The government threat to stop funding Unesco shows a tortured relationship with conservation
On one level, the coalition government’s “yellow card” to Unesco – its threat to withdraw all funding from the international body if it can’t “show results” – is an example of how the lunatic fringe are now running the country. Not to mention an amusing delusion of grandeur, as if Unesco were some Regional Development Authority Cameron could patronise and pick on. But inadvertently or otherwise, it says something odd and intriguing about the surprisingly tortured relationship between conservatism and conservation.
It’s telling that Robert Adam has expressed support for cutting funding to Unesco. Partly this is a matter of right-wing ideology – things “owned by everyone” and run by experts are apparently bad, like parks, museums and the NHS – but partly something more complex. Adam’s Athlone House scheme in Hampstead is facing the kind of unimpressed, conservationist, contextual scrutiny more commonly reserved for modern buildings, so he might appreciate decisions being taken out of the hands of historians and scholars.
The role of Unesco in architecture and planning is essentially as a sort of international Civic Trust, awarding World Heritage Site status to the worthy and smiting those who transgress it. Perhaps a Unesco could have been able to stop the destruction of Nash’s Regent St, or Soane’s Bank of England, which were replaced with… conservative, classical buildings.
Similarly, in a strikingly ill-judged article published as the dead were still being picked out of the rubble of Christchurch, Simon Jenkins declared that its cathedral must be rebuilt to its original form, to prevent the mistakes of the post-war era. More Warsaw, less Coventry – and explicitly against the strictures on reconstruction from William Morris, founder of the Society for the Preservation of Ancient Buildings. Meanwhile, Blimps everywhere lament English Heritage’s attempts to preserve modernist buildings.
Jenkins likes to brand his opponents as sundry Bolsheviks and “totalitarians”, so it’s amusing that the counter-examples he invariably advocates are post-war Warsaw, where a Stalin-controlled government remade the destroyed historic core; and more recently, Yuri Luzhkov’s authoritarian Moscow, where blingy neoclassicism and reconstruction were the order of the day. Now, much like post-war Coventry and, say, post-war Bristol, these should not be lumped in together. Forties Warsaw and forties Coventry in their different ways created something special, unique and still impressive; nineties Moscow and sixties Bristol something rightly derided. This isn’t a matter of ideology, but quality.
So why, then, is it that – from Adam and the government’s firm public school caning of Unesco to Jenkins’ contempt for SPAB and English Heritage – that conservatives so often dislike conservationists? Perhaps it’s to do with the difference between an interest in history and a longing for the past. Conservation can reveal the ruined without genuflection, without wanting to turn the clock back. In fact, by showing the marks of time, you make clear that the clock can’t be turned back. For some, this is unforgivable.
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