Three birds, one stone: viewing buildings as paintings

Interventions in historic buildings are usually preceded by cultural historical research that determines the worth of the building, but not much attention is paid to its architectural qualities and socio-cultural meaning. This is not very effective, says researcher Charlotte Emstede. She says that if you view a building as if it were a valuable painting, you might just strike three birds with one stone.

Research and value assessment of buildings is usually done by a building, architectural or cultural historian. Especially with the conservation of Jonge Bouwkunst en Stedebouw (young architecture and urbanism) (1850-1940) and Wederopbouw erfgoed (reconstruction heritage)  (1940-1970), it is difficult to translate these results into a framework for transformation. While these are exactly the buildings where the major challenges lie: many buildings from these periods are empty or have to change their function. Since the valuation is mainly object-oriented and art historical of nature, the big question is if this valuation is actually of any use to an architect during the restoration or redevelopment of a building.

"They often don’t do anything with it at all."

In her doctoral research 'Value Assessment within the Dutch Heritage 1981-2009' Van Emstede asked this question to the architects of a number of prestigious heritage projects she analyzed (Grote Kerk in Veere, Castle Nederhemert, the Van Nellefabriek and the Justus van Effen complex in Rotterdam, naval shipyard Willemsoord in Den Helder). A surprising answer followed. "They often don’t do anything with it at all. The reaction of most was, how does an art historical analysis help me to decide whether and where I can make a breakthrough in a wall?" Her conclusion after comparing the projects she examined: you should add an architectural analysis in the early stages in order to better match the practice.
 
A value assessment by an architect is very different from that of an art historian, because the architect also focuses on eg the use of materials, spatial aspects and architectural qualities of the building. And such elements are decisive for the way in which historical and future use in can be balanced.
 
Van Emstede also calls for adding a section on the socio-cultural significance of heritage that gives an idea of the intangible value of a historic building to users and other stakeholders. Redefining the framework could lead to a practical underlay to help translate abstract cultural and historical values to an intervention strategy, she thinks. "It all comes down to the fact that the value of heritage should be determined in the same way as in the art world for instance looks at a painting by Vermeer. There it’s not only about the financial worth, but also about the material from which it is manufactured, the used the painting techniques, the representation of the image and what it does to the public that looks at it. The art world has beautiful broad view, and can be taken as an example for heritage analysis and value proposition, bringing together the many different facets of a monument."