FALL 2010
Preserving in Place
A Discussion about the Conservation of Decorated Architectural Surfaces

Watch a pubic discussion by this same panel presented at the Getty Center

ROSA LOWINGER is director and chief conservator of Rosa Lowinger and Associates, a conservation practice specializing in twentieth-century three-dimensional art and architecture. Based in Los Angeles and in Miami, she works frequently on mosaic, terrazzo, and concrete decorative surfaces and also serves as a consultant to public art agencies and contemporary art collections throughout the United States and Latin America.

FRANK MATERO is professor of architecture and former chairman of the program in historic preservation at the University of Pennsylvania School of Design. His teaching and research focus on historic building technology and the conservation of building materials and of archaeological sites, as well as on preservation technology for traditional societies and places.

STEPHEN RICKERBY is a graduate of the Courtauld Institute's Conservation of Wall Painting Department and has worked extensively on wall paintings projects in the United Kingdom and internationally. He has been a consultant to the Getty Conservation Institute on a number of projects, including the Mogao Grottoes in Dunhuang, China. He is currently participating in projects in Egypt in the Valley of the Queens and at the tomb of Tutankhamen. He is also involved in teaching, and he co-supervises the Courtauld Institute's fieldwork sites in Cyprus, Malta, and China.

They spoke with LESLIE RAINER, a senior project specialist with GCI Field Projects, and with JEFFREY LEVIN, editor of Conservation Perspectives, The GCI Newsletter.

JEFFREY LEVIN: Given that decorated architectural surfaces are a component of a larger architectural whole, how much does context dictate the course of conservation?

FRANK MATERO: Context sets the stage for almost every conservation decision. Historically the issue has been whether or not certain works can exist divorced from their context. I did some research as to when the first shift occurred in thinking about retaining works of art in situ versus removing them, and I couldn't find anything specific prior to the Venice Charter of 1964, which talks about elements of sculpture, painting, and decoration not being separated from their architectural context. For some works it's less damaging to move them out of their context than for others. Context is about relationships, and it is how we might chose to define movable from immovable, insomuch as movable might mean works that are created regardless of context. They may have been intended for a context, but they're not physically or intentionally married to it.

ROSA LOWINGER: Certain finishes don't exist outside of their context. For example, the paint surface on the walls at Mount Vernon. They don't exist apart from the walls at Mount Vernon. Not so true with mosaics. Mosaics are often removed and installed elsewhere, because they can be. But certain finishes don't have any role except to enhance the building.

STEPHEN RICKERBY: I would agree with you, Frank. Context informs everything we do in conservation with regard to immovable cultural heritage. The trend to preserve in situ emerged with charters written at the time of the Venice Charter and after, but mainly in relation to architecture and archaeological remains. Wall paintings come in on the coattails of these concerns. Definitely the trend now is to preserve all site elements in situ, and in a context of preventive conservation and site management.

LESLIE RAINER: How does the context inform the actual approach that you take to conserving in situ?

Conservation image

MATERO: The question first has to be framed in terms of identifying the specific characteristics, values, and significance of the work in situ and the relationship the work has to its architectural setting. A painting can provide narrative and aesthetic enhancement, and the architecture or setting provides light, spatial qualities, and use. We have to remember the intended vantage point. Very often surfaces are painted assuming a certain perspectival relationship with the viewer. Those qualities first and foremost have to be sorted out—and when they are sorted out, you can determine what the appropriate response should be. If the answer is that the architecture does absolutely nothing—that the work was painted there for reasons that suggest it could be anywhere—then perhaps if the work is at risk from war or natural disaster or lack of protection, it could be removed. If the context really imparts a very important relationship in terms of how it would be viewed, then you have to make sure that the context is protected as much as the work.

RICKERBY: Leaving aside the threat to paintings of complete destruction—the argument usually made for detachment—the notion that detachment may be permissible if the architecture is not doing anything is obviously a value judgment, isn't it? A pretty bold value judgment. And as we all know, such values shift and change over time.

MATERO: Of course it's an irreversible decision. I mention it not to accept on blind faith that because something is situated where it is, that drives all other decisions. You have to go through critical judgment to identify the work in terms of its value, significance, and context, and then you make a decision. In every situation, you need to arrange in hierarchical fashion what's important. Architectural surface finishes are not all equal. And if we value one-of- a-kind artistic creativity more than something mechanically produced—even though it's a statement of its time—then many of us would not give the same value to that. Age is another one of those scales that imparts more value. I think we have to talk about surfaces that serve and surfaces that are being served. To deny that is just to say that in situ is always preferable. Yes, it is always the preferred choice, but we have a responsibility to examine all the parameters, especially in the face of risk and threat.

LOWINGER: On the question of surfaces being served and surfaces that serve, if you think about it, don't all these surfaces serve, in a certain sense? They are served by the architecture, but what is the point of architectural surface treatments? They serve the building. They serve the context of the space. So it's an experiential thing as much as anything.

MATERO: Our thinking about these surfaces partly has to go back to the role that their creators placed on them in terms of their function in that space. In the high modernism of the twentieth century, surfaces often played a secondary role in their contributions. They were clearly there to serve spatial definition. And they did it through planes of color, if present at all—very different from the kinds of articulation that the late nineteenth century saw in the function and placement of pattern, color, and texture, and different from mural painting, the function of which was narrative. In thinking about the functionality of these things, we have to consider the intent of the time.

LEVIN: Stephen, is the distinction between surfaces that serve and surfaces that are being served one that you would embrace?

RICKERBY: Most of the decorated surfaces that I'm dealing with are articulating an architectural space in some form or another. In my mind, those types of paintings absolutely need to stay in their context.

MATERO: One further point on the issue of in situ versus removal. Even within early conservation approaches and controversies, it is interesting to see how the perception and the arguments for intervention move through the exploration of the total work, with the image residing in the design layer, substrate as in plaster, and support as in wall. And you see it as you move from strappo to distacco to the entire lifting of architecture. At the site of Çatalhöyök, a very heroic and amazing transfer of earthen paintings on mudbrick walls was done in the 1960s, because the archaeologist wanted to get to the next level. The conservator could not have kept them in place because the buildings were not to be left in place—that would have thwarted archaeological research, which requires excavating through layers and time. We came along about twenty years later and faced the same conundrum, but the difference was that we said, "Let's move buildings—let's not remove design layers." We developed a machine to move walls to get the rooms out of the way, so the archaeologists could continue their research without compromising the painting history. At least we were there alongside our colleagues, making decisions about what to do, as opposed to being told to simply remove it.

RICKERBY: But these arguments go further. As you say, our concerns for these different layers have developed from considering the surface to incorporating the plaster support and the building. We are also now concerned about intangible heritage and those types of values. Our definitions of what is of value have increased, so that we can no longer afford to pick and choose what we preserve.

LOWINGER: I think we all agree that if all else were equal, we would retain murals in situ. The question is, how do we figure out what constitutes a worse threat than moving the piece out of context? Clearly war, excavation, or impending flooding due to the building of a dam constitute worse threats than removal. In the case of one of my projects, a 1940 WPA outdoor mural in the city of Inglewood, California, it was relentless tagging and neglect that spearheaded relocation. But it's appropriate to start with the idea of leaving the work in place, if it is possible.

LEVIN: What are the principles that guide you in terms of conservation when you’re facing a multiplicity of layers? How do you make choices about which decorative layers to preserve?

RICKERBY: Ideally one is not supposed to privilege one layer over another. That's one of our conservation principles. Sometimes there are clear-cut cases, where one layer may be clearly judged more important than another, but that's a considered judgment made by a body of informed people—not just by one person in isolation. But generally speaking, we do need to strive to try to preserve all of those layers. Conservation is about allowing future options. If we take definitive steps too soon, we preclude the opportunity to make choices in the future.

MATERO: I assume you mean those layers that have artistic or historic significance and merit. If we're talking about issues where each layer has an aesthetic value, then the question becomes: do you represent the work or place diachronically (through time) or synchronically (at one point in time)? Of course you want to do both, but it's not really possible. Because it's a choice from which there's no going back in terms of removal, you don't go in with prescribed notions. You have to consider each case. Often the decision ultimately rests on the user, and the conservator can simply decide to say, "No, I cannot do that because of my code of ethics and standards of practice." Or he or she can try to help find a way that is a compromise. Remember, documentation is another form of treatment. We can certainly record a layer that might be lost, for whatever reasons.

LOWINGER: Stephen, you said that by choosing to be prudent, we allow for options in the future. But what could those options be? If we had the means to imagine any possible scenario, what future technique could possibly serve the needs of all those layers? It's almost like having a magic machine that could separate them out, or could allow us to see through to each layer. Doesn't it make sense to envision what the ideal thing would be?

RICKERBY: Certain imaging techniques may allow us the possibility to view more than one layer, for example. But in terms of future choices, it's more the choice to have all those layers still with us, not having sacrificed one to get to the other. We may not do anything with that choice, but at least they're still there.

LOWINGER: I agree. It's that dilemma of wanting to act and wanting to hold back.

RICKERBY: The option to do nothing—or very little—is rarely taken. The pressure is always to achieve conspicuous results.

LOWINGER: Especially when stabilization is necessary. When you have something actively deteriorating, very often the act of that stabilization makes a change that closes off an option.

RAINER: Given that you're dealing with a surface in an architectural context, how do you approach the extent of treatment and make that surface legible? And are there certain times when you would do more or less reintegration?

MATERO: We might begin by talking about integrity and legibility. The first order of business, as we've already discussed, is to get to the role that the surface finishes play in terms of the context and meaning, and then we will better know how to address issues related to legibility. For me, integrity has three parameters: there's material integrity, there's formal integrity, and there's functional integrity. Material is what we as conservators tend to serve, although we're also obligated to think about the larger issues of form or image, which is often where meaning resides, and context or function, which is also where meaning resides. We treat material, but ultimately we do it to address form, image, and context for meaning. The functional parameters for integrity could be social, cultural, and environmental. If you ignore the aspect of integrity that is served by the use of that image, then you're compromising its integrity. It's not just a material reality. Its integrity also resides in intangible aspects. Legibility is the ability to read literally, and for a long time conservation has privileged aesthetic quality. After all, it's often been said that aesthetics drive traditional art making. Still, we have to be mindful of other qualities when we talk about integrity and legibility.

LOWINGER: When we're talking about integrity, are we referring to that of the work itself or one's experience of the work within an original context?

MATERO: For me, there is the integrity within the image. There is the integrity within the scene. And there is the integrity that is the relationship between the viewer or the user and the work. That's why museum experiences, aside from the aesthetic, are so often unsatisfactory for me. All we're usually allowed to do is experience a work from an aesthetic point of view. It gets back to the first question, right? If you keep it in situ, you can have, as Stephen says, the future option of other experiences besides the aesthetic.

Conservation image

RICKERBY: We have widely different criteria for these levels of integrity, depending on context. In an archaeological context, we're accustomed to seeing paintings in fragmented condition. Generally we don't expect them to be restored. Medieval paintings in a ruined context also fit within this romantic notion. At the same time, a medieval painting in a church that is being used may come under pressure to be restored. There's nothing objective about how these shifting criteria are exercised.

LOWINGER: That's problematic in the short term, but unless we are doing something irreversible, it's not problematic over the long term.

RICKERBY: It's problematic in the sense that we'll never resolve this in a satisfactory way. Someone is always going to decide at a later point that what we did in terms of "image reintegration" or "loss compensation"—our euphemisms for restoring or recreating some aspect of the painting—should have been done differently. It's also a problem in relation to the nitty-gritty of resources. We can't afford the amount of time and levels of other resources that are devoted to restoration, de-restoration, and rerestoration. Conservation, like everything else in this day and age, is about dealing with scarce resources.

MATERO: Integrity, and how you address it, eventually gets you to the flip side, which is authenticity. And that, of course, is a function of how much we do to the original. The question raises two recent challenges to the assumptions that conservation has been built upon: one is the privileging of the original creative intent, and the other is the significance of subsequent interventions and changes. A related challenge is the situation where repainting by the affiliated community is considered an act of veneration. I'm sure you've faced this, Stephen. I know this comes up in Buddhist sites, for example.

RICKERBY: It does in a very big way. Part of our current work in Bhutan is to study the original technology of paintings there. A big threat to those paintings is resurgent religious use and the repainting of images, much of it being funded by the West. While repainting is viewed as part of a continuing cultural tradition, what's actually happening is that the original technology is being destroyed. They are, in fact, losing an aspect of their material and aesthetic culture. Part of our work there is to highlight these issues, which the Bhutanese are taking steps to address, although the situation remains contentious.

LEVIN: All of you are talking about these matters from the standpoint of having worked in this area for quite some time. How has your thinking on these issues evolved from the beginning of your careers?

RICKERBY: I had greater faith in remedial intervention. That faith has been lost—for me and, I suspect, for many others in the conservation profession. There's a global trend toward preventive conservation and site management and away from remedial intervention. While we all still practice remedial intervention, we now have doubts about its efficacy, and we place it in a context of wider conservation measures. That doesn't necessarily mean that we believe those other measures are going to save paintings. I think there is a more realistic view of what we can and cannot do. The best we can do is to slow deterioration. We've hopefully lost a lot of our hubris in terms of what we think we can achieve.

LOWINGER: In my case, something quite different has happened. As I started working on large twentieth-century architectural surfaces, I moved into the world of treatments that are directed by architects and often implemented by contractors rather than conservators. Almost all of these interventions are remedial, and frequently the solutions are very aggressive. Sometimes my role is not fully defined, and I'm only on the job because the stakeholder—a public agency or a state historic preservation officer—has mandated the inclusion of a conservator on the team, and I'm faced with a contractor or an architect who doesn't really have much information about what our profession brings to the table. I have to begin by making the case for conservation.

MATERO: In my case, certainly teaching, as much as practice, has played an incredible role in the maturity that I see myself as having acquired. Teaching is a way of continually revisiting and questioning concepts and practices that one holds fundamental. More and more I find myself telling students, "You will read this text and you will learn this method, but in terms of critically using it, you will not understand it until years from now, when you've done it and you've applied it to many different situations. You will see that it can be completely correct in one context and completely incorrect in another." When you're young and learning the field, it seems clear-cut. I'm amazed at how much more I get by bringing experience to a text, for example. It's really remarkable. There are very good and important standards, but it's all in the application. That's why it's a critical process. That's what critical means. I think critical acumen only comes with maturity through experience.

Conservation image

LOWINGER: That's true. I don't teach formally the way you do, but when I do get interns or work with new professionals, I find myself wanting to make sure that I'm thinking as clearly as possible— and that I'm imparting the contradiction that's inherent in the idea that something can be preserved. I have to market to the client that something can be preserved, but at the same time, if I've got a student or an intern there, I'm saying, "Look, we have to tell them this. None of this is untrue, but we have to spin what it is, because they want perfection." We know perfection can't happen. Somewhere in the middle is the reality.

RAINER: Isn't much of teaching also about decision making? It's not just teaching students the method. It's about teaching them how to approach the decision-making process and how to understand what the options are, which comes through experience. It's not about recipes but about evaluating the needs and weighing options ahead of time when trying to come to conservation decisions. That's maybe one of the hardest things for a young professional to grasp.

MATERO: In the beginning I wanted to do conservation because I was interested in applying technology to solve the problems. I understood it was a cultural process, and I understood we were preserving historic and artistic works. But it was about the quality of the technological decisions. Technology often means doing something that will serve an end that is practical. Now, after thirty years, I've tempered my enthusiasm about technology. There are many ways to address conservation issues. If you don't get the result you were hoping for—no matter what technology you throw at it—it's not correct.

RICKERBY: Twenty years ago we were throwing a lot of treatment technology at wall paintings. A lot of mistakes happened as a result. As time goes on, one becomes aware that in terms of treatment, there isn't too much new we can do. Compared to the huge array of problems that wall paintings face, our remedial options are very limited. And the treatment improvements that are made are actually to address problems we've created—such as removing consolidants we put on ten or fifteen years ago. So we have to view progress in a very qualified way.

LOWINGER: I find myself dealing with newer and more unusual materials that constantly stump me. As I deal with more and more modern buildings and more and more surfaces produced with modern materials, the types of problems increase exponentially. If you think of solving a problem as walking through a series of rooms until you get to the treasure—which is the problem's answer—it's as if there are more and more doors. I'm sometimes frustrated by technology because I find that we are better at being diagnostic than getting to results. I do find myself pleased with the ability to create types of compensation that work within a system. I've arrived at some comfortable decisions about how to compensate for losses in a way that produces good legibility without faking. That's the one area I feel happy about.

LEVIN: Is that because you're dealing with more modern materials?

LOWINGER: What I think has happened is that the conservation of twentieth-century architectural surfaces, like mosaics, glazed terracotta, and cast stone, has become something of a big business. That has led to myriad companies producing commercial materials for so-called conservation and restoration. Some of those materials, like Cathedral Stone's Jahn Mortars, are excellent and have made our work much easier. But the production of these commercial materials has also created a perception among stakeholders that there are "magic formulas" that can be applied by anybody who has taken a two-day training course.

MATERO: You are finding, as is often the case in America, that you are firmly in the realm of architects, contractors, and engineers in such projects. The mere fact that you're there is a miracle, because the conservator's voice is hardly ever heard. Working on things that have artistic and historic value has become profitable, and the larger construction companies that can handle the exceedingly complicated requirements placed by governments and conservation agencies have become privileged to the point that they may decide not to include a conservator. Even if they do, that conservator may have little voice at the end of the day. I don't think that as a profession, we have been diligent in our demands to have a seat at the table. I'm seeing it more and more in some projects that involve resources of very high quality related to surface finishes. It is astonishing to me that decisions are made by some contemporary architects who know nothing about conservation or preservation.

LOWINGER: In California this is a big problem. There are some big firms here that market aggressively and have gotten the ear of people who make those decisions. They lobby well. And they will look you right in the eye and say, "I don't need a conservator."

MATERO: With the rise of mega-firms that have taken on the entire one-stop-shop role to treat problems in a building context, decorative images have become a subject of interest, while conservators are relegated to the corner or omitted altogether. I'm not saying that artisans are not necessary in contributing to an architectural space with surface finishes. In fact, there may be whole levels of interventions that go from painting conservators to artists of traditional techniques and finishes. But I don't see those niches being appropriately staffed. There are some good firms, but without regulatory agencies and requirements, it's a free-for-all.

RAINER: That's because this area, more than objects or paintings conservation, is at the interface of architecture, building contractors, and art.

LOWINGER: Today people are reluctant to let their works on paper or their paintings be touched by anybody but a conservator. They're done with that. But architecture is a total free-for-all. It is performed by architects, engineers, and contractors, both with and without conservators on the team.

RICKERBY: Whether a conservator gets included or excluded depends very much on the monetary value of the objects being conserved. Portable paintings and objects acquire a monetary value, so therefore, having a conservator involved can be justified. That's not usually the case with wall paintings, since however valued they are in other ways, they do not acquire an equivalent monetary value. Issues of the exclusion of conservators are not just regional but global. They take different forms, but at their heart is conservation education and occupational status. One of the big changes in the last two decades is the explosion of brief conservation courses, which confer a qualification after very little time. That undermines more serious, long-term conservation education. People can emerge from a few weeks' training and call themselves conservators. It's not surprising that we're not taken seriously.

MATERO: Part of the solution has to be getting minimum requirements in place contractually, so that individuals cannot work on a government contract or on a listed building unless they have certain qualifications that would have to come from a governmental agency.

RICKERBY: Many major conservation decisions are not made by conservators. They're in the hands of administrators and funders, who do not have a good idea about our conservation aims, as this is not their job. So the responsibility rebounds onto us.

LOWINGER: I have a very strong feeling about this. Instead of talking to ourselves, we need to learn how to use the media better. We need to put out the message that without us at the table, you could have a potential disaster on your hands. We need to use the media, the Internet, television, radio, and books to convey a message about conservation that is exciting, that is appealing, and that puts us in the role of a hero. A twelve-episode Discovery Channel, I'm telling you. I'd start with Stephen. I'd put him on camera and follow him into the tomb of Tutankhamen. People would watch it the way they watch Antique Roadshow.

MATERO: There's certainly no lack of programming on cultural resources. There are plenty of shows on Egyptian tombs, Maya ruins, and classical sites. The problem is—the conservator is invisible. We haven't been savvy in using the media to raise public awareness about what we do and why. High on the list in strategic planning for projects should be public outreach. Every time I've submitted a budget for videography for external projects that I am involved with, this item has been nixed. If I were a funding agency and entertaining conservation projects, I would insist that there be a public outreach component that goes beyond lip service.

RICKERBY: We're talking about raising our profile and about the vehicles for doing that. Obviously we need to be vocal. And we need to be turning out people who have the ability to engage in critical thinking. Because as conservators, we're at a critical interface among contractors, other people involved in conservation work, and the wall paintings. We are right there, on the front line. It all passes through our hands. So it really does depend on our competency in the end.

COMMENTS (discussion now closed)

1) Submitted by Richard O. Byrne, October 30, 2010 9:04AM
All: Your discussion about decorated architectural surfaces in the current issue of Conservation Perspectives is informative but errors in a fundamental way. Frank claims that there was no discussion of related problems prior to the Venice Charter in 1964 and Rosa claims "certain finishes don’t have any role except to enhance the building."

You forget to go back 2000 years to Vitruvius and a fundamental understanding of what a healthy building is. You forgot to talk about that. If we ask what a building has to do according to Vitruvius we can take Sir Henry Wotton’s 1624 translation of Vitruvius saying “Well buildings hath three conditions: firmness, commodity and delight.” Interesting is Wotton's translation of venustas in Vitruvius with delight. This is not wrong, but normally translated with beauty. He never uses the word pulchritudo, which means the more pure concept of beauty in the Kantian sense. The word venustas has the association with erotic pleasure ("Venus"). from Byrne, Ab Imo Pectore.

Thus when you talk about taking venustas valued elements from a building you must ask, is the building we leave behind still healthy? Or have we robbed it of one of its most critical elements. I agree there are times when “salvage” is needed. But we do the conservation process a disservice by not addressing some of the fundamental elements of good architecture that have stood firm for millennium. Thanks for your thoughts.

2) Submitted by Frank Matero, November 1, 2010 9:16AM
Richard, glad to know the issue has raised heads. I appreciate your comments and certainly know the sources from which you quote. It would seem that the international community paid little formal attention to such concepts until the VC at least addressed directly the issue of parts and whole. I think it would be an interesting bit of research to explore the essence of a building in terms of a conservation attitude especially against the backdrop of the massive removal projects that occurred in the late 19th/ea 20th c.
Sincerely, fgm

3) Submitted by Gersil Kay, November 6, 2010 10:40AM
Ever since I received the eagerly awaited Fall, 2010 issue of "Conservation Perspectives", I have tried to resist adding to what distinguished specialists have brilliantly expressed, but, like a flea addressing an elephant, I must say something. This is because at a seminar I led at FIT, I was distressed to learn that well-educated holders of Masters' degrees were barely aware of the harm that prolonged exposure to light was to fugitive organic materials.

Desiccation, and irreversible fading from infrared (IR) and ultraviolet (UV) rays can be substantially delayed by the use of glass fibre optics functional architectural lighting (GFO). Smithsonian tests show that GFO is free of IR and UV. GFO is still the most sustainable and energy efficient lighting technology now known. Employed for decades abroad, it is little used in the United States. Lack of practical education in the subject, and terminal inertia to change procedures are some of the reasons for this omission.

GFO is suitable for museum exhibits, conservation labs, architectural features, storage, gift shops, food service, offices, landscapes, water features and general ambient illumination. All types of architectural and theatrical lighting, except wholesale façade illumination are possible with GFO. Automated special effects of color, motion and dimming can be controlled with a single push button.

In this excellent issue devoted to decorated architectural surfaces, lighting was briefly mentioned only twice, even though it is easiest of systems with which to conserve.

While other disciplines are certainly necessary, unless there is adequate and appropriate light to see and appreciate cultural heritage, or indeed, all good architecture and exteriors, those efforts are in vain. Lighting must be incorporated with architecture design very early on.

Mention was made of the need for standards, but today's criteria still do not include emphasis on good design. If bare minimum standards are followed slavishly without imagination, there will be only bare minimum results, and possible further deterioration, since carefully conserved objects returned to harmful environments, will be damaged anew.

Please include Lighting as an essential ingredient in conservation.