For two days in February 2022, I contributed to a workshop at the Italian Politecnico di Torino, entitled “Designing the future of the past” and discussing contemporary theories of conservation. The participants were some 15 PhD students in Architecture and Design. The responsible organizer was Matteo Robiglio, founding director in 2017 of the University’s Future Urban Legacy Lab. Robiglio is an architect interested in adaptive reuse. Among others, he authored the book, RE-USA: 20 American Stories of Adaptive Reuse. A Toolkit for Post-Industrial Cities (Jovis, 2017).
This is a topic close to my own interests. For one thing, my own Doctoral research project was about reuse of megalithic architecture in the distant past (adaptive or not). For another, I would be inclined to argue that designated cultural heritage constitutes in itself a form of creative reuse of objects inherited from the past. And this is where Robiglio disagrees – why?
In RE-USA (pp. 177-8, 192-3, 203, 214-5, 219), Robiglio contrasts people creatively re-using inherited structures in any suitable way with others who are carefully documenting and meticulously conserving a fragmented heritage of the historic past. Whereas the former, for Robiglio (inspired, among others, by Viollet-Le-Duc and Halbwachs and in contrast to Ruskin and Morris), is an expression of living traditions pragmatically creating something for their own time, the latter is an ever-growing aberration that led to the sanitization and commodification of the ‘heritage industry’. He goes on to state that whereas in heritage preservation, locality is inherited and must be preserved, in adaptive reuse, a new form of locality is being produced within the same spatial frame. Overall, Robiglio ends up with a dichotomy that looks about like this:
I would argue that the left column becomes nothing but a caricature as soon as heritage is recognised for what it is: a particular response to older structures that emerged at a certain time in modern history and is connected with a body of creative ideas linked to notions such as National Romanticism. Since then, the authorised heritage discourse has been changing continuously, incorporating ideals of education, development, and community engagement, among others. Indeed, there is a discernible transition from an initial focus in heritage management on safeguarding tangible remains to one on negotiating multiple societal values and now increasingly to ensuring important uses for communities. Heritage, too, constitutes a creative change from how the remains of the past were seen before, and it has brought about various hybrids between past and present, incorporating new ideas and meanings, often fairly pragmatically, and with a noticeable agenda for a future to come.
I suspect that Robiglio presented a different analysis in RE-USA first and foremost as a pragmatic move to establish a creative contrast between conservation and reuse, benefitting his agenda of promoting adaptive reuse. The concept of heritage futures recognizes that heritage, too, contributes to future-making. This is now increasingly becoming explicit, e.g. in the Foresight Initiative of the International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property (ICCROM) exploring how to apply strategic foresight for thinking about cultural heritage and the contribution it can make to people’s lives in the decades to come.
Indeed, the past is becoming an active force for shaping the future – which is what Robiglio’s PhD workshop in Torino explored. I am looking forward to more collaboration!