Last updated: March 10, 2012 12:31 am

To preserve and protect

Safeguarding a nation’s heritage can make a bold political statement, while a single-building project is often a personal labour of love

I mean to restore the meaning of “restore”, before it becomes confusing. In 2010, CNN proclaimed: “The shroud of Turin, which some Christians believe is Jesus Christ’s burial cloth, went on public display Saturday for the first time since it was restored.” It was actually conserved, meaning it was cleaned, neutralising the agents of decay. If it were really restored or returned to its primary condition, it should have had the ghostly face scrubbed off and its original inhabitant rematerialised within it. Now, that would have been worth reporting.

To understand the common confusion between restoration and conservation, it helps to return to pre-revolutionary France and to the origins of the word “restaurant”. In 1765, Monsieur Boulanger opened his public soup kitchen on the rue Bailleul in Paris. His broths were advertised as restaurants – a centuries-old label for nutritional tonics. Its use on his shop front is thought to have inspired the modern connection between the act of dining out and the restauration of soul and body. And yet eating doesn’t make you look young again. It’s just an agreeable form of everyday maintenance necessary for personal conservation.

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In architectural terms, restoration/restauration is specifically about trying to reverse the clock: restorers make what are often gruelling attempts to recover the original condition of a building in an attempt to relive its past glories. Many view this as an unnatural denial of the passage of time, a process that requires peeling away genuine layers of history to make way for reproduction windows, doors, knockers, knobs, and one thousand and one other details. The utilitarian additions and extensions tacked onto a fine building can be considered to have secondary importance, as faded makeovers that obscure a once unified and beautiful artistic concept.

The 19th-century enthusiasm for “improving” buildings through restoration spurred the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, when William Morris fumed: “The Restoration of ancient buildings [is] a strange and most fatal idea, which by its very name implies that it is possible to strip from a building this, that, and the other part of its history – of its life that is – and then to stay the hand at some arbitrary point, and leave it still historical, living, and even as it once was.”

And yet some buildings are such important cultural expressions that it is compelling to restore them so that they recover their full, original eloquence. So how do you get it right? Much depends on the rules of the game. Restoration, when it comes down to it, can be high politics, or a very personal mission.

The private theatre in the restored Juanqinzhai in the Forbidden City, Beijing©Eyevine

The private theatre in the restored Juanqinzhai in the Forbidden City, Beijing

There is a tendency for politicians to take interest in the more creative end of restoration at times of burgeoning nationalism. After the 1848 wars in mainland Europe, for example, restored monarchs, rattled by revolutions, looked for the reassurances of historical certainty when their ancestors ruled without challenge.

Turin chose the moment of the Italian Exposition of 1884 to invent an entire medieval village, a place to re-live the centuries of governance by the House of Savoy at its peak. This bogus borgo was conceived a few years after Umberto of Savoy, the Torinese King of Italy, came to the throne in 1878.

Stirling Castle in Scotland has just been lavishly redecorated in the spirit of the Renaissance era of its builder James V (1513-42), evoking the peak of Scottish-European culture a century and a half prior to the 1707 Act of Union with England. This vision was presented to the public less than a year before Scottish first minister Alex Salmond opened the debate for national independence.

Politics can be complex and, paradoxically, restoring a country’s heritage may also be a conduit for international collaboration. One such example is the Juanqinzhai in the Forbidden City in Beijing, China.

No expense was spared during the construction of the Emperor Qianlong’s exquisite two-acre garden retreat and 27 pavilions from 1771 to 1776. Until a decade ago, it was inadmissible to the public. China held little expertise in the traditional materials and techniques necessary to reinstate it to its prime. The modern science of restoration work was largely developed only in the past quarter to half a century, when China was isolated from much of the international community.

Detail of a mural depicting cranes in a palace garden, part of the restored theatre hall in Juanqinzhai, the Forbidden City, Beijing©Bloomberg

Detail of a mural depicting cranes in a palace garden, part of the restored theatre hall in Juanqinzhai, the Forbidden City, Beijing

A collaboration with the World Monuments Fund, and in turn the Getty Conservation Institute and the Smithsonian in the US, led to a search for artisans. Someone had to make the traditional Chinese sangpi paper made from the inner bark of the mulberry bush for the trompe l’oeil murals in the theatre pavilion. There was also a need for bamboo thread marquetry, a refined technique that involves slicing bamboo into threads to create geometric surface patterns. It also featured inner bamboo skin carving, a skill usually reserved for decorative objects such as brush pots that is used in huge expanses throughout Juanqinzhai, representing the only known use in China as an architectural decorative motif.

After a long search for artisans, practitioners of these traditional crafts were located in many of the same provinces that provided the original works for the Qianlong court 200-plus years ago. Zhejiang province south of Shanghai is still the centre of fine bamboo and woodcarving; Nanjing and Suzhou to the west of Shanghai remain centres for traditional brocade and embroidery, having been the sources of the original textiles made for the Forbidden City. These new working relations with artisans have reinstated a source of fine traditional craftsmanship that the Palace Museum can draw on for the restoration of the remaining 27 buildings in the Qianlong Garden.

Such grand projects are taken on after much consultation on the finer points of costly feasibility studies.

A personal restoration project may often be adopted on a whim – however, it’s one that can lead to years of dedicated, expensive and unforeseen work.

Mike Leonard is an attorney in North Carolina and the descendant of a German family who immigrated to the US in 1750. His foray into restoration began in 1987, when he drove through Bethania and noticed a timber house built by the first generation of Moravian settlers around 1770. It turned out to have been constructed for the aptly named George Hauser, a member of the North Carolina Convention who approved the US constitution in 1789.

Mike Leonard stands in the porch of his 18th-century timber house in North Carolina©Hannah Taylor

Mike Leonard spent $250,000 restoring his 18th-century timber house in North Carolina

In 1994 the house came up for sale for the first time in 120 years. A private historic preservation group acted as the agent and Leonard snapped it up for $105,000 with a promise to follow their recommended – and supervised – approaches to restoration.

With the help of his young daughter, Leonard found it had last been modernised during the second world war. The plumbing, wiring and wall panels had to be stripped, resulting in some authentic experiences: in winter the pair spent long evenings huddled round the kitchen stove as the front rooms were uninhabitably cold.

A restoration project would strike many as a curious road to relaxation, but Leonard insisted he wouldn’t stress over the process, as he faced quite enough in business litigation. So his philosophy was to separate office from home: even after the long process of gently restoring the house, he refuses to have a computer or television. But he capitulates to the mod cons of Thomas Edison’s era, as he explains over the telephone.

As might be expected of a log house, getting the character of replacement timber right was a challenge. Rotten floorboards were replaced through numerous trips to a large salvage yard near Colonial Williamsburg; the century-old metal sheet roof needed little work, which may have been the salvation of the house. It certainly protected the property’s mid 19th-century living room murals.

“They took 14 years. I couldn’t conserve them myself. I had an incredibly good art conservator, but I couldn’t get him over here for three years after hurricane Katrina, as he was helping rebuild New Orleans. Otherwise, they’d only have taken, well 11 years.”

In all, Leonard invested $250,000. But was it worth it?

“Sure. I got more involved, and now I’m on the National Advisory Committee for Mount Vernon.”

Restoration exhausts some people, but Leonard’s experience – his insights and involvement – seem to have been a tonic for his soul, a kind of restauration, perhaps.

Jonathan Foyle is chief executive of World Monuments Fund Britain

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Details

● Getty Conservation Institute, www.getty.edu/conservation

● The Smithsonian, www.si.edu

● World Monuments Fund, www.wmf.org

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