The online resource for the historic environment

2.03 Introduction

“[heritage assets] are far more than isolated physical objects. They are the complex products of the human experience and contain and convey meaning on many levels.
Guide for Practitioners 4. Historic Scotland

Aesthetics is defined by Webster’s as: a branch of philosophy dealing with beauty and the beautiful.

There may be two theories of aesthetic value: the objective and the subjective.
The subjective says (roughly) that aesthetic value is simply a matter of how the observers sees it and evaluates it. The objective view (roughly) is that aesthetic value is inherent in the object itself.

The philosophy of aesthetics may, by its nature, be subjective or objective; but what influences determine how we see one historical asset as being more beautiful and more appealing than another?

“despite disagreement on the right kind of principles that should be the basis of good architectural form and space, for centuries there was common ground for the assumption that good form can be systematically analysed and described".

Principles of this kind can be traced to classical essays by Vitruvius, Alberti and Palladio as well as in writings by French theorists such as Blondel and Durand and even in modern manifestos by Corbusier, Frie Otto [Frank Lloyd Wright, et al].

Building composition was not an exclusive domain of architects, but it was inspired by the arts and sciences such as painting and music as well as physics and biology
Aesthetics and Architectural Composition, Dresden University 2004. www.aesthetics-online.org

...the actual forms and structure of architecture [and other historic assets] were almost always the product of time and space – of circumstance more than will. Man’s thoughts and actions – his religion, politics, art, technology and aspirations, as well, as landscape, geology and climate are things from which architecture [and other historic assets] are born. The art of a civilisation is a very precise reflection of the society which produced it.
Western Architecture Furneaux Jordan 1997

Over its period of existence the historic environment may have been subject to interventions of all types, probably brought about by societal needs and aspirations and reflecting society’s patterns of change over time. Therefore the historic environment will offer a palimpsest as readable as any book or painting, portraying or offering a key to an understanding of the procession of historical events to which it bears witness. Any change to such accumulated worth and value must be undertaken with a clear perception of what the historical environment offers to society in terms of perceived worth and record. (Unit 1 identifies the importance of the assessment of cultural significance.)

Any historical asset, as an art form, will have achieved value either as direct recognition of the designer or artist, architect or engineer who conceived it or, as a result of society’s evaluation over time. Such worth must not be compromised by inappropriate intervention undertaken without assessment of that worth.

It becomes clear, therefore, that there is a responsibility on the conservation practitioner [you] to ensure that an assessment of aesthetic value is made prior to intervention. Failure to clearly understand aesthetic worth prior to intervention could lead to irretrievable damage to the historic environment.

Once lost, listed buildings [the historic environment] cannot be replaced; and they can be robbed of their special interest as surely by unsuitable alteration as by outright demolition
Department for Communities and Local GovernmentPlanning Policy Guidance Note 15 V. [archived reference]

The historic environment overall and more than the sum of its parts, helps society determine for itself, by passive observation, what elevates one aspect of it above another when perceived by that society.

John Ruskin wrote: “…[architecture is the] art which so disposes and adorns the edifices raised by man…that the sight of them contributes to his mental health, power and pleasure.” (Ruskin Seven Lamps of Architecture) Suggesting that aesthetics rather than utilitarian purpose stimulates the art of architecture.

“Materials in Architecture are like words in Phraseology which singly have little or no power, and may be so arranged as to excite contempt yet when combined with Art, and expressed with energy, they actuate the mind with unbounded sway.“
William Chambers, 1798

“Architecture is concerned with the creation of order out of chaos…the manipulation of geometry, and the creation of a work in which aesthetics plays a far greater role than anything likely to be found in a humdrum building.”
Oxford dictionary of Architecture.

Inappropriate intervention puts at risk the rhythm and delicate balance that good [intrinsic] design offers and threatens the value that society perceives within the historic architectural environment.

Vitruvius suggests that architecture stems from order, arrangement, eurythmy [harmony of proportion] and economy. Sir Henry Wooton, taking up the Vitruvian ideal, states: “…well building hath three conditions: Commodity, Firmness and Delight.”. Wren changes this to: “Beauty, Firmness and Convenience.”, Dictionary of Western Architecture 2000.

Architecture in its present day form tends to be associated with the profession of the Architect. This was not always the case with such focused professional identity.
Christopher Wren, for example, was by primary qualification and training a mathematician and astronomer.

The description 'architect' was not given formal status until 1834 when the RIBA was granted a Royal Charter (although interest groups with architecture as their focus were already in existence). In 1931 architects were required to ‘register’ to practice as architects under the Registration Act of that year. The term ‘Architect’ became protected in 1939. See also Early Architectural Societies and the Formation of the RIBA. K,Barrington. RIBA Journal Oct 1955, pp. 497 – 499

Architectural Technologists (an additional profession within the field of architecture) were granted Chartered status in 2005 and was originally formed as a Society in 1965.

Our historic built environment (prior to the labeling of architect as an identifiable profession) was created by what might be identified as master builders or developers; Much of our Georgian architecture, was created by builders, or developers influenced by classical architectural ‘rules’ developed into pattern books of recognised good architectural form.

Much of our revered ancient vernacular architecture (other than more important religious and civic buildings and until the Renaissance) was created with a more utilitarian purpose than one driven by pure art or aesthetics. Nonetheless, and through time, it has become recognised as of immense worth to our society because of its historic value offering reference and continuity. There is, therefore, a need to recognise that in addition to the purity of good aesthetic design, there is great value in apparently simple, vernacular, forms of structures that have established, over time and by public adulation, a real emotional value to society embodied in the visible form of the structure (or artefact) in question. It is the assessment of this value, and its protection, which imposes on (you) the conservation practitioner a great responsibility to the wider public for ensuring that such value is not lost by inappropriate and improperly assessed intervention work. See BS 7913: 2013 section 0: Introduction and particularly paras 0.1 to 0.7 inclusive to assist your understanding of the various categories of 'architecture'.

It is not only the architectural edifice that has perceptible value within the historic context, but also those elements that are less obvious such as the structural frame, plan form, context or setting, landscaping, embodied history, embodied energy, original materials, patina, building development, etc. There is more to the historic environment than its visible façade!

“Invisible does not mean unimportant.”
Earl, J (2003) Building Conservation PhilisophyDonhead/College of Estate Management

It is the assessment of these less obvious elements and factors that places, on the conservation practitioner [you], a responsibility to understand and assess the holistic structure and its context for its true worth to a, perhaps, less knowledgeable society. You need to clearly understand the aesthetic and emotional value of the historical asset before you even begin to plan work of intervention. It is the maintenance of history that is the responsibility of [you] the conservation practitioner!

“for destruction can be profitable to none but such as live by it”
Hawksmoor, N. 1715.

But of course, our historic environment does not rely upon architecture alone to provide reference; other structural forms offer recognition: bridges, viaducts, canals, relics and ruins and other artefacts, together with many other forms and assets provide armatures upon which society fleshes out its recognition of history and reinforces memory.

Make a list of other heritage assets (other than those that are specifically architectural) that reflect the pattern of historic change and development and, provides your local society with reference sources redolent of its past.

You may wish to consider how recent changes have affected how society uses that historic reference and how, by appropriate intervention, that reference might be improved or reinforced. For example, contemporary road signs, traffic measures, communication paraphernalia (telegraph poles and wires), pylons etc might all be adding to visual confusion of the site. How might these be changed or improved to assist societal recognition of the historic site or asset? (See also unit 4)

In response to contemporary pressures to change or modify the historic environment to accommodate today’s requirements, there is the need to ensure that historical procession and the value that it offers to society as reference and record is maintained. Nonetheless, the historic environment must change to accommodate new uses, without such change an asset might otherwise not survive. It is the method and manner of the implementation of change, together with appropriate management of it, that is the raison d’etre behind conservation.

"without change there would be no history".
Cossons. N. Sir. English Heritage 2002

“All concerned should let the building speak to them.”
Fielden, B.

However, an importance influencer of appropriate intervention is the need to ensure that a thorough process of assessment of what is important to preserve precedes any intervention action. Part of that process of assessment must include what, in aesthetic terms, defines the importance or value of the historic asset to society. It might be the simple fact that a person, recognised by society, designed it or; that it has established value to its society because it demonstrates or is redolent of that society’s history. Such public recognition of value is subsumed in the asset by its design, detailing and use of materials together with its context and setting. Appearance, as visual reference, is a fundamental datum from which society sees the SME. Therefore, any work that threatens the public view of an asset, must be preceded by an evaluation process to establish an understanding of that value to society. This may be the importance of ‘design’ in establishing worth. Good design gains recognition and value to society simply because it looks ‘good’. The crucial requirement is to recognise, by assessment, what is important in defining worth through design or aesthetics, and modifying any proposed works of intervention to ensure that that perceived worth to society is not damaged. If change is determined as necessary, for whatever reason, we need to identify the asset’s capacity for ‘appropriate’ change.

“…give us the serenity to accept what cannot be changed; Give us the courage to change what must be changed; Give us the wisdom to distinguish one from the other.”
Reinhold Niebuhr 1892 – 1971.

“The loss of valued places diminishes us all, and the most unnecessary losses, the most indefensible, result from ignorance.”
English Heritage 2002.

Consider the effect on a 19th century railway viaduct of running a new road through its central section, resulting in the potential loss of one of its central pillar supports and the need to modify its structure by the introduction of a spanning steel beam system.

Consider that the road is essential in providing a link between a new residential community and its support hospital.
You may wish to consider the effects of the loss of a central pillar on the aesthetics and rhythm of the structure together with loss of originality.

Consider how the proposals might be modified to affect the structure minimally.

Consider how the recent Skye Bridge has affected the relationship between the Island and the Scottish mainland.


You may wish to evaluate, within the context of assessment, the need to provide for modernisation of the communications between Island and mainland. How has the impact of the bridge affected the ancient landscape relationship between Island and mainland? You may wish to consider that the bridge has added to the landscape, reflecting contemporary change and need in the same way that the London skyline has been changed by construction of the London Eye and in Enzo Piano's "Shard" in south London.

In a small village context (with Conservation Area status) consider the importance of maintaining an original Sir Giles Gilbert Scott red telephone kiosk as opposed to installing a new digital phone kiosk with pay card facility.

You may wish to consider several factors including respect for all periods of development and the need to allow communities and facilities to ‘develop’ or change.

How might such changes be viewed in, say 2020?

How much does nostalgia figure in the equation?

You may wish to consider your own examples of structures or environments that might never have been built had our current philosophical structure been used. Conservation is about looking forward as well as back. Back to the Future might be a useful working title in this respect. It is important within your evaluation process to take account of the wider issues of ‘context’ and interaction with other elements within an ensemble. And how the philosophy, principles and ethics of conservation thinking is in a constant state of flux and demonstrates a continuum of development.