• Sunday , 8 December 2019

The New Irish Branch of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings

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In 1878 SPAB campaigned against the ‘Restoration’, or “the entire modernizationof this great monument”, of St. Alban’s Cathedral, Hertfordshire.

The Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, or SPAB for short, was founded in 1877 by William Morris and Philip Webb. It was founded in a response to the over-zealous restorations of buildings that were taking place during the 19th century, which they believed had ‘done more for their destruction than all the foregoing centuries of revolution, violence and contempt’. These restorations were prompted by a growing sense of national pride, and a nostalgia for the past, and would typically see one phase in a building’s life-span being honoured, while all other phases were wiped away, in the name of ‘Unity of Style’. The SPAB manifesto was a plea to the architects undertaking these restorations to honour ‘all times and styles’, and laid down the principles of conservation as espoused by the Society. This manifesto still forms the basis of SPAB’s works today, and many of its principles were built upon in the Athens Charter, adopted in 1931 at the first International Congress of Architects and Technicians of Historic Monuments. Some key elements of the manifesto included a respect for all stages in the history of the building, and a keen disapproval of ‘forgery’, i.e. a modern intervention into an historic building should read as such. The manifesto also stressed the importance of maintenance, advising ‘stave off decay by daily care’.

SPAB grew to become an important advocacy and advisory body in conservation in the UK, and in 1995 a Scottish branch was formed, in recognition of the differing architectural traditions, language, and property laws. It was felt that these differences could be better dealt with at a local level. SPAB today follows the principles of the original 1877 manifesto, valuing authenticity and integrity in architectural conservation, and welcomes well-designed modern architectural interventions, recognising that sometimes change is necessary for a building to remain in use.

Now, 140 years after the founding of the Society, a group of young conservation professionals and craftspeople are working to found an Irish branch of SPAB, to respond to the unique circumstances of building conservation on the island of Ireland. This group is made up of former SPAB Scholars and Fellows, Rachel Morley, Eoin Madigan, Conor Meehan, Oliver Wilson and Tríona Byrne. They introduced their plans to a large audience of like-minded people at their Inaugural Meeting, held in Trinity College on the 8th of February of this year. Their passion and enthusiasm was infectious, and the discussions continued in a local bar long after the official end of the meeting.

The aims of SPAB Ireland can be loosely grouped under the three headings of Casework, Advice, and Education. Under the first of these, the group have the long-term aim of becoming a statutory consultee on all planning applications for works to pre-1720 buildings. It was noted at the meeting that there are existing bodies carrying out this function in Ireland, and the group were quick to confirm that they did not wish to compete with these groups, but hoped to be able to co-operate, and acknowledged the significant work already done by such groups as An Taisce.

The SPAB Office in the UK publishes practical guides to conservation, and has a helpline which can be called by professional or home-owners alike, and will provide technical advice. SPAB Ireland will rely on the existing resources and expertise of SPAB UK initially, but hope to build up a large body and circle of professionals and craftspeople in Ireland. The group described the sense of community within SPAB UK, and the open and generous sharing of knowledge and expertise between the members.

There are many aspects to the education aims of the group. These vary from improving training and upskilling opportunities for conservation professionals and craftspeople in Ireland, to holding public lectures and demonstrations so as to improve public awareness of the richness of our architectural heritage. The lack of training in traditional skills and crafts in Ireland is a major obstacle for young people with an interest in pursuing a career in conservation, and inevitably leads to higher costs for conservation projects, as appropriately skilled craftspeople are in higher demand, or need to be flown over from the UK. The group also referred to programmes run by SPAB in the UK, which train property-owners or stewards, particularly for churches, in the proper maintenance of their buildings, and the potential value of similar programmes here. Maintenance is a vital part of the SPAB manifesto, and a key principle in good conservation, and there will be an emphasis on maintenance as preventive conservation in their plans.

There will be a follow-up meeting this Saturday, the 25th of March, at 2 p.m., upstairs in Against the Grain, on Wexford Street, for anyone interested in getting involved with this new venture. A volunteer committee will be formed, and an outline activity plan for the coming months drawn up. This is an exciting opportunity for anyone involved or interested in architectural conservation.

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