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PARADOXES OF HERITAGE AWARD

Aurélien Catros, September 22 2020

Evolution of award titles related to heritage issues in Quebec (2009-2019)

What should we think of awards of excellence for heritage transformations, particularly in the Quebec context?  According to the recurrence of this type of distinction in the contemporary landscape of architectural awards, heritage would be one of the canonical categories of architectural excellence. Despite their number, the impressive variability in the nature of the buildings awarded these awards seems to be equalled only by their titles. In Canada, the categories judged range from preservation to heritage conservation, to restoration, extension or renovation as one might legitimately expect. On the other hand, it is curious to see notions that seem as far removed from heritage as recycling, sustainable development, or innovation rewarding intervention on the existing. Contrary to what we will call “programmatic” awards that reward buildings with specific functions, these “heritage” awards can be granted to any type of architectural intervention, as long as it concerns a built site, whether or not it has a historical value.

This terminological vagueness could evoke the famous lecture given by the language philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein in 1932 at the University of Cambridge (1) where, in desperation to define the term “game” according to the entirety of the productions it covers, he came to the conclusion that this concept refers less to a common essence than to family likenesses. In fact, if all the artefacts likely to correspond to this family name have fundamentally no common characteristics, they are very similar from one generation to the next: A resembles B, which admits another characteristic in common with C, and so on.  In other words, the multiple productions of the discipline that we do not hesitate to call “heritage” have relationships that are sometimes as distorted as the very definition of the word and the different values to which it refers.

Well known to historians, restorers and architects, these values were described for the first time in 1903 by Alois Reigl in a report commissioned by the Central Commission for Historic Monuments in Austria: the now famous Modern Cult of Monuments (2). In this text, Riegl distinguishes between two categories of value attributed to historical monuments and to heritage in general: the ” commemorative values” (Erinnerungszerte) and the “present values” (Gegenwartswerte). For Riegl, these values do not compete with each other and regularly overlap. His decomposition was based on a pragmatic and political objective in that it was primarily intended to provide a basis for legislation and then recommendations for restoration.

However, this distinction seems to be at the origin of the multiplication of titles among the organizations that proposed to distribute award and thus to categorize the awarded projects. For example, in 2009, the Ordre des Architectes du Québec already dissociated reconversion, embodied by so-called “recycling” awards that essentially rewarded the consideration of contemporary utilitarian value, from conservation and restoration, which referred instead to the values of memory – the age-value and historical value.

Although this binary perception of the disciplines of restoration seemed adequate for the organization until 2015, the titles of its mentions seem to be in perpetual questioning. As of 2013, the term “recycling” will take a back seat to designate interventions of high contemporary utilitarian value, but will be coupled with a sustainable development mention, which rewards the same type of building, more or less.

The 2017 edition sees a major upheaval within these categories and this division disappears in favour of the very neutral Mise en valeur du Patrimoine, awarded that year to the renovation of the Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier by Atelier TAG + Jodoin Lamarre Pratte architects in consortium. The OAQ Grand Prix will be awarded to the Maison de la littérature de Québec, a project by the Chevalier Morales agency whose heritage quality is now attested. Although the project was praised by the Order for its consideration of religious heritage – even more so than for the qualities of its plan in relation to its program – the project was nevertheless awarded in the cultural building category. At the same time, the sustainable development mention, which has been recurring since 2013, was changed to a green building mention for this edition, rewarding in particular a project to recycle industrial buildings without demolition.

In 2020, the OAQ will retain the category of Heritage Development but will divide it into two subgroups which refer to the binary distinction that has disappeared over the past five years: “conservation/restoration” and “conversion/expansion”. By combining these terms under the same category, the OAQ acknowledges the need to combine commemorative and present values. While they always distinguish between dissimilar project practices, they all qualify as “heritage”. In doing so, they are thus closer to the categorization proposed by Opération Patrimoine Montréal (formerly known as the Opération Patrimoine Architectural), which does not reward works by categorizing them, but rewards practices as shown by the action verbs in the award titles: “take care”, “bring back to life”, “know-how”, “make known” and “act together”(3).

The fluctuation of heritage mentions in the awards we observe in the case of the Ordre des Architectes du Québec awards is only an indication of a broader disciplinary problem: that of the definition of heritage and its scope within the architectural disciplinary field. If conservation and restoration practices – even extension or recycling – are as old as the discipline itself, it is natural that vectors of standards representing the profession identify them and reward contemporary productions that they deem exemplary. Nevertheless, it appears that some of these productions have absolutely nothing in common, like the so-called “game” elements observed by Wittgenstein. Consequently, by forcing their inscription within the same taxon, these awards contribute to obscure an already protean definition of heritage much more than to shed light on it as they might suggest at first glance.

  • (1) Marjorie Perloff, Wittgenstein’s ladder: poetic language and the strangeness of the ordinary (Chicago (Ill.) ; University of Chicago Press, 1996). p. 60
  • (2) Alois Riegl, The Modern Cult of Monuments: Its Character and Its Origin. (Cambridge (Mass.): MIT Press, 1982).
  • (3) https://ville.montreal.qc.ca/operationpatrimoine/laureats/2019

Aurélien Catros

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