Heritage Preservation

Patrick Duerden

  colonia marina
  Colonia Marina XXVIII Ottobre, Cattolica (Rimini) (1932) designed by the futurist Clemente Busiri-Vici (1887–1965), combines forms of streamlined trains and ships as an expression of fascist modernity. (Photo: Dan Dubowiz)

David Olusoga's BBC2 exploration of the history of 10 Guinea Street, Bristol A House through Time provides a window on the history of successive families of Bristol merchants involved in the ‘Guinea Trade’ in human lives trafficked to the Caribbean. In the United Kingdom the legacy of inequality and injustice, and shamefully the reality of it too, are still with us.

It has been reported that up to a third of National Trust properties have direct links to slavery or colonialism. While the trust has made important steps to address this legacy, the statutory list description of 10 Guinea Street makes no direct reference to it.

Heritage has a central role to play in the discovery and exposure of the wrongdoing of the past, and as an asset in the process of addressing the need for change in our society. In response to this, in 2018 Historic England’s Statement on Contested Heritage advocated thoughtful, long-lasting and powerful reinterpretation of contested heritage. The question is, are the tools we have as heritage professionals up to the job?

In 2005, I spent some months in Italy with cultural master planner Dan Dubowitz, exploring buildings of the fascist youth organisations, the Gioventù Italiana del Littorio and the Opera Nazionale Balilla, in Tuscany, Liguria and Emilia-Romagna. In the days before cars came with GPS as standard, a map hand drawn on scrap paper by my friend, architect and teacher Tom Muirhead, was our only guide.

Our exploration culminated in the exhibition and book Fascismo Abbandonato. The fascist regime (1922–1943) pursued an architectural policy in its state building programmes without advocating any consistent style or approach. Consequently, Italy was a melting pot of architectural theories and ideas, with budgets available to realise the most ambitious of state building programmes.

The legacy of this is of outstanding architectural significance, but being part of a nationalist project, it fits awkwardly within the international orthodoxy of architectural modernism. Our exploration included a large number of Colonie di Infanzia, hostels generally in remote and scenic locations used for annual camps and training exercises.

The buildings were extraordinary, not only because they draw on every contemporary school of architectural design, but also because they were intended for cinematic spectacle. Fascism was deeply concerned with image. Its buildings were designed around dramatic vistas, with features foreshortened to heighten the impression of scale.

  colonia rosa maltoni mussolini
  Colonia Rosa Maltoni Mussolini, Tirenia (Pisa) (1926–31) a work by the chief architect of the Italian Ministry of Communications, Angiolo Mazzoni (1894–1979). Half of the complex has been converted to holiday apartments, the original orange decorative scheme restored. (Photo: Dan Dubowiz)

Ramps, towers and balconies were provided for staged activities, fascist symbols were turned into architectural features and slogans were painted in giant sized script on walls and towers.

At Tirrenia on the Tuscan west coast, a vast stretch of shoreline was developed on an urban scale, sufficiently influential to appear in imitation as the better-known Colossus of Prora built on the Baltic island of Rügen by the National Socialists of the Third Reich.

As with the Nazi programme of Kraft durch Freude, Strength through Joy, these facilities, ostensibly part of a social programme for young people, were part of a national project to condition a generation of youth to militarism. After the collapse of the regime, buildings survived because nobody really knew what to do about them. Often remotely located, they had no purpose in the new Republic of Italy.

Adaptation to alternative uses was often both impractical and politically undesirable, or otherwise just not of interest to the local administrations responsible for them. They were cheaper to ignore than to demolish.

We found most had been abandoned to nature and were now colonised by trees and wildlife. Some of them, no doubt constructed quickly and in the absence of adequate design codes, were in very poor condition.

Others were squatted by people on the edge of society or were attracting delinquent activity of one type or another. During the decade since our journey this situation has changed, as regional development has increased the value of the sites that the surviving buildings occupy.

While some have been swept away, others have been repaired and converted to use as hotels and holiday apartments. This has been done generally with little if any acknowledgement of their original purpose, which would be an uncomfortable reminder of a history their residents and owners might not want wish to contemplate. Built heritage is commonly described in terms of its ‘significance’.

The concept may be broken down into two components; the ‘signifier’, which exists in physical space, and the ‘signified’ which exists only in human thought. In the historic environment, a place, building or work of art considered as a heritage asset is a signifier of a value of which we have prior knowledge. UNESCO defines world heritage in terms of cultural and natural significance, which is described as ‘outstanding heritage value’.

In the United Kingdom, legislation and policy for the conservation of heritage also refers to the special architectural or historic interest of a listed building and the national importance of a scheduled monument as the heritage asset’s significance. In identifying the role of the heritage asset as a system of signs, its value can be conveniently set out as a narrative.

  Ordensburg Vogelsang, Nordrhein-Westfalen (1934–36) designed by Clemens Klotz is now an interpretive centre for the Eifel National Park.

Public policy based on this model allows assets to be interrogated to establish what is significant, and perhaps more importantly what is not, as a basis for making decisions about proposals for alterations or development work.

Change is necessary to sustain heritage within a functioning economy and society and significance is a powerful management tool.

However, by conflating the intrinsic value of heritage with the mechanics of its communication presents a fundamental problem. Following this model, ‘heritage value’ is identified exclusively in the role that a place or building or work of art has in the present, as a product to be consumed.

We cannot say what value heritage might signify to other people and at other times, and all these unidentified significances present and future are left in limbo. Significance is exclusive, the best we can hope for is consensus amongst the most vocal on what is signified. By definition even this is lacking where contested heritage is concerned.

In Postwar: A History of Europe since 1945, the Anglo-American historian Tony Judt drew a distinction between history and historical memory and identified the role of the former to challenge and question the latter. For things to be history requires that they can be understood objectively and unambiguously in context. In a situation where historical memory is still raw, and the value of a heritage asset is far from a matter of agreement, we cannot clearly establish significance.

We must constantly ask ourselves what is significant and to whom? Without unambiguous answers to these questions, heritage value is at risk. Is it legitimate to prioritise some meanings by conserving their significance when the significance of others is not understood and consequently marginalised and excluded?

Beyond the inevitable distortion, how can we prevent manipulation of heritage value to partisan ends? The fascists appropriated Roman, medieval and renaissance heritage for mass consumption via cinema and popular tourism. The famous horse race the Palio di Sienna is prominent among the civic spectacles they re-staged and which survive in the form prescribed by the regime to this day.

The architectural programmes of the regime included extensive alteration of the Roman Forum and historic towns across Italy. Modern additions to buildings that did not suit the narrative were systematically removed and new elements were added in appropriate historical styles, intended to promote feelings of patriotic unity and pride.

Today, guidebooks identify San Gimignano as a medieval town when large parts of what the visitor actually sees is fascist confection. Popular understanding of the pre-modern past is filtered by the legacy of the regime. To most of us this is normalised and we cannot even recognise that it has happened. What we recognise as conservation today has its origins in 18th century antiquarianism and 19th century romanticism.

In the Seven Lamps of Architecture published in 1849 and more particularly in The Stones of Venice written in 1851–53, John Ruskin recognised historic buildings and works of art above all else for their associative value, whether emotional, moral or intellectual. William Morris, Philip Webb and others who took up Ruskin’s call for the preservation of historic buildings were disturbed by the destruction of the medieval fabric of English churches caused by contemporary architectural restoration.

Instead, they advocated for the preservation of all existing fabric, regardless of status, quality or condition of repair. Unlike public planning policy, the Manifesto for the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings published in 1877 provides minimal guidance for how change might be managed.

Beyond ‘daily care’ and repair ‘by such means as are obviously meant for support or covering’, it implores ‘otherwise to resist all tampering with either the fabric or ornament of the building as it stands; if it has become inconvenient for its present use, to raise another building rather than alter or enlarge the old one’.

Morris reserved harsh criticism for the attempt by contemporary architects to restore a building to one historical style or period, which he described as ‘forgery’. In this, he was opposed to editing the past, which we would now recognise as the privileging of one set of significances over another.

In the United States, the concept of preservation retains some currency in The Secretary of the Interior’s 2017 report Standards for the Treatment of Historic Properties, but in the United Kingdom it has come to be seen as a pejorative term in the century and a quarter since Morris’s time.

Preservation is admittedly a concept fundamentally associated with stasis, precluding any change in use or function. While the role of conservation sustaining heritage is widely accepted, conservation today is expected to be 'constructive’, and we favour the dynamic approach to decision-making focussed on the identification of significance, so that decisions are reached in a timely manner.

Developers, politicians and others condemn those who advocate for preserving things as ‘reactionaries’, intent on hindering progress. Historians tend to see things differently, arguing that getting the ‘long view’ is vital. As a tool for managing change, preservation may not identify a path for decision making. It prioritises instead the sustaining of heritage for its intrinsic value with its raw qualities and essences intact, allowing its genius loci, spirit of place, to emerge.

Rescuing the monuments of fascism or of the Third Reich from decay and obscurity comes with the risk of rehabilitating the legitimacy of these regimes. Donald Insall Associates’ involvement with 9 Carlton House Terrace, which was the Germany Embassy in London in the period up to 1939, included the decision not to reveal a long-concealed floor of wood parquet which included swastikas prominently in its design.

In reaching this decision we were guided by German constitutional law which prohibits such display. Sadly, the ideological failure of Nazism is not universally accepted, its symbols consequently still potent and disturbing. The recent declaration by Dresden’s administration of Nazinotstand, Nazi-emergency, in response to far-right activists in the city was necessary because historical memory of the Third Reich persists.

However, reuse of the former Nazi training facility Ordensburg Vogelsang in the Eifel National Park in Germany as a visitor and exhibitions centre preserves prominent Nazi symbols in an architectural context. In an educational heritage setting, this is considered thought-provoking and valuable. The Second World War and the 1943-45 Italian Civil War in its aftermath cost the lives of hundreds of thousands of Italians, including many who merely had the misfortune to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Notwithstanding this, power transferred from the Kingdom of Italy to the modern Republic by legal means of a referendum in 1946. Continuity meant that there was no systematic purge comparable with contemporary denazification by the allied powers in Germany, who founded new administrations to replace the defeated Third Reich.

In Italy, unlike Germany, there is no constitutional law prohibiting public display of fascist symbols. Consequently, there was controversy surrounding the 2009 restoration of the fascist oath of loyalty to the regime in giant letters on the former Casa Balilla in Forli, removed by anti-fascist iconoclasts in 1943.

Equally controversial was the 2006 proposal by Rome's then mayor, Gianni Alemanno, to tear down the then newly completed Ara Pacis museum, designed by the American architect Richard Maier, and to reconstruct its fascist era predecessor by Vittorio Ballio Morpurgo.

Popular attitudes towards proposals such as these are invariably coloured one way or another by identification with the regime. Historical memory of fascism continues to shape events today and the future of the heritage of the period remains unsettled, and for many, unsettling.

By its definition, the significance of contested heritage is not fully recognised because there is no consensus on the values and meanings of its history, of what has gone before. It is part of human nature that our memories tend to selectively validate our past thoughts and actions and to reinforce our predisposition towards particular perspectives of thought and ultimately action in the present. Ignorance, complacency and misplaced pride continue to shape attitudes towards the United Kingdom's imperial past.

There have been calls in the UK for a truth commission to examine historical injustice. Internationally, only the government of Mauritius has yet established such a commission to this end. A truth commission might establish history apart from historical memory and may therefore guide the process by which we can de-colonise heritage, but this will require considerable time and resources.

The need for a broader definition of our history and culture, encompassing varied perspectives of all those who make up our society, is clear. Our understanding of heritage, historically defined by the western culture in which we live, is rapidly changing and diversifying under the influence of wider cultural experience.

Richard Lambert, Chairman of the British Museum, in his recent essay The New Old has described Europe’s singular perspective of its own cultural history and sets this in context of the full depth of field in the 21st century. Clearly, the models that we use to think about heritage need to adapt to encompass broader definition.

Dealing with contested heritage is an important aspect of this and one of the biggest professional challenges we face. The recognition that heritage values fundamentally concern people and communities, promises a future for heritage that is more diverse and better understood than in the past.

Built heritage can be used to debunk the myths of historical memory, but it is also vulnerable to appropriation by those seeking to validate historical prejudices. Professional approaches to the evaluation and management of heritage will require a wider range of inputs than in the past if the communal and political contests around it are not to deepen, ultimately making it irrelevant to the wider community.

Preservation may not identify a path to facilitate this, but it remains a useful concept because it disconnects the value of heritage from its communication, allowing a full spectrum of values to be sustained.

Recommended Reading

Tony Judt, Postwar: A History of Europe since 1945, William Heinemann, Cornerstone, 2003

Kojo Koram, ‘Britain needs a truth and reconciliation commission, not another racism inquiry’, The Guardian, 16 June 2020

Richard Lambert ‘The New Old’, Tortoise Media, 10 August 2020

D Medina Lasansky, The Renaissance Perfected, Architecture, Spectacle and Tourism in Fascist Italy, Penn State Press, 2004

Priya Pillai, ‘Truth Commissions and Colonial Atrocities: Moving the Needle Further Towards State Responsibility?’, Opiniojuris.org, 27 April 2019

SPAB, Manifesto of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, 1877

US Department of the Interior National Parks Service, ‘The Secretary of the Interior, Standards for the Treatment of Historic Properties’, 2017


The Building Conservation Directory, 2021


Patrick Duerden is an architect and Practice Director at Donald Insall Associates. He leads the practice’s work for the Parliamentary Estate and for Historic Royal Palaces.

Further information


Statements of Significance

The Conservation of Britain's Heritage in India

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