Dystopia, Climate Change and Heritage Conservation in the Late Nineteenth Century

Roark, Ryan

Ngā Pūtahitanga / Crossings: A Joint Conference of SAHANZ and the Australasian UHPH Group

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The architectural conservation and restoration movements emerged in the Western world in the mid-nineteenth century, in part as a reaction to the acceleration of visible aging of buildings caused by the Industrial Revolution and associated changes in air quality. At the same time, Enlightenment ideals established at the end of the eighteenth century reinforced the relatively new idea that a building could have a single author and a fixed state.

A new drive towards ‘restoration’ – the return of a building to a glorified singular past state – led William Morris in 1877 to establish the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (SPAB), whose manifesto marked the dawn of the age of conservation and essentially prohibited any interference with old buildings. What emerged was a debate between those who favoured “scraping” (restorationists, e.g. nineteenth-century French architect Viollet-le-Duc) and those who were “anti-scrape” (conservationists, e.g. nineteenth-century English architecture writer John Ruskin and architect William Morris).

Recent scholarship in English and eco-critical studies by Jesse Oak Taylor, Philip Steer, Heidi Scott and others has drawn attention to anxieties about climate change that began early as the mid-nineteenth century and became widespread by the turn of the twentieth, as manifest in Victorian-era English-language literature. Little has been written about the influence of such anxieties on architects at the time, although John Ruskin’s lecture “The Storm Cloud of the Nineteenth Century” (1884) is possibly the first public lecture explicitly hypothesizing anthropogenic climate change.

This paper examines Ruskin’s later writings, the writings and architectural works of William Morris and the writings of other early members of SPAB including Thomas Hardy, to examine to what extent the “do-not-touch” model of conservation can be interpreted as an early reaction of alarm about climate change.