Friday, 6 July 2018

Thinking, Doing and Teaching ‘Conservation’: on-site knowledge sharing


Based on many years of on-site experience, in this blog, I would like to discuss interactions between skilled workers and conservation architect in field based projects such as restoration or reconstruction.
I am always delighted to interact with skilled labour force working at restoration sites. Whether traditional masons, stone workers, carpenters, floor layers or more regular service providers like electricians or plumbers, there is always much to learn from them at every site and project. Usually as conservation expert I decide the larger restoration strategy in consultation with the client and / or structural engineer. However in the actual execution and detailing, the knowledge of craftspeople and skilled labour force comes into the picture.
For example, while attempting to reconstruct a decorative urn and balusters at a site in Mysore, the craftsperson suggested making a form work in wood to get the detail right. He then proceeded to make a full scale drawing of the six feet urn on the terrace, right there. (See image below) I can share countless such instances but the point I wish to raise is such exchanges are knowledge that is worth sharing and must be shared.


One way would be to rethink how architects develop working drawings i.e. drawings that are meant to guide different scales and types of execution on-site. In fact I now believe that we can develop templates for working drawings by keenly observing the work flow and thought process of such skilled labour. 
At our sites we are always open to interacting and learning from experienced and skilled labour, whether it is preparation of materials like lime or carving out a detail in lime / wood or even how to lay an exposed conduit. For example, a lime plasterer I worked with would assess when traditional mortars were good enough for application by feeling the coarseness and stiffness of the mortar with his fingers. His eye / hand would similarly tell him at what stage and how much organic admixture is to be added to the lime mortar as required for that stage of works. Another mason would similarly assess the quality of soil for mud construction (adobe).  Based on their years of experience some of them even developed their own tools to help them restore or reconstruct different features of historic buildings. I have often observed traditional carpenters who, having worked with wood for years, bring their rich understanding of the material, to develop their own joinery details. These details are not to be found in any standard text book or manual. At one site we got miniature samples of such details made which we now use as a teaching resource in our classes on heritage for both children and adults. See image below.


However engaging a trained team is important because after years of working on heritage buildings they are sensitive to the needs of such structures. When I get into a discussion with such a team on what detailing might have originally been adopted, whether we can recreate it, it is almost like a story coming alive as the mason or carpenter starts thinking about how those original craftspeople might have executed it. In the process they provide alternatives on how to restore some interesting yet hard to recreate features.
Interacting with such skilled individuals thus enriches our understanding of historic materials cum techniques and appreciation of their efforts – sitting or squatting awkwardly on scaffolding for hours at a time only to get a detail right is not easy. It deserves great respect. Every member on a restoration site thus has an important role to play in contributing to the building or site's significance.