that firms like Arup should commit to helping to conserve, preserve and protect valued structures and places. Surely shaping a better world must include determined support for the cultural heritage that means so much to communities and nations.
In an age when demolition and reconstruction are too often the norm, professionals working in the built environment can contribute in many ways. We can improve the performance of older buildings. We can safeguard buildings and assets under threat from natural and man-made dangers. We can develop innovative materials and repair techniques.
Beyond building engineering-based approaches, we also have much-needed capacity in economic and town planning, archaeological assessment and other specialist disciplines. These can help ensure the commercially viable reuse of heritage assets.
I think the cultural heritage sector must take this type of holistic approach because, as one of the sector’s leaders, Malcolm Reading, emphasised recently in The Times: “These fragile buildings and sites need more than architectural skills to effect a transformation ...Restoring crumbling facades, which is the emotive reaction, is not enough…”
Some things, of course, do not last forever. I accept this. Nevertheless, I believe we should use our skills, energy and connections to contribute more determinedly to the preservation of cultural heritage in all its manifestations.