Esthetics in the Conservation of Building Materials and Finishes
by Theodore Prudon
The importance of James Marston Fitch to the world of historic preservation in the United States and the role he has played in the development of the field has been well recognized. His writings have appeared all over the world.1 Nearly all his writings, dating from as early as the 1930s, display remarkably prescient insights and time has proven that most of his speculations about the future of American architecture were correct. The presentations and discussions in the Fitch symposium2 serve as a powerful reminder of Jim Fitch’s continuing importance to the field of historic preservation and the depth of his insights.
I should acknowledge here that my comments are more than just academic and professional; they are also personal. I was one of Jim Fitch’s students in the early 1970s in the newly established Historic Preservation program within the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation at Columbia University. Immediately upon graduating, I was his teaching assistant for a number of years, a role that evolved to my being a junior faculty colleague. In that relationship with Professor Fitch I cannot help recalling some of his favorite terms including: “profundity of intervention,”3 “pedagogic,” and his frequent use of the Italian word Andiamo! (Let’s go!) that he used to spur us on, whether on field trips or in the studio. While the latter might be a suitable credo for any “person of action” in the historic preservation field, the first two terms are most relevant in a discussion of esthetics of historic preservation. That is, one must always consider, first, how far and to what degree one should intervene in architectural conservation, and, second, what should one do to rationalize and explain such actions.
In this essay, I discuss the session topic, “Esthetics in the Conservation of Building Materials and Finishes” in the broader context of Fitch’s writings and teachings. The best introduction to this topic may well be Fitch’s own words: “Beauty may be in the eye of the beholder and may be only skin deep; however, the surface appearance of a building not only can have a profound effect upon our reaction to the structure, but also can provide valuable clues for accurately restoring an historic structure.”4
The profound effect that he is referring to is on two levels: One, a building’s appearance, which usually immediately conveys information about the actual physical condition of the building, and two, the visual and esthetic impact (or the “experiential reality”) that a structure may have upon those who observe and experience it. Apropos of Fitch’s renowned articulation of the concept of “profundities of intervention,” it is interesting to note the timing of the first expression of this term. Its use is contemporaneous with the start of Columbia’s preservation program that Fitch created with the assistance of Charles E. Peterson in September 1964. This is the same year that the Venice Charter (the International Charter for the Conservation and Restoration of Monuments and Sites) cited many of the very same levels of intervention within several of its principles, which has so influenced architectural preservation ever since. In the charter, science and scientific research are assumed to be central to what was referred to at the time as “monuments protection” (what we now call architectural heritage protection).
While not a scientist himself, Fitch recognized the importance of science and, over time, instilled conservation science and its methodologies as integral features of Columbia’s graduate program in historic preservation. With regards to the concept of the “experiential reality” of architecture—that Fitch also referred to as “four dimensional experience”—he felt it was crucial to understand this before experiencing and evaluating buildings and sites. In relation to this, Fitch’s early interests and writings on how the cognitive and social sciences relate to architecture are exactly as he hoped for and predicted.5
The tension between scientific and esthetic considerations is exemplified in decisions about how and why to clean buildings. George Wheeler6 discussed the esthetic implications of cleaned versus soiled and stained stone building exteriors. The impetus to clean and ideas of how to go about it have been debated subjects since its wide practice on a massive scale during postwar Europe’s reconstruction. Fitch knew these debates well from his firsthand study of numerous cities in all corners of Europe during the 1950s and 60s. Wheeler compared before and after images of cleaned buildings and sculptures mostly in the New York area, discussing the visual and esthetic impact of cleaning buildings in each instance. He explained that in some instances the accumulation of extraneous surface finishes and their occasional changes to the appearances of buildings can sometimes result in a structure acquiring a unique new, and sometimes beguiling, character, that some might prefer from the standpoint of esthetics. In other cases, as when an architect’s intended patterns, colors, and textures have been obscured by the accumulation of soiling, the decision to clean is a more clear-cut choice.
Wheeler’s discussion included a related practical concern that is often overlooked; the “re-soiling rate” or the rate at which a building gets dirty again in its particular environment. This important consideration has a bearing on the frequency with which the building may require cleaning in order to maintain its “sparkling” like-new appearance. A building’s re-soiling rate is also a consideration when trying to avoid unharmonious appearances of parts of buildings. Wheeler introduced a note of caution about the fact that too frequent cleaning will ultimately damage the building and its surfaces.
Scientific research on historic buildings can produce a great deal of information that is useful to both the conservation process and to a site’s interpretation. However, while science may reveal facts, it is often the case that decisions must be made that take into account both scientific accuracy and overall visual impact. It is here in “the four dimensional experience” that architectural conservation professionals often find themselves. We may call it the “preservationist’s eye” or the sense of beauty in the ‘eye of the beholder’—all the more reason to assume that the object in question may well be re-interpreted in the future to reflect a different “preservationist’s eye.”
About the Author
Theodore Prudon, a practicing architect, is on the faculty of the Graduate Program for Historic Preservation at Columbia University. He is also the president of DOCOMOMO US. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org