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Preserving and Protecting Listed Buildings and Art

Info: 4346 words (17 pages) Essay
Published: 8th Feb 2020 in History

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Reuse or ruin.


A listed building is a building listed under one of four statuary lists maintained by historic England. It is the preservation of a building meaning it cannot be demolished, extended or changed without permission, it is very difficult to be granted permission with strict rules about the changes that can be made and the materials that can be used. But, is simply not making changes to a building the best thing for its preservation?

Buildings are more than materials, they are architecture, design, art, culture, history, Archaeology and science. It’s important that buildings are protected but how does one protect something by doing nothing?

Buildings are an important reminder to how far people have come and what we as a species have been capable of long before today’s technology.

The physical that is left behind teaches us about the past and the way people lived. It teaches us about materials that were available, how they were used and the craftsmanship involved. We have grown from what we know and what we have learned from our ancestors, from what they left behind. There are historical buildings across the world, from ancient ruins to damaged, derelict and restored. When is it decided that damage and decay is part of the history and part of a building’s story?

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The preservation is also an important reminder to never forget, a reminder of the dreadful things we are also capable of as humans. In a lot of cases, building’s where terrible things have happened are demolished but, in some cases, even building that hold a dreadful past play an important role. These building’s need preserving to stop the same mistakes being made, the obvious one is Auschwitz.

“The camp still stands with a sign above the front gate which reads ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ Meaning ‘work will set you free’, this is a constant reminder of the worst side of humanity. Having a concrete reminder to point to of what can happen when people allow it is essential to our survival as a species.”  (Isaacs, 17)

The preservation of historic building’s is important but, there are regulations surrounding what can and can’t be done and the method of simply not making changes in order to preserve a building is leading to non-sustainable use and dereliction. Are there other ways to preserve and or document historical buildings?

Older buildings are exempt from energy regulation requirements, but at the same time without them they are not efficient for use and the restrictions of new materials that can be used makes it difficult to make these building sustainable for continued future use. It is a catch-22 situation of mutually conflicting conditions.

What changes can be made to make historical and listed buildings more sustainable while keeping a building culturally significant and could these changes in fact help in its preservation.

Should preservation be looked at in a different way? Is there more than one way to keep and document the history behind a building?

Artist inspiration

An example of an artist that uses an alternative way to keep the history of a building alive is Rachel Whiteread.

“In her breakthrough 1990 work Ghost, Rachel Whiteread created a positive from a negative, making a plaster cast of the interior “void” of a Victorian parlour measuring approximately 9 feet wide, 11 1/2 feet high, and 10 feet deep. Whiteread has said of this sculpture that she was trying to “mummify the air in the room,” hence the title. Whiteread created Ghost over a period of three months in an abandoned building at 486 Archway Road, North London, covering the interior walls with multiple plaster moulds, each about five inches thick. When the plaster dried, she peeled the moulds from the walls and reassembled them on a steel frame.” (National gallery of art, 09)

Is re-casting space a legitimate form of preservation?

“Rachel Whiteread became the first woman to receive the Turner Prize with her sculpture House (1993), a replica of the interior of a condemned London house created by filling a house with concrete and stripping away the mould. Her sculptures examine the negative space surrounding or contained by objects, such as casts of the area beneath chairs, suggesting how human contact becomes embedded in our environment. Referencing Minimalism, her drawings often incorporate graph paper. Whiteread won the prestigious commission to design Vienna’s Holocaust memorial and was part of the 1997 Young British Artists “Sensation” exhibit” (Artsy, n.d.)

Her work is controversial, the ‘sculpture house’ that preserved the negative space of a building that was being destroyed, created the argument of whether the building should have even been destroyed in the first place. The art took another controversial turn when it itself was destroyed.

Many people didn’t see the work as art but as an eyesaw, yet the sculpture house is why she won the turner prize.

There is a connection between her work and the idea of preservation. She preserves the negative of buildings and objects at the same time as also creating something new, this shows a link of how something being changed can preserve it in its own way.

This is not the first time that negative space and casting has been seen as a form of preservation.

Pompeii frozen it time

It was the result of a tragic natural disaster. The city of Pompeii was tragically submerged in volcanic material made up of ash and lapilli when the volcano Vesuvius erupted in 79AD, The Pompeiians were not aware that ‘Mount Vesuvius’ was a volcano, so the eruption could not have been foreseen and the warning signs were not enough to warn the people of the city. The city was frozen in time and preserved to the present day. “Not only were building preserved but artefacts, contents inside shops and the houses still contain furniture, ornaments, gold and silverware, work tools, kitchenware, bronze and terracotta lamps, foodstuffs of all kinds, counters for serving drinks, grain mills and grindstones, workshops for manufacturing cloth, smithies and outlets selling groceries, fruit and vegetables. There is a remarkable record of Roman painting, of which, without the finds made in Pompeii, virtually nothing would be known.

The architecture and development of the various types of houses is also amply documented. Thus the excavated city provides outstanding historical evidence of Roman civilization: these reminders of the past, which are so vivid and tangible in the remains brought to light, contribute to the fascination of the present.” (Pompei Ruins, n.d.)

But that wasn’t the only find, tragically the Pompeiians died where they fell, the decomposition of the bodies within the hardened ash created pockets perfectly casting the shape of not just the people but their clothes and facial features. Plaster has been poured into these pockets creating detailed sculptures, encased inside these sculptures are the skeletal remains of the people of Pompeii.

“Astonishing images have been released showing the skeletal and dental remains of the Pompeii victims of the 79AD Mount Vesuvius eruption which encased their bodies in volcanic ash nearly 2,000 years ago. Scientists used a multi-layer CAT scanner to peer inside the body casts of the victims, revealing details about their health and lifestyles.” (Osborne, 15)

Modern technology is used in many historical, architectural and archaeological finds. Scans and thousands of photographs pieced together have helped virtually rebuild ancient ruins, to better visualise and understand the structures and how they would have been built and used.

Digital Masons

Technology has revolutionised the world we live in, it puts information at people’s fingertips, it is an essential part of one’s everyday life.

One can store information in a much more condensed way, where information was in books filling row upon row of shelves it can now be stored digitally and accessed from even something as small as a mobile phone. Libraries are fast becoming obsolete, many have closed and the ones still open are replacing rows of books with rows of computers, they have become more of a quiet place to go to learn rather than a source to gain information as it can be gained from the devise in their pocket while anywhere in the world.

It has already been depicted in a film, of a world where books no longer exist but technology has been lost ‘The book of Eli’ tells a story of a post-apocalyptic world where a man travels to deliver a book, the bible, thought to be the last book in existence it is taken from him but to the thieves dismay the book is in braille and they cannot read it as it has become a lost language. Eli continues his journey wounded and dying to deliver the book which isn’t physically in his possession but on his death bed he recites the entire book from memory enabling it to be re-written and printed.

Technology has made the world a smaller place allowing communication to the other side of the world at the press of a button. It is advancing at a phenomenal pace and becoming more and more available with even third world society’s having mobile phones.

What is being seen now is the rise of technology making the world even smaller. With virtual reality one can put themselves in a different place without leaving the comfort of a classroom.

Archaeologist Simon Young has created the company Lithodomos VR. “Young would like to show people what Rome looked like nearly 2,000 years ago by fitting them with virtual reality headsets. His company, Lithodomos VR, creates immersive virtual recreations of iconic ruins. The recreations can be used on site with a smartphone headset, or from home or school using a commercial VR system”. (Matchar, 17)

“The company describes its self as the digital masons of today.” (lithodomos, n.d.)

“Rome’s Temple of Venus and Rome lies split in half, most of its columns gone, ravaged by centuries of fire, earthquakes and pillaging. But put on a virtual reality headset and the temple before you are whole again.” (Osborne, 15)

Could technology and virtual reality be a feasible way to document historical buildings?

Why have ancient ruins never been rebuilt? Is it because it isn’t necessary?

The history of the damage and repairs.

Ruins are exactly that, untouched and unchanged, thousands of people all over the world travel to visit ruins, for education and for entertainment, so why have they never been rebuilt? What would they be called if they were to be rebuilt? Ruins? Restored? Replica? Would they still hold the same historical and cultural value if what one is seeing is not all from the time of Ancient Greece but only partially from the original era?

In which case why is anything restored? Should all historical buildings be left to their own fate?

What if exact restoration wasn’t to take place what if instead modern materials were used to replace damage. Is it any different to replace it exactly, in the modern day even using the same materials and craftsmanship, than to replace with something completely different? What has been replaced and restored is still ‘new’ it is no longer part of the original history, so does it matter if something completely new is put in its place? Would this add to the building’s history or the future history of the building, could modern day architecture be added where in the future people can look back and date each part of what is original and what has been repaired, could this maybe add to the future historical value by not only documenting the original but also documenting the decay, damage and repairs. There are some examples where this has been done, preserving the original exactly as it is and building the new in glass showing clear definition between the two. This give new purpose to a building previously just ruins and unusable as anything, likely to continue to decay, disappear and be forgotten. The new glass structure and modern materials used to rebuild the missing parts of the building opens a door to be able to add energy efficient materials and resources giving the building sustainability for continued use that it wouldn’t have had if the entire building was still originally intact and untouched.

Could this kind of modern restoration be the answer to adding new energy efficiency to a historic building?

Balance between preservation and change.

There needs to be more exploration into the possibilities of sustainable reuse and repurpose of listed buildings by looking at ways of adding energy efficient measures that could be applied in a way which is sensitive to the listed building, to see more changes being approved and that see an increase in more sustainable reuse of historic buildings.

What are the efforts being made to reduce greenhouse gases? what energy efficient methods are being applied to modern architecture? This needs to be looked at and compared to what can be done within the regulations of a listed building to show how controversial some changes may be and explore a balance between preservation and change.

“For historic buildings and those of traditional construction you need to strike an appropriate balance between building conservation and energy conservation if lasting damage is to be avoided, both to the building’s significance and its fabric” (research gate, 19).

“There is a growing number of national and European research projects aimed at developing holistic decision-making frameworks that will help professionals decide on the most appropriate retrofit solution.

 These projects acknowledge the critical need to integrate heritage values into environmental sustainability projects, a need that has been widely acknowledged in recent literature.

However, despite a general recognition of this need, not much has been achieved by actually fully understanding and integrating heritage values into decision-making frameworks for energy-efficiency projects.

Should heritage values have an equal position with energy priorities. ‘what energy interventions will zero-carbon a heritage building? what does this building mean for those who “use” it?’ and ‘what interventions (if any) can be implemented that could co-exist harmoniously with those meanings?’

the second question might jeopardise the decarbonisation agendas or that a ‘do nothing’ approach could be adopted. The latter is mostly the case with listed buildings of the highest grade protected by law wherein heritage preservation may conflict occasionally with users’ needs for thermal comfort and reduced energy bills. This tension between heritage preservation and the need for thermal comfort is probably a bigger challenge than finding retrofit solutions that respect the aesthetic and historic significance of a building.” (Cassar, 2014)

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“In the UK, 20% of houses were built before 1919 and are protected from energy efficiency requirements that would unacceptably alter their character. To meet carbon emission reduction targets, however, it is necessary to keep the number of buildings exempt from energy efficiency improvements to a minimum. The need to preserve the aesthetic and structural qualities of historic buildings makes energy retrofit complicated and costly but these arguments should not be used to resist change.” (painter, 2017)

Can history be rebuilt and should it?

A recent tragedy to strike on a historical building, of not only architectural importance but of cultural and religious importance is The Notre-dame de Paris cathedral. A fire, believed to be accidental and caused by an electrical fault from builders equipment from current building works broke out on the 15th April 2019 and caused shock across the world, “The 850-year-old Gothic building’s spire and roof have collapsed but the main structure, including the two bell towers, has been saved, officials say.” (bbc news, 2019)

This is not the first tragedy to take place on this historical religious building, the first being during the French revolution. “In the 1790s, angry mobs and revolutionaries looted the medieval Gothic church and even declared that it wasn’t a church at all during a bloody push to remove France’s close ties to the Catholic church. More than two dozen statues affixed to the church facade were publicly decapitated the same year as Marie Antoinette.

Before a furious crowd stormed the Bastille in Paris in 1789, the Church wielded extraordinary power in France.

In the mid-19th century, it was restored to its former glory.” (blakemore, 2019)

Today this historic piece of architecture has once again seen destruction when a fire broke out destroying much of the building and completely collapsing the spire.

There is public debate about what should be done to repair the damages, with millions being raised across the world to fund the repairs and restoration people are questioning whether the money would be of better used to fix current world crisis rather than to repair history.

“Ordinary people and billionaires have pledged at least €750m (£650m; $835m) in the 10 days after the main spire and roof of the building collapsed in a huge fire on 15th April.

One early estimate by French construction economists suggests that the donations may far surpass the cost of repairs.

Amid the wave of goodwill and generosity, critics have argued that the money could have been better spent elsewhere” (bbc news, 2019)

With current world crises across the globe such as pollution, malnourishment, lack of education all in desperate need of publicity and funding why were people so moved by this tragedy of a building to be so generous, with many critics stating ‘its just a building, nobody died’.

This could also bring back the question of whether an alternative restoration could take place, preserving the building that survived, but using a modern, less costly and more efficient solution to repair what is missing. Enclosing the missing parts of the building with glass, for instance could show a clear definition between old and new but still preserve the damage itself as a future historical event of the building. With yet another huge restoration needing to take place it could be questioned how many times can historic architecture be ‘patched up’ or even can it be? The craftmanship used in the century and even the centuries that followed, where building continued, has long since been lost as an artform. Can these skills be learned by the craftsmen of today or can modern technology replace these skills?

Experts discussing the task of future reconstruction and problems likely to be faced have discussed both factors of original craftsmanship skills and new modern technology as ways to rebuild the cathedral.

“It’s of course technically feasible, but you won’t have the same fabrics, the same craftsmanship. You won’t have the continuity. A lot of what heritage objects and buildings allow us to do is connect with the past. We’ll lose the fabric and the continuity will be broken.” (Otero-Pailos, 2019)

“Master stone masons are few and far between. Luckily, some recent efforts to reconstruct cathedrals have preserved a core group of skilled experts. (sisson, 2019)

“Modern technology can play an important role. Today’s preservationists benefit from high-tech solutions like laser scanning to provide a digital record that helps preservationists maintain fidelity to the original designs. In 2010 the late Vassar professor Andrew Tallon took laser scans of the cathedral’s interior, providing a high-tech blueprint for those now looking to recreate Notre Dame.” (sisson, 2019)


One is left with many questions.

What does the future hold for listed and historic building’s? With the phenomenally fast paced rise in technology could or should historical architecture be documented differently?

Should buildings be left to their own fate? Is there alternative’s to preserving something other than simply just trying to keep it exact and original. Are we covering up huge historical events through restoration, hiding the true past of the buildings, the decay, tragedy and destruction? Are these events not part of the history and story of a building, it’s scars?. Should money be spent on history when the world has current crisis’s needing attention and funds?

Old unsustainable buildings could be demolished for new, historical architecture could be recorded digitally and seen through virtual reality, is this not what we have done with books?

Or what if the future truly holds something darker, like depicted in ‘the book of Eli’, how much can we rely on technology, we back up our computers because they can and do break. We live in a world where all new information and knowledge is digitally stored. What are we as a generation leaving behind for the future?


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