Sadness at the loss of cultural heritage has been on my mind recently. News filtered through this week that Mosul’s al-Nuri mosque and minaret have been deliberately destroyed by Isis forces. It is yet another shocking example of heritage being deliberately targeted in times of war and conflict. Few would agree that this sort of willful destruction can ever be justified – indeed, it may well constitute a war crime.
Yet built heritage is constantly facing loss, in the face of time’s depredations, the pressure of maintenance costs, and sometimes public disinterest or apathy. Buildings cease to serve useful functions, and are either adapted or supplanted. Or, as TS Eliot says in The Four Quartets,
Houses rise and fall, crumble, are extended,
Are removed, destroyed, restored’
For ‘houses’ substitute any form of built heritage you like: places of worship, factories, thatched cottages, bridges etc. Should we care, and if so, how much?
Recently I attended an event in London to mark the publication of Curated Decay, a wonderful new book by Caitlin DeSilvey which offers a polite and beautifully written provocation to some established heritage norms and values. The book explores examples of where entropy and decay have not been arrested but instead acknowledged and accommodated. In some cases, this has been due to the very nature of the asset at risk: a 19th-century harbour wall facing ever-destructive inundations from the sea, a lighthouse on the edge of the Suffolk coast that could soon be completely gone unless it is rebuilt brick by brick further inland. DeSilvey notes that the process of decay is constant, and she suggests that, in some cases, the heritage sector would do well to develop new techniques for embracing this sort of change, rather than deluding ourselves that we can prevent it altogether. Curators might help communities to celebrate the lives of their buildings, even while the buildings themselves may ultimately face complete destruction, which, after all, in the long run, everything does (as Keynes once pointed out).
Caitlin’s book contrasted with a conference I was lucky enough to attend, in Dublin, also this week. The conference was entitled The Country House Revived? and concerned the state of the country house in the early 21st century. Nearly fifty years ago, in the UK and elsewhere in Europe, there was considerable public concern about the fate of country houses.
An exhibition at the V&A museum catalogued the loss of hundreds of country houses in the UK from 1875. Many of them were deliberately razed to the ground, as owners found they could not afford to keep them going in conditions of high taxation and reduced agricultural rents. In the Republic of Ireland there was a political motivation too, with Terry Dooley (co-convenor of the conference) estimating that almost 300 houses were deliberately burned during the Irish revolutionary period between 1920 and 1923. Elsewhere in Eastern Europe former Soviet states witnessed similar events unfolding in different circumstances, as houses and estates were seized after 1945 and converted to institutional uses or sometimes ruinated altogether.
The conference was a very positive event, reflecting on how far the country house has come in the last half century. Houses across Europe are in rude health, as owners find new ways to keep them in good order and open them to the public. Former Eastern bloc countries have seen the restitution of houses back to the families from which they were requisitioned. Houses have drawn their strength from new functions and uses, and are now found featuring retail and catering developments, high-quality holiday accommodation, and offering special bespoke tours and events. All this activity has helped to reinvent the country house for the modern era.
So how worried ought we to be about the ‘loss’ of country houses? Matthew Beckett’s Lost Heritage blog records more than a thousand houses lost in the UK since the 19th century. Admittedly the rate of loss has slowed right down in recent decades, with one index being the reduced number of houses that nowadays need to be rescued by the National Trust. Yet there remain problems. Undoubtedly life is hard for many country house owners as they try to find the resources to meet the repairs, labour costs, and energy bills that are all required to keep a house going. Within the UK the organisation I work for, the Historic Houses Association, estimates that country houses face a £1.38 billion repair backlog, of which nearly £500 million is urgent.
We heard at the conference about one of the most famous problem cases, Wentworth Woodhouse. Here there is a happy ending (we hope), since a new trust has taken on the house (with one of the largest facades in England), with a £7.6 million grant from the government. But question marks remain over other houses, such as Kinloch Castle on Rum in Scotland.
The message of the conference was that solutions can be found to intractable problems, but they depend on entrepreneurial and imaginative thinking, some measure of support or assistance from the state, and careful thought for what modern audiences, inhabitants or the next generation might want from country houses. In other words, things must change in order for things to stay the same. Whether an organisation like the National Trust or English Heritage would ever want to ‘curate decay’ at one of their mansion properties, as Caitlin DeSilvey might propose, is another matter altogether (though do visit Calke Abbey in Derbyshire for the closest approximation to this).