Conserving the Unconservable

by Don Friedman on January 18, 2017

Attributed to InSapphoWeTrust.


A great description of conservation work at the Watts Towers: here. I don’t use the word “unconservable” lightly, but the Watts Towers, in their original form, probably are. The fact that the conservators are creating soft joints in the structure, and thereby changing the way the skeletal structures work, is in my opinion proof that they agree. Without denigrating the art of the towers, it is possible to say that they weren’t built with long-term aging of the materials in mind.

Sometimes the only way to conserve something is to alter it. This is true in art, where conservation sometimes involves minor repainting of details too faded or flaked to be restored. And it’s true in buildings, where the original details don’t work – and sometimes never worked – and so have to be altered. The goal of saving all building materials and systems in their original forms is an admirable one, but not realistic. To use the Watts Towers as an example, I’ll take saving the appearance and the function over purity of the original materials. The appearance is what makes the monument what it is, why it contributes to the landscape. And the function – the stability of those slender skeletal structures – is part of the appearance and use.

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