Book Review: Giving Value to Architecture and Heritage

This book review is published in the Architecture Theory Review, April 2023.

Review of Valuing Architecture: Heritage and the Economics of Culture, by Ashley Paine, Susan Holden and John Macarthur, eds., Amsterdam, Valiz, 2020, 288 pp. ISBN: 978-94-92095-93-0.

How do we articulate the value of architecture? How have social, cultural and economic relationships to architecture evolved over time? Exploring such questions is the aim of Valuing Architecture: Heritage and the Economics of Culture, a volume edited by Ashley Paine, Susan Holden and John Macarthur from the University of Queensland. The book is a key output of an Australian Research Council Discovery grant titled “Is Architecture Art? A history of categories, concepts and recent practices” (2016–22) and follows an in- person conference held in Brisbane in June 2019. Paine, Holden and Macarthur, and the authors in the volume, are fundamentally concerned with examining the contributions of architecture to the cultural economy and contemporary society.

In its explorations of architecture, the volume adopts the lens of “value,” understood both as an analytical model and everyday reality. As analytical model, value enables the authors to assess how architecture is conceived and managed. As everyday reality, the authors demonstrate how notions of value are adopted in different ways by architects, authorities, curators, conservationists, economists, developers and other groups to inform their decision making about the future of cities and places. The volume is particularly strong when evaluating architectural value and, to a similar degree, heritage values. Other notions of value are considered by contributors across the chapters, particularly in terms of economic opportunity costs and trade-offs, when competing demands are made upon architecture and its conservation. In general, the authors agree that architecture suffers from competing social, economic, financial, political and cultural values.

Taken together, the fourteen chapters comprising Valuing Architecture examine how social and cultural practices produce value for architecture. Such practices evolve across time and space, and across cultures and societies, providing anchors for the discussions presented in each of the individual chapters. Of the eighteen contributors, half herald from Australian universities, a third from Europe and two from the United States. The chapters address exhibitions, museums, historic sites and heritage contests. Temporally, the volume is particularly concerned with the mid-twentieth century onwards. Geographically, the United States receives the most attention, followed by Western Europe, Australia and the United Kingdom, with one chapter on Japan. Stylistically, brutalism is an explicit focus, though modernism features throughout. Programmatically, social housing and community centres appear in three of the chapters. The interest in brutalism and social housing reflects current academic and popular architectural history trends.

The editors introduce the volume via a survey of how cultural value has been considered in architecture, establishing their ambitions to further probe the concept of value. In the first substantive chapter, following his monograph Obsolescence: An Architectural History (2016), Daniel Abramson returns to the concept of obsolescence to evaluate strategies for addressing the supposed lifespan of buildings. He notes a historical trend from mid-twentieth-century renewal and demolition to present-day sustainability and conservation; albeit inflected by greenwashing, gentrification and competing developmental value propositions. Ashley P aine then adopts the case study of Frank Lloyd Wright houses, examining the aftermarket trade for his mid-twentieth- century buildings, architectural fragments and items of furniture. Wright believed in the total work of architecture: structure, decorative arts and furnishings. Yet, contradicting this architectural intent, P aine demonstrates that Wright’s oeuvre has long had greater financial and cultural value in its constituent parts than whole. Avid adherents to Wright’s philosophy with deep pockets now attempt to reunify his works.

The examination of museums and exhibitions is a major strength of Valuing Architecture. Methodologically, exhibitions are discrete events and significant moments that enable contributors to evaluate conceptions of value. As with Paine, Jordan Kauffman is also interested in art markets and, specifically, how architectural drawings have greater financial value than three-dimensional architectural models. Kauffman deconstructs the formation of the market for such drawings, tracing its genealogies back to exhibitions held at the commercial Leo Castelli Gallery in New York either side of 1980. At these exhibitions, both drawings and models were displayed and priced. Thereafter, while drawings captured the interest of art market collectors, models were only considered worthy of design archives as historical artefacts.

Further chapters suggest that museums, as cultural institutions, might take greater responsibility for architectural heritage. Susan Holden and Rosemary Willink evaluate Victoria & Albert Museum’s acquisition of a section of social housing from Robin Hood Gardens in London prior to its demolition. They suggest that the Museum might have advocated for the conservation of the entire housing estate in situ instead. Joanna Merwood-Salisbury portrays widespread frustrations that the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), New York demolished the adjoining and quite remarkable American Folk-Art Museum for its recent expansion. Wouter Davidts and Anton Pereira Rodriguez provide a critique of OMA/Rem Koolhaas’ redesign of the exhibition spaces within the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam.

A final group of chapters explore architectural and community engagements with heritage places. Amy Clarke interrogates open-air museums: Colonial Williamsburg, United States; Fortress Louisbourg, Canada; and Sovereign Hill, Australia. With varying degrees of government and philanthropic support, these museums have both collected and reconstructed historic buildings, often to the frustrations of conservationists who perceived them as inauthentic expressions of architectural heritage. Clarke demonstrates that her case study sites are, today, less focused on architectural and aesthetic values, and more interested in historical and experiential values. Hamish Lonergan, Ari Seligmann, and Kirsty Volz and Alex Brown each examine the evolving and disputed value placed on brutalism. Lonergan takes the broadest perspective with their case study on social media and the popular ‘Fuck Yeah Brutalism’ account on platform Tumblr. Seligmann evaluates efforts to conserve the architectural icon of Kisho Kurakawa’s 1972 Nakagin Capsule Tower. Volz and Brown trace the unsuccessful campaign in the late 2010s to conserve the social housing Sirius Building in Sydney, which has now been adapted into luxury housing.

The contributions to Valuing Architecture interrogate key issues concerning the heritage and economics of culture at their intersections with architecture. Although engendering a cohesive collection, the primary focus of the volume on museum institutions and contested heritage places has inherent limitations for addressing these issues. Contributors are more focused on the politics of heritage than the conservation of architecture.

Therefore, the volume might inspire further scholarship that critically addresses both the theoretical and practical issues related to architectural and heritage values. Another possible departure point is the heritage and social economics and financing of architecture and conservation. Given the focus on settler-colonial contexts, a third area for future evaluation is the nature of cultural value when designing and building on unceded First Nations lands. Future scholarship interrogating these kinds of heritage, economic, financial and social values would require multi-disciplinary teams and multi-methodological approaches, drawing scholars from a range of fields and backgrounds who share an interest in “valuing architecture.”

Overall, Valuing Architecture examines fundamental issues of “value” in architectural history and heritage. It has many figures, photos and maps, printed in black and white, within page margins. This is a good approach when reproducing high-quality, colour figures is not feasible. The two-page, black and white, hero illustrations at the start of each chapter is another welcome inclusion, meaning each chapter is framed with a striking visual element. The volume is an essential text for architectural historians, graduate students, exhibition curators and heritage practitioners seeking a diversity of perspectives on the cultural and social production of value in architecture. It provides significant critical perspectives on the diversity of heritage practices that produce “architectural value” across spatial and temporal contexts. In our late-neoliberal economic and political climate, convincingly articulating the value of architecture, beyond its immediate financial value, remains as challenging as ever. Most significantly, therefore, Valuing Architecture contributes to our shared mission of creating new theoretical and practical frames for expressing the importance of cities and places, art and design, conservation and community, and museums and galleries.

CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *