SEEING HISTORY IN THE VIEW 01/01/08
Seeing the History in the View: A method for assessing heritage significance within views
Richard Coleman’s comments on the April 2008 draft
This study is a welcome contribution to the often complex task of assessing the impact and effect of development change on significant views, with particular reference to their heritage content. Since the introduction of Environmental Statements, and in particular their application to urban change, townscape assessors have developed different methodologies for making thorough assessments. Cross fertilization of methodology has improved later versions as the interventions have become ever more influential in both the urban and rural scene. The aim is always to produce a manageable single document which is both readable and one that will be read by those with a major role in decision making.
English Heritage’s draft guidance focuses attention on the important aspect of heritage assets, their history, their collective meaning, the way they contribute to the quality of views and the way history can be read within them. This is a welcome emphasis which can be exercised in a number of different ways. The key to a truly useful assessment is the way it is made relevant and accessible, depending upon the particular circumstances of the intended intervention. To that extent the guidance appears to be over prescriptive and standardised, aiming to cover every possibility when it could, more usefully, be a performance specification which could then be applied to particular interventions. If followed strictly any document arising is likely to be unwieldy, highly repetitive and very time consuming for the recipient to understand. This has up to now been the problem with following ES procedure and guidance, and the resultant written and illustrative work is often found to be indigestible.
While it is also a welcome concept that local authority officers might provide the baseline documentation it is not thought practical for them to be expected to do this project by project. Officers are not supported sufficiently well by their councils to affect their present responsibilities and it is unlikely that this will improve in the short run. It may be practical, however, as part of the existing and developing policies on local views, for officers to provide heritage assessments of their chosen views, including the baseline histories, as standing documents much like conservation area character statements. This can then be used as a resource for prospective applicants to use as necessary.
In urban situations most significant development proposals which will make an impact in views of acknowledged importance, require a substantial number of views to be analysed. It is not unusual for up to 80 or 90 such views. Often, up to 8 or 9 of these views will be views with largely the same heritage assets visible. In such cases to repeat all of the baseline requirements for each view, as described in the guidance document and worked through in the Tower of London example, would mean unacceptable repetitiveness and unwelcome bulking up of the document. The way this is achieved in current practice is to locate and describe those important heritage assets which are known to be affected by the intervention in an early part of the assessment document and to cross reference them with the views. They are usually listed and described, with a comment on how they are affected, in priority order, based on a map for the study area and categorised into groups of: listed buildings; conservation areas; scheduled ancient monuments and; World Heritage Sites. This method avoids repetitiveness and enables the reader to more readily find reference to a particular asset and in which views it is featured.
The authors of the guidance are recommended to review assessment documents already produced for some of the major schemes in London and other major cities and to apply their critical minds to how these can be improved rather than inventing a new and unmanageable methodology.
In terms of the assessments the quantitative work is straight forward. The qualitative judgements, however, are more subjective and in order for them to be objectified, and therefore more useful to decision makers, need very particular professional skills. These are as yet undeveloped skills which reside in the realms of design criticism and design review, for which there is as yet no formal training. It is a skill which requires the practitioner to set aside personal preferences yet recognise the general experiential capacity of the human being. Places are experienced in movement and memory at all times of day and night. These are not just visual experiences but affect all five of the acknowledged senses as well as the sense of balance and belonging. It is not possible to tabulate these kinds of phenomena and tick the appropriate boxes. It is possible for the sensitized practitioner to draw out in text, particular aspects of this realm when appropriate to a relevant view experience.
The tabulation of both quantitative and qualitative assessments can be greatly misleading, particularly if used as a statistic. At best it identifies the most critical views by which a project will be judged in the final analysis. These critical views reveal themselves, however, fairly soon in the pre-application consultation period. Statistics alone won’t reveal them. The criteria for determining the magnitude and value of individual and cumulative interventions is at best very basic. Whether a particular intervention is adverse or beneficial depends on a particular standpoint and is different for the outright conservationist compared to the project development enthusiast. It is also often difficult when dealing with low or medium levels of impact to decide whether that impact is adverse or beneficial. There is a need to introduce a category ‘neutral’ in these cases.
The method used in the draft guidance for tabulating criteria for: importance of the view, magnitude of the impact and quality of the impact, appears to be derived from advice given by the Landscape Institute. This was originally intended more for major landscape interventions which could be described as 'necessary evils' rather than architectural projects which form part of the natural continuum of urban renewal. Change of this kind is inevitable and when conceived well is welcomed. The rather unsophisticated set of choices given to the assessor are quite inadequate for complex urban situations which can only be meaningful, drawing out all aspects of sense perceptible factors, by the use of descriptive text. Statistics resulting from tabulations can too easily be manipulated by adding any number of views which either repeat or show that the intervention can't be seen.
To achieve consistency, transparency and objectivity in verifying and assessing interventions which affect historic views is indeed an admirable aim. The preferred method should be, however, to build on the work in the field which represents good practice and build on it rather than creating panache to ‘fit’ all situations which in fact honors none.