Living witnesses to our historical identity

Whether a façade is pleasing or not, whether it is deemed to be beautiful or ugly, is actually irrelevant - the built environment around us always possesses an identity-creating function. It is often disputed which buildings are worth preserving and which are not, which ones are useful and which are not. Oskar Spital-Frenking, Architect and Urban Planner as well as Professor for Monument Preservation at the University of Applied Sciences in Trier, talks about façades, identity and monument protection.

emcoPLUS: Structures used to be built differently according to where they were erected and these differences were reflected in how they looked. But a uniform architectural style is becoming increasingly widespread these days. Do you regret this development?

Prof. Oskar Spital-Frenking: Seeing an increasingly uniform architectural style wherever we go makes our lives poorer because there is no variety. Everything the same is boring.

To what extent do your origins shape your architecture?

You are, of course, affected by the social and architectural customs of where you come from. A person who grew up in India will have a different understanding of social systems than someone from central Europe – and why shouldn’t that be the case? Depending on how they’re rooted in their cultures, people from those areas will also have a different understanding of construction. We used to say that they did things differently in other countries. And so, of course, the culture of construction was also different. That’s what made travelling exciting and interesting and even stimulating in the best of cases. You may always remain true to your roots – even if today architecture is being discussed and perceived from within a connected world, one that as a consequence makes a supra-regional language seem the natural road to take.

Historical façades are often preserved and even rebuilt in order to maintain the identity of a place. Do we need a familiar look to feel at home somewhere?

It’s important to preserve historical buildings – and not just their façades – because they are living witnesses to our historical identity. The German cities that cut themselves off from this historical heritage during the phase of reconstruction that followed World War II are now suffering as a result. The attempt to satisfy the need for identity that radiates from historical urban spaces by reconstructing façades is dangerous: not only is this a very superficial illusory world that reflects a very one-dimensional understanding of historical building culture – the continuation of this logic would mean that structures that have survived from the past could be replaced with copies. They could be sacrificed for new buildings in historical garb that are easier to maintain and market – a catastrophic thought.

If we broaden our view by moving from buildings that characterised cities to the everyday living environment of many, to functional buildings from the 1950s and 1960s, to heterogeneous districts and estates. Does this produce a shift in the standards that are applied to determine what is worth preserving?

When we look at the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, we are forced to admit that these periods must be deemed to have been construction phases that have already come to an end as historical periods. It may be difficult for us but these buildings are also part of our historical identity, even though our personal memories still see them as ‘young’ and ‘current’. They must, of course, also be the object of our protective impulses in the preservation of historical monuments – but only after they’ve been properly examined and assessed.

What do you do when it becomes necessary to build or renovate buildings that exist within a historical context?

Our approach to structures that exist within historical contexts is analogous to the approach that a physician would use. We first attempt to thoroughly familiarise ourselves with the building and then take a comprehensive inventory. The results are then assessed and discussed. It’s only then – based on a profound awareness of the building’s character – that we will progress to the development of concepts. These will then have a lot to do with the existing building’s circumstances.

Technical progress does not stop at existing buildings. The question of how to deal with the façade also comes up again and again. What do you recommend?

Technical progress and listed buildings – buildings that weren’t built to meet present or future standards must be permitted to develop and change … but only within reason. Properties that have been listed as historically important provide both planners and owners with the huge opportunity of at last being able to ask questions about how useful standards and regulations actually are, which means that they’re no longer obliged to adhere blindly to technical values and rules. It’s possible to consider the balance between the preservation of a historically important building and, for example, energy standards. If a historical building functions well in terms of building physics and isn’t damaged in any way, I would not insulate and seal it if it wasn’t absolutely necessary but would look at the building in its entirety. The same actually applies to any existing building. The aim cannot be to create massively insulated and airtight buildings. The future lies in alternative concepts that attempt to reduce the consumption of primary energy while protecting the environment in other ways. Recent experience has shown that excessive air tightness often damages buildings. It doesn’t improve indoor air hygiene – it actually does the opposite.