The Lives and Deaths of Historic Buildings: Biographical Approaches to Recording and Interpretation | Wed Dec 18 09:30:00 | Room 828
Historic buildings have long been studied and recorded to further our understanding of past societies and social practices. Established methods of recording standing buildings seek to create objective architectural records of the type laid out by Historic England. These records belie a more personal and human storytelling of a place and its histories. This session will open up discussion of a range of alternative ways of articulating the ‘spirit’ of a building from embodied perspectives. Papers will draw on disciplinary methods ranging within and beyond archaeology and architecture, including forms of storytelling, image-making, artistic practices and creative writing.Inspired by Igor Kopytoff’s (1986) biographical approach to material culture, the session advances a ‘life-cycle’ model for thinking about historic buildings, considering their entire lifespans from conception, cycles of use, to eventual decrepitude, abandonment and death. Buildings are understood to accumulate person-like histories through interactions with human and non-human agencies over time. Interactions and modifications are aggregated from momentary engagements across human lifespans and passing centuries. Many buildings will have lived far longer lives than we have, and deserve the respect that we give them when we seek the gently whispered stories that they have to tell.
9:30 | Session organisers
9:40 | Michael Shapland, UCL
Capturing the spirit of singular places: a biographical approach to historic building recording
I spend my working life as a commercial archaeologist exploring many different types of buildings, from medieval manor houses to 20th century football stadia, as part of a development-led brief to record them for posterity. This provides the opportunity to visit places that few members of the public - other than squatters and urban explorers - will ever see. It also involves grim hours picking round cold, derelict hulks with the rain coursing down the walls. This work feeds into the undeniable research value that arises from the study of individual buildings and how they inform our understanding of past societies and social practices. Conversely, there is also the less classifiable output of our attempting to capture the ‘spirit’ of a building prior to its demolition or conversion. Whilst the former is prioritised in guidance literature and methodologies, the latter arguably comprises the majority of what we do. This paper is an attempt to reconcile these two mindsets, with what can be termed a ‘biographical’ approach to historic building recording.
10:00 | Kate Giles, University of York
Ways of telling the story of the English parish church
The concept of building biography has received critical attention from a number of recent writers and journals, with different theoretical traditions in the UK and US helpfully outlined many years ago by Gavin Lucas (2006). Lucas argued that in the UK, the explicitly stratigraphic approach to buildings archaeology and the time depth of many of the buildings recorded by archaeologists lends itself well to an approach to the life cycle of structures, whereas in the US, the idea of biography was more commonly applied to the inhabitants of buildings, and their personal biographical narratives. However, since Lucas' important article and the expansion of interest in biography across the discipline, it has become evident that the distinction between these approaches is often elided in practice, but also that traditional forms of buildings history linking the construction, alteration and restoration of buildings to key individuals continue to dominate how we tell the story of buildings, in commercial practice and within the academy.
10:20 | Matthew Johnson, Northwestern University, USA
Bodiam Castle And Landscape: A Cultural Biography
Bodiam is the most discussed castle and landscape in later medieval England, and arguably the world. However, debate has tended to take as common ground a view of Bodiam as a single-phase building, a creation of the 1380s. This common view is one reason why scholarship has been led into false oppositions of defence/status and utilitarian/symbolic.
10:40 | Ed Hollis, University of Edinburgh; Rita Alaoui, Independent Researcher
Minefields: Excavating Interiors
Buildings have long been imagined as (human) bodies: why, therefore, should they not possess biographies? The interiors they contain, however: endless rearrangements of objects, surfaces and atmospheres, evade obviously anthropomorphic lives.
11:00 | Matthew Jenkins, University of York; Charlotte Newman, The University of York
London in Pieces: Building biographies in Georgian London
In the eighteenth century, London and particularly the West End is frequently regarded as the epitome of urban improvement and the process of Georgianisation. However, scholarship on these subjects has been largely formed without reference to the detailed architectural evidence. The same concerns apply to interiors and investigations of privacy and the use of domestic space.
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11:50 | Belinda Mitchell, University of Portsmouth
Matter of the Manor:The life and death of a timber joist
Conservation practice, as in architecture, uses a particular set of representational conventions and language which pay attention to a building’s material properties. It uses dry descriptions which avoid any form of emotional engagement. This paper examines the ways in which subjective experiences, emotions and affect can be represented in historic and architectural records through the form of the artists’ book and how in particular the book acts as a means of investigating space through its materiality, gesture and performativity.
12:10 | Karen Fielder, Weald & Downland Living Museum
Afterlives and Spectral Buildings: Coleshill House
Coleshill House was an English country house, completed around 1662 and long considered to be the work of Inigo Jones until it was reattributed to Sir Roger Pratt in the 1920s. Identified as the first truly classical English country house, Coleshill was put on a pedestal by architectural historians, who characterised it as masculine, pure and disciplined and gave it a seminal position in the canon of English architectural history. In September 1952 the house was set ablaze by an errant ember from a blow torch whilst repairs were underway, and the ruined house was razed to the ground shortly after. Rather than viewing this as a moment of death, and the closing chapter of the biography of Coleshill, in this paper I will argue for an afterlife of the building. My contention is that a spectral house continues to reside at the site, and that its lingering and palpable presence shapes ongoing social and cultural engagement with it. A field of material and immaterial traces generates an afterlife that evades normative methods of empirical recording of artifactual remains. The forcefulness of the spectral building cannot be described through the mapping of material evidence alone. A case is made for what David McCormack (2010) refers to as the ‘remote sensing’ of its spectrality, ‘the sensing of something without its direct presence, without touching’ (p. 651).
12:30 | Session organisers
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