Session 7: Architectural and Archaeological Sites

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As we are experiencing this pandemic, we are aware of its adverse effects in the conservation world especially with travel limitations, physical distancing, migration, and the fiscal challenges faced by art and cultural institutions. Considering this challenging year, the digital spirit of the IIC Congress has brought our conservation world together digitally, and it has been truly appreciated by the participants. We humans have persevered and so has our cultural heritage in its various forms, be it architectural or archaeological, which was the focus of Session 7. This session took us on an intense journey through sites that have been severely affected by natural and human-made disasters that shook the world: post-earthquake Nepal, the Slurry Wall of the World Trade Center, and the destruction of Nimrud.

In Martina Haselberger’s 'Tracking Trends: A Study of Post-Earthquake Approaches in Conservation in Patan, Nepal', she actively participated with attendees replying to their queries on chat, which kept the session engaging and buzzing. Her presentation touched upon a school of thought which is not just present in Nepal but also in other south Asian countries (India and Cambodia to name a few) which relates to the use of cement!! Cement is considered Enemy No.1 in many countries--given the insensitive way it was applied to heritage buildings in the 90s--so much so that it is now considered bad practice to even think about cement in the vicinity of a heritage building. Martina spoke about the sensitive or minimal application of new material with the old during a rebuilding process.

By contrast, cement plays the lead role with steel and the various methods adopted to mitigate their deterioration in Lisa Conte’s presentation on 'The Slurry Wall: Past, Present and Future'. The Slurry Wall is an underground water-blocking wall that formed part of the foundations of the World Trade Center building and survived the fatal 9/11 attack. The project highlighted the tireless advocacy of the victims’ families and the work to preserve a site that has become a place of memorial. Lisa spoke about the use of polyurethane grout--which has been effective--as well as the research looking for alternatives with better aging properties for both voids and water mitigation.

In a similar vein was Jessica Johnson’s 'The Nimrud Rescue Project'; disheartening as it was to see the visuals of heritage sites being blown up leaving a void that is irreplaceable. Jessica and team have been working together to recover fragments of neo-Assyrian sculpture and capacity building and support of Iraqi heritage professionals. The project reminds one of the Palmyra and Bamyan sites which have benefited from digital reconstruction of the site for posterity.

Another community-oriented project was Julian Bickersteth’s 'Returning Uluru'. Last year the world was abuzz over the closing of the Uluru climb, respecting the wishes of the traditional owners of the site. The project included sensitive removal of the 134 climb posts and chain which were inserted into the rock. Various methods were researched for removal of the posts with minimal damage to the rock. The removed posts left voids on the rock’s surface which were filled with stones called “sorry rocks”. These rocks had been removed from the site in years prior and were subsequently returned to Uluru by visitors with apology notes saying 'sorry' for their removal.

The marrying of old and new techniques seems to be an emerging practice in architectural conservation recently, considering the presentation of James Bourdeau and David Edgar on the 'Conservation Design Assist Model for the Rehabilitation of Canada’s Parliamentary Centre Block'. We have been hearing about controversial large-scale renovation projects of parliamentary buildings in various countries, some with conservation approaches and some with complete redevelopment, to meet the present and future needs. It is heartening to see the innovative 'conservation design assist' method adopted in this project, which has potential for worldwide adoption. The speakers showed us how the use of digital and traditional methods together allowed the conservation, not just of the material, but also of the design--and with what intricacy and finesse!!

The presentations were followed by the Q&A session where the chair Katy Lithgow asked the panellists how conservation helps to re-establish society under stress. Is it the "fixing" of things that people value or the working together, to which the response was unanimous that conservation can help rebuild societies by working together with the community. As we are reeling from this pandemic, the place conservation holds in community has been acknowledged. As knowledge repositories, architectural and archaeological sites teach us to adopt, adapt and grow even during a crisis, because there is always a better tomorrow.

Author Byline: 

Saranya Dharshini is a Conservation Architect based in Mumbai, India