When Malcolm studied architecture in Glasgow in the second half of the 1970s, community architecture was coming to the fore. Council housing was being taken over by independent housing associations for a significant programme of rehabilitation and repair, and young architects were being commissioned to meet with tenants and listen to them in this new process of rehabilitation. In stark contrast to the perceived lack of engagement of the previous generation, this was a new approach, and one which helped to repair the relationship between architects and the general public in Glasgow. With it came a new appreciation for common heritage.
The ‘Heritage Cycle’, a simple diagram (comparable with those of the first community conservationist Patrick Geddes) represents the sustainability of community and heritage architecture. By understanding heritage, we value it; by valuing it we care for it; by caring for it, we enjoy it; by enjoying it, we understand it. This Cycle was pivotal to saving Glasgow’s heritage and the success of Glasgow’s community architecture program.
By the 1970s, many tenements in Glasgow were in a poor state of repair after decades of neglect, especially following the fatal 1968 storm. Malcolm encountered one unusual tenement repair, where residents had desperately covered their roofs with a multitude of tablecloths, creating a bizarrely beautiful mosaic of colour and pattern. A temporary measure borne out of necessity. Housing associations commissioned architects in a decade-long program of restoration bringing the backcourts, closes and common parts of the buildings back into an improved condition. It could be said that through this process of engagement the city’s relationship with its tenements was revitalised, leading to a custodianship of these buildings assisted by such publications as the Tenement Handbook.
Having safeguarded the structure and fabric, occupiers were encouraged to invest in the wealthy heritage of the interior. Stripping back a century of clumsy overpainting of decorative timber and plasterwork to reveal the significance of otherwise innocuous-looking, functional building features. A simple cornice, unifying wall and ceiling, becomes an allegorical tableau – with different styles bearing different meanings; egg and dart speaking of life and death; the acanthus leaf of health and mortality; the bead and barrel of wealth and prosperity.
Decision making in conservation is a balancing act of research, of experience, of subjectivity and empathy. Patina is the biggest enigma in conservation, its significance and value debated at length– what to keep of a long life lived expressed through the abrasions of time. The patina of care cherished but not the patina of neglect.
Conservation is no longer the preserve of the aristocracy. These are golden years in conservation and we work in an informed era of heritage awareness. It is accessible and precious to us all but must not be taken for granted. Community architecture has waned recently so we must keep in mind the engagement and sense of ownership and value that arises from it and from heritage architecture.We must guard our heritage and conservation practice by listening and remembering for whom we work.