Center for Preservation and Adaptive Reuse

Preservation Theory: Part One

During the 19th century many scholars began to write about the preservation of historic buildings. However, their perspectives on how preservation should be practiced varied significantly. These theories created varying definitions for common words such as value, significance, feeling, and even what historic could be defined as. Two of the most notable preservation theories were put forth by Violet le Duc and John Ruskin. While both of their preservation philosophies are based on a great respect for history, in practice these two theories produced very distinct outcomes.

Violet le Duc emerged in the 19th century and put forth a theory that called for a practice in which the restoration of a building could be done in a way that the current architect deemed appropriate for the style and era that the building was first built in. This set the stage for a restoration practice in which the architect had more creative freedom in which the structure could be reimagined to fit the current times function. Ruskin’s preservation theory was a direct response to the restoration jobs that were going on thorough Europe, namely the cathedrals. Due to the Violet le Duc preservation theory many buildings were saved from destruction, however there were often numerous changes to the original buildings that Ruskin saw as a problem. In response, Ruskin developed a preservation practice surrounded on the idea that the restoration of buildings should honor the original design and the only work that should be done on a building is routine maintenance to keep the structure from deteriorating.

While these two practices have been both praised and criticized by many, both theories have had impacts on current preservation rules and regulations. For example, one of le Duc’s main principals was that buildings should be well studied along with the site and general context of the building in that era. Ruskin stated that the work on old buildings should be done by people who care deeply of the building. Nowadays, before any work can be done on historic buildings the plan usually must be approved by a panel of experts that care for the preservation of these buildings. Being as that these two practices had different attitudes for preservation it can be difficult to determine which would be more practical in present day preservation. Violet le Duc believed that architecture should be an expression of modern materials, technology, and functional needs. In opposition, Ruskin’s Seven Lamps of Architecture was written with fierce admiration and respect for the original fabric of edifices.

A common theme between the two scholars, Ruskin and le Duc, is there association with the “feeling” or emotion of the buildings they seek to preserve. Violet le Duc believes that the feeling of a building lies in the finished state that the current architect deems appropriate after much study of the edifice. Ruskin believes that the feeling of a buildings lies in its original state that the architect gave the building. As preservation has moved away from simply preserving buildings to conserving heritage, feeling and emotion have been tied into preservation practice, however the conservation of heritage and culture through historic preservation is still a new idea and it not widely practiced in preservation.

Discussion Questions:

  1. What would modern preservation regulations look like if they followed Ruskin’s theory?
  2. What would modern preservation regulations look like if they followed Le Duc’s theory?
  3. Do you agree with one of the philosophies more that the other? Why?
  4. How can/should modern preservation practice include the feeling of the building or resource? Do you think a greater variety of buildings would be preserved if the idea of feeling was added into modern preservation practice?