Updated: Dec 28, 2018
Recently Touring the Past and family spent a few days on the New South Wales South Coast. Our base was Terragong House at Jamberoo – an elegant Georgian (1858) home and a wonderful example of contextually informed contemporary design and adaptive-reuse (from vacant domicile to fantastic B&B). We also took in the hustle and bustle of local ‘historic’ townships like Berry and Kiama, investigated Meroogal (an under-appreciated 1880s house museum in Sydney Living Museum’s collection) and just generally steeped ourselves in the undulating landscape of the South Coast. While sitting in traffic on the return journey I reflected on the region’s historic environment and the various levels of success of its conservation efforts. I decided that what was most prominent in what I had seen was the uneven treatment given to signs of the patina of age.
What follows is more a brief musing on patina rather than any profound discourse on the subject (for that, see recommended reading below). Yet it is pertinent for those on the cusp of embarking on a heritage project as it highlights a facet of conservation that does not always attract the level of attention it warrants, particularly by heritage practitioners.
People have a different perception of 'old' built environments
In built heritage circles, ‘patina’ is understood as the visible effect left by the passage of time on the surface of elements. Think traces of imperfection and decay like moss stained masonry, peeling paint, weathered timber and tarnished metal – what Ruskin eloquently referred to as the ‘golden stain of time’ (1849). In the absence of interpretation and/or knowledge, the patina of age is for many laypeople the key marker of difference between the ‘old’ and the ‘new’. Studies suggest that it is the look and tactile nature of the ageing process which the mass of people who interact with historic environments value. It’s a core marker of difference between the old and the new. This runs counter to the gaze of the ‘expert’ and regulatory bodies, which is often focused on the intangibles of design excellence, architectural pedigree, cultural significance and economic/ecological sustainability.
Simply put, age ‘speaks’ to people. It is popularly understood to underpin ‘authenticity’, the nebulous quality of being genuine or original, and influences the way in which many of us come to form physical and emotional attachments to place. Experiencing aged elements can engender the psychological phenomena of what Wells (2016) terms ‘spontaneous fantasy’; the conjuring of unprovoked vignettes from the past. The absence of patina can cause a place to be viewed as inauthentic which can have serious repercussions for how it is valued and experienced by the public. Expert and layperson alike need to appreciate that the presence of patina and, by implication age, is a central way by which a multitude of people recognise and value heritage and Australia’s past.
Which brings us back to the South Coast, although my observations are applicable to all historic environment. While the building work of recent years in the historic towns often demonstrates a laudable degree of respect for heritage places, particularly in regard to scale, siting and character, numerous cases abound where all signs of patina have been erased. It has been lost perhaps in the maelstrom of decisions required to inform and manage change at heritage places or through the easily fathomable desire of owner-developers, architects and builders to repair and rejuvenate. An aesthetic emerges in which signs of antiquity have been removed, replaced, papered or plastered over. The result can be predictably disconcerting: giving priority to a look that is too neat, too sanitary, perhaps even faux.
Patina should be considered
The throaty vocals of Paul Kelly – ‘From little things big things grow’ – resonated with these thoughts on the journey back to Sydney. In the grand scheme of heritage projects, hitting the right notes on conserving manifestations of patina at a site might, in isolation, only be a small thing. Yet flowing from its powerful ability to be read by and related to by everyday people as an indicator of age and importance, patina can play a larger than realised role in supporting the realisation of good, stimulating design in historic contexts.
Most heritage projects will have to face the issue of balancing the changes required for contemporary use with the value of preserving patina. And while response should be made on a case by case basis, Touring the Past would stress that a respect for surfaces encrusted with a patina take on a greater profile. The refashioning or insertion of elements, even if sympathetic, should be pondered and alternatives studied. Further, our perspectives need to be cast further afield and questions asked about how new material will age over time and relate aesthetically to existing patina.
Of course it gets complex. When does patina cross the line into decay? What if it presents a safety hazard? Is there any role for the deployment of artificial patina? Unlike the process of patination, such deliberations will not often occur naturally. Sound judgement, infused with a contemporary understanding of heritage practice, the practicalities of conservation and a desire to take your projects beyond a focus on simply meeting the bare statutory minimum is essential.