Contemporary Architecture in Historic Urban Environments

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A critical issue facing decision makers and conservation professionals is accommodating change to heritage places and adding new layers to the historic urban environment in ways that recognize, interpret, and sustain their heritage values. Over the last decade, a vigorous debate has ensued regarding the appropriateness of contemporary architectural insertions into historic urban areas. This debate has polarized sectors of the architectural community, pitting conservationists against planners and developers. It has positioned conservationists as antidevelopment and antiprogress, responsible for stifling the creativity of a new generation of architects and their right to contemporary architectural expression.

Change, however, is inevitable. Buildings, streetscapes, and urban areas evolve and change according to the needs of their inhabitants. Therefore, it is important to determine the role of contemporary architecture in contributing to this change in ways that conserve and celebrate the special character and quality of the historic environment that communities have recognized as important and wish to conserve for future generations.

Historic areas typically exhibit a range of heritage values, such as social, historical, and architectural. Frequently, they also have aesthetic significance; therefore, the design quality of new insertions in a historic area is important. One of the challenges in this debate on the role of contemporary architecture in historic contexts is that design quality can be seen as subjective. Assessing the impact of new development in a historic context has also been accused of being subjective. However, increasing development pressure has pushed governments and the conservation community to provide more objective guidance to secure what is termed “the three Cs,” namely:

  • certainty in the planning system about what constitutes appropriate development;
  • consistency in government decision making; and
  • communication and consultation between government decision makers and the development sector on creating successful outcomes.

Design professionals differentiate between taste and design quality. Taste is subjective, while quality is measurable. Prescriptive planning tools such as height restrictions, envelope limitations, and requirements to use certain materials all attempt to provide qualitative design measures. In many places, it is only when a historic building or area is involved that issues of design quality and character are included in the planning process through development or impact assessment. Clearly there is a need to provide guidance or establish well-understood standards to assess new development occurring within treasured streetscapes, neighborhoods, or historic landscapes, in order to meet the three Cs. Given that the debate is now occurring at a global scale, such standards need to achieve some level of consensus at an international level.


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The recent phenomenon of celebrity architecture—those landmark buildings described by Charles Jencks as “enigmatic signifiers”—has elevated the new architectural monument to the status of a great artwork and signals the emergence of those who have come to be known as starchitects.¹ City leaders, anxious to secure global status for their city in an increasingly competitive world, have turned to these international celebrity architects to create new iconic landmarks to put their city on the map. For example, Frank Gehry’s brief for the Guggenheim Museum (1993–97) was “to do for Bilbao what the Sydney Opera House did for Sydney.”²

Jencks, in his 2005 book The Iconic Building, contrasts the traditional monument with the celebrity building—which is driven by commercial needs and whose role it is to stimulate interest and investment in cities through its attention-grabbing, provocative design. “In the past,” he writes, “important public buildings, such as the cathedral and the city hall, expressed shared meaning and conveyed it through well-known conventions.”³ Such important public monuments may be museums, as is the case with the Guggenheim in Bilbao, but since the mid-1990s, the monumental approach has been extended to a wider range of private buildings, such as department stores, apartment buildings, and even additions to family homes. The acceptability or fashion for attention-grabbing buildings means that difference is applauded and is celebrated over contextualized design—the approach the preservation community generally advocates. Some of these buildings may be fabulous, but how many monuments does the urban environment need? What will it be like in the future when the buildings are all unrelated, each vying for attention and without the traditional hierarchy of monumentality that enables a reading of the urban landscape as it relates to function? Where does the iconic building fit within the already existing iconic urban fabric of the historic city?

Herein lies the conflict. Starchitecture clamors for attention to consciously create an identity for the aspiring global city. In the case of the historic city, such as those included on the World Heritage List, the city has already been recognized more often than not for its architectural, aesthetic, and historic character. Preservationists would argue that the historic city is already iconic, so new development that seeks to stand apart from it is likely to receive criticism from communities, many of which have worked hard to protect the historic area. Sometimes it is the homogeneity or unity of the architecture that is important; sometimes it is the combination of historic layers and parts that contributes to significance. Perhaps ironically, inevitably it is its local distinctiveness that is being celebrated through the international recognition World Heritage listing brings.

In the early 2000s, a number of World Heritage sites were nominated to the List of World Heritage in Danger, due to proposed, highly contemporary development deemed inappropriate because it potentially threatened the outstanding universal values of the nominated sites. The call by the World Heritage Committee (WHC) for action to address this issue resulted in a 2005 conference in Vienna entitled “World Heritage and Contemporary Architecture—Managing the Historic Urban Landscape.” The outcome of this meeting was the Vienna Memorandum,4 which proposes an integrated approach to the contemporary development of existing cities in a way that does not compromise their heritage significance. Since that time, the WHC has worked with its advisory bodies to address a number of related issues pertaining to the conservation and management of the historic urban landscape.5 Simultaneously, many local governments and heritage institutions have worked to develop guidance to gain a shared understanding of what constitutes appropriate development in the historic environment between owners, developers, and decision making bodies.6


There are varying views on what constitutes appropriate new development within a historic context. Some argue that new insertions to the fabric of the historic urban environment should be in the style of the old. Historically, traditional settlements and cities like Ait Ben Haddou in Morocco or Zanzibar’s stone town have demonstrated a continuum of building traditions that exemplifies this approach. In the pre-modern era, redevelopment in commercial city centers, such as London’s Regent Street, followed a Beaux Arts approach, with grand town planning and architectural gestures. With the advent of Modernism, large-scale reconstruction, which architecturally broke with traditional architectural and planning forms, changed the face of many cities in the twentieth century. In recent times, in reaction to modern interventions, some architects have chosen to continue to design buildings in a more historical style while nevertheless utilizing modern materials and technologies. Others abhor historicism and argue that each generation should represent its own time. New layers should represent the ideas, technology, materials, and architectural language of each generation. Pastiche is a dirty word.

The historic environment can, in fact, accommodate a rich variety of interpretations and expressions. A vernacular or traditional response may be as valid as a more contemporary response. It is the quality of the relationship between old and new that is critical, not the architectural language per se. Issues such as scale, form, siting, materials, color, and detailing are important to consider when assessing the impact of a new development within a cherished historic town, city, or site. These criteria are examples of those typically considered when assessing the impact of new development in a historic context.7

Most successful new buildings designed in a valued historic context inevitably rely on an understanding of, and then response to, the special character and qualities of the context. As with any conservation work, understanding significance of the place is crucial. Also in common with most conservation work is that it is case specific. A city center with an architecturally unified city core may need a different approach than one that has a variety of architectural forms, scales, and expressions. In an urban settlement that continues to sustain traditional craft and building techniques and materials, it may be extremely important to promote the continuation of these practices.

An important starting point is the premise that the place has been identified by present and past generations to be important enough to warrant protection and be subject to the prevailing laws, regulations, and policies to secure its conservation and to manage change in such a way that its significance is conserved. The responsibility of designers is to ensure that their work contributes to and enriches rather than diminishes the built environment. Conservation principles can often lead to heightened levels of creativity. Many architects, initially frustrated by the seeming interference of the conservation practitioner, in the end will agree that the outcome has been enhanced through a rigorous, well-articulated process.

Conservation is a balance between preserving the special character, quality, and significance of the historic place and facilitating change in a way that sustains it into the future. Inevitably every decision and subsequent action is of its own time. The role of the conservation practitioner is to ensure that today’s decisions do not do irreparable damage. Successful designers recognize that working within the historic context is not a constraint but an opportunity— where the whole can be greater than the sum of the parts, and where a contemporary building can add a rich new layer and play a role in creating the heritage of the future.


1. Charles Jencks, The Iconic Building (New York: Rizzoli, 2005).
2. Jencks, Iconic Building, 12.
3. Jencks, Iconic Building, 7.
4. UNESCO World Heritage Centre, Vienna Memorandum on World Heritage and Contemporary Architecture— Managing the Historic Landscape (Vienna: UNESCO World Heritage Centre, 2005). 5. The World Heritage Center’s Historic Cities Program is engaged in developing a recommendation on the Historic Urban Landscape, including investigating the impact of contemporary architectural additions on historic urban environments. See
6. Examples include the United Kingdom’s Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (CABE) and English Heritage, Building in Context: New Development in Historic Areas (2001), available online at See also NSW Heritage Office and Royal Australian Institute of Architects (NSW Chapter), Design in Context: Guidelines for Infill Development in the Historic Environment (Sydney: NSW Heritage Office and RAIA NSW, 2005), available online at
7. See, for example, NSW Heritage Office and Royal Australian Institute of Architects, Design in Context, which includes these as criteria.

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