Heritage-based design

  • Paul Meurs TU Delft, Architecture and the Built Environment


This book addresses the question of how to design in a historical context. How to get a grip on a site? How can a designer incorporate actual qualities of the heritage in the design? In three chapters, it is described how the conservation of heritage has increasingly become an issue of planning and intervention, with the specific cultural heritage qualities of a site as the starting point for transformation.

There are several different approaches to embed the design in the site: focussing on the designed past, the designed presence and the non-designed presence. The better the essences of the meaning of the cultural heritage (substance, structure and narrative) are exposed, the better the design can focus on these. However accurately the different process steps are adhered to – in the end the quality of the design will determine the degree of success: it’s a thin line between a disaster and a brilliant intervention. The design challenge is to give a site new vitality while at the same time preserving its value.

Over the past decade, my office has dealt with all kinds of interventions and new developments. In teams of designers and historians, we have analysed buildings, areas and landscapes to discover their visible and invisible qualities. How did they become what they are today? What were the ideas and ideals at the time of their realisation? To what extent has a site withstood the test of time, and how can the concepts, structures and stories from the past be deployed in current challenges? We gradually try to get to the core: the legacy for the future and the exact nature of the assignment – viewed from the perspective of the cultural heritage value. Defining that value is a design on its own, just like history itself is. It is a creative process, in which the views and opinions of others carry considerable weight, but where you as the specialist will have to make the final assessment to arrive at decisions and legitimation. This will create a heritage base for the design to respond to and build upon.

There is no lack of good intentions to integrate heritage in a design. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean that heritage values are safe in the hands of an architect. Far too often one gets the impression that the designer makes light of the job, by haphazardly including a couple of ancient relics or some monumental fragments (cherry picking), or by forcing a format or a blueprint onto a special site. Designers also frequently limit the cultural heritage aspect to their own visual perception and display an almost hostile attitude towards the views and interpretations of the heritage sector. The underlying reasons for such an attitude are to be found in the history of modern architecture, where for a century or more the past has been regarded as an impediment for the designer. With such a background, it is difficult to relate to cultural heritage with an open mind. Fortunately, this is a rearguard action. These days, a diversity of designers all illustrate in their own way what can be won by architecture when it is nourished by the heritage. By leaving space in the design for what is already there, by getting inspiration from the stories of others, and making use of what is available, the circumstances will be created for the heritage to survive an intervention and, moreover, to derive new meaning and values from it.

A good example of responding to a site is designer Piet Hein Eek’s factory in Eindhoven. With a high degree of open-mindedness, he lets the existing quality speak for itself, at the same time linking it to his own universe and the Piet Hein Eek brand. This serves to refresh the site and to make it attractive for new target groups. Robert Winkel (Mei Architects) takes a different approach: he uses the cultural heritage framework to explore the boundaries of a possible intervention. While doing the utmost justice to the cultural heritage value, he carries out radical interventions such as the creation of large openings (Jobsveem, Rotterdam) or enormous superstructures (Fenixloodsen (warehouses), Rotterdam). These are extreme interventions, with the presence of the heritage remaining the dominant factor; it becomes as it were a free-rider on the renovation to provide it with new significance, prominence and visibility in the city. This respectful attitude towards the cultural heritage value, without running away from renewal, can also be seen in the many transformations carried out by diederendirrix architects. It is not a coincidence that all these architects operate in Rotterdam and Eindhoven: modern cities in the midst of transformation, where the architectural image is not yet fully solidified but where history is visible, with a decisive influence on the quality and the potential of the city. The challenge is to also give the poetry of the site an effective voice in the design.

At the stations of the Dutch Railways, the heritage cannot possibly be regarded as something static. By virtue of their function, they are dynamic sites, with growing numbers of travellers and major changes in programming. In De Collectie (The Collection), the railway sector has established a number of outstanding stations, with the aim of including the heritage values in the transition processes which are inherent to stations. Thanks to De Collectie, the uniformity of interventions is broken and network demands (speed, capacity, safety, commerce) are increasingly better and more obviously aligned with the existing quality and the spatial logic of each separate outstanding station ensemble. On less dynamic sites, where the architectural image is much more fixed, the design brief shifts to the interior (churches), technology (upgrading of offices) or to combining different functions in an often far from the obvious way.

The design on or around heritage is all about open-mindedness, doing justice to the cultural heritage value, daring to opt for a radical intervention if necessary, making history visible in the innovative city, and responding to the poetry of the site – and all this in appropriate measures. The architectural style (modern or traditional, contrast or symbiosis) does not really matter all that much, as long as the attitude is to design on the basis of the existing qualities and to carefully develop the detailed design.

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