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The Right to Over-write: The weirdly transformative act of delisting urban artefacts
A conversation with Sonia Syed on the student project “Write-Over-Write-Over-Write”, developed at the Architectural Association School of Architecture.

At a time when urbanisation is at an all-time peak in terms of speed and scale, the call for conservation has taken many hues: the UNESCO, for example, recognises 676 objects of intangible heritage across 140 countries. Recalling the adage that all things must pass, architectural graduate Sonia Syed has been exploring the act of ‘writing over’ history, through the specific process of delisting buildings originally designated as holding heritage significance.

KOOZ In your own words, Write-Over-Write-Over-Write “attempts to understand the urban transformation of London as registrations of temporality, through the lens of the listing codes, and specifically, the de-listing process.” What prompted this project?

SONIA SYED Acknowledging certain aspects of London’s urban transformation as registrations of temporality allows us to add value to the unbuilt, the undocumented buildings as well as the undefined. For example, there were a series of industrial buildings that were grade 2 listed in the 1940s; these were suddenly de-listed in the 1960s and demolished soon after, within weeks. This was done without proper archiving or documentation. The argument for their delisting was due to street-widening schemes, even though many of these sites remained empty for over 10 years to follow. These buildings were built in the 1800s, which meant that they were 100 years too ‘young’ for the first Listing Act, the Ancient Monuments Act of 1882. This act stated that all buildings built before the 1700s were automatically listed as Grade 1, the most protected or important status. Therefore, this group of industrial buildings would not qualify as Grade 1 listed, but rather Grade 2. Furthermore, they were 10 years too ‘old’ for the rise of the ‘heroic period of conservation’ in the UK. This movement in the 1970s arose from a group of vocal conservationists in the UK grew from The Twentieth Century Society, as a reaction to the rampant postwar demolitions taking place to make way for new constructions.

Acknowledging certain aspects of London’s urban transformation as registrations of temporality allows us to add value to the unbuilt, the undocumented buildings as well as the undefined.

100 years too early for the first preservation act, but 10 years too early for the rise of the conservationist movement: this series of industrial buildings sat in an interregnum moment in the timeline of conservation codes, their existence voided despite their previous listing.

Conservation timeline. “Write-Over-Write-Over-Write”, project by Sonia Syed, Architectural Association School of Architecture, 2023.

For the past few years of study at the AA, my interest towards the listing/de-listing process in the UK and our interaction with how we perceive existing values deepened. It led me to question who decides what stays, and for how long. It was the understanding of the fragility of the conservation codes provided by English Heritage that prompted me to question the process itself.

Only being introduced in 1962, de-listing is the process in which sites and/or buildings are removed from the heritage listing process, due to a perceived ‘de-valuation’ (often, if not always, these status changes reflect the potential for financial gain through development of formerly protected sites). The potential for delisting almost makes the listing process arbitrary and introduces an interesting understanding of how we perceive building conservation in the UK. A recent case of renovation work at the Sainsbury Wing of the National Gallery — a Grade 1 listed building — prompted me to question the definition of de-listing in this current context. This led to the body of work which became Write-over-write-over-write: a project that argues how de-listing fragments of Trafalgar Square might provide more valuethrough showcasing multiple narratives of the same fragments. “Value” in this sense is attached to the active associations being made, rather than fixed to the fragment itself.

How can a grade 1 building, a listed artefact on paper, be stripped of its narrative and associative value: how does it shed this status to become de-listed, a mere object?

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De-listing is interesting in part because it is the moment in which the object becomes a subject of trial and risk. It attempts to understand this transition through the embedded history of protected parts of the city, while highlighting the fragility of codes and coding systems. How can a grade 1 building, a listed artefact on paper, be stripped of its narrative and associative value: how does it shed this status to become de-listed, a mere object?

Together with our peers and led by Shin Egashira at the Architectural Association, we searched for pairs of inseparable yet conflicting cities-inside-the-city, each driven by different values, languages, velocities and intervals. We revisited the works of John Hejduk, with a particular focus on The Silent Witness (1976), directing our investigations towards places we believe to have escaped the capitalist neoliberal values that undermine London’s fragile environment. The unit also promotes slowness in the growth of the city, to counter the many rapid developments taking place.

KOOZ The project draws our attention to “the first attitudes towards architectural preservation in the UK”, which emerged centuries before the first formal listing act. How were novels and poetry implicated in building ‘value’ for specific architectural artefacts? What kind of discrepancies between fact and fiction were born out of this written tradition prior to legislations and codes?

SS Novels such as ‘Tis Sixty Years Since’ brought attention towards areas and sites that would not normally have found it. The more people read these novels, the more their described settings became familiar. They would then become increasingly attached to the places mentioned. It brought a sense of spoken and associative value. It is interesting to note though that often, what was imagined in these novels would be a ‘perfected’ form of representation.

This in turn meant that traction and appreciation grew for a constructed image of architecture, birthed from words. A hyperbolised description of the building became the subject: one that is frozen in time, and which would not match the material object — itself perhaps a long distance away, perhaps aged or changed since the suggested period of its literary existence.

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An exaggeration of the object-turned-subject resulted in discrepancies between fact and fiction. Those who romanticised such sites in novels were often hugely disappointed when confronting the building in its presence. The reaction to this reaction, then, was to restore and upkeep these chosen buildings — thus introducing one of the first notions and attitudes towards attempting architectural restoration in the UK. The upkeep of medieval buildings was not organised by institutions but rather through groups of historians and associations that initiated funding for such restoration work.

The project then began to question this narrative quality in the current context of London today and question ‘how much needs to remain to cast a whole image?’. It begins to focus on the absence of the whole and the value in fragmentation. This way, fragments could be associated with parts from different points in time and form a new narrative, birthing an alternate value.

The perceived gap between the building as described and the existing building created enough motivation for the need to reconstruct. The conversation that originates from fiction (through novels and poetry in the 1600s) is only confronted by fact and legislation (the first Listing Act) 300 years later. There it could be argued that a misunderstanding has occurred, in the dialogue between the subject (in fiction) and the object (in reality). Depending on the moment in time we compare these two histories, they agree and disagree with each other. Is something that has physically existed and lost detail more truthful to its original image than a representational version that has been paused in time? What is being reconstructed?

The documentation process of English Heritage’s listing and de-listing process also deals with representations of buildings (as objects), as well as facsimiles and representations of drawings through photographs and photocopies.

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KOOZ Beyond the narrative quality of the origins of architectural restoration in the UK, the project also draws on Aby Warburg’s methods of classification in art history, developed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. How does the project adapt and apply these to the field of architectural building conservation?

SS The project looks towards the associative aspect of Warburg’s methods across different histories. In particular, it draws a lot of reference from his Bilderatlas: Mnemosyne, both in terms of methodology and theory of memory. A similar layout of constant reshuffling was adopted, using archival material from documentation held by English Heritage, recording previously listed entities throughout London to question their current classification process.

Warburg’s work dealt with representations of objects, images, drawings and paintings through photographs. Similarly, although we are speaking about physical buildings, the documentation process of English Heritage’s listing and de-listing process also deals with representations of buildings (as objects), as well as facsimiles and representations of drawings through photographs and photocopies. When valuing a building or site, the attendant conversations are most often conducted far away from the physical site, with the aid of documents filled with representations of the physical entity. Depending on the form of representation, to some extent, the building may be valued or categorised differently. Therefore, using Warburg’s associative method, there is an opportunity to question the formation of a linear history. It positions the listing and de-listing process as an alternate means of discussion and opens the possibility of multiple conclusions.

Warburg’s term ‘thought-space’ played a large role in driving the theoretical aspect of the project. This portmanteau describes a liminal zone between what is imagined and what is seen, or perceived.

Another of Warburg’s techniques grew from his ability to describe methods beyond the physical. He coined new terms to best describe his practices in the present; in this way, he was able to present the past in the present with clarity. This led me to question what preservation meant in the context of Trafalgar Square today. Over time, our understanding of the act of caring for, or maintaining historic structures has shifted, from restoration through conservation and now to preservation. Each word is tied to a different school of thought: is it better to try and replicate the original? Is it better to prevent further damage and leave the extant material as it is? Or perhaps it is about understanding preservation as a sensitive process that does not depend on historical understanding, but which responds to more recent histories as well. The act itself is constantly being re-evaluated.

Not least, Warburg’s term ‘thought-space’ played a large role in driving the theoretical aspect of the project. This portmanteau describes a liminal zone between what is imagined and what is seen, or perceived. Following such a notion, it is enough being preserved for each person to interpret what they want to, as may be read from Gestaltism. Each person’s individual cultural memory and how they interact with what is communicated allows them to question value in their own sense.

Trafalgar Square. “Write-Over-Write-Over-Write”, project by Sonia Syed, Architectural Association School of Architecture, 2023.

KOOZ What counter-values and alternative narratives does the project seek to reveal, and construct?

SS Amongst English Heritage’s list of existing values — which enumerates financial, historical, aesthetic, communal, and cultural values — the ones that I attempted to introduce were associative value and spoken value. I also attempted to bring importance to existing values that would be overlooked in larger developments, such as scientific value.

For example, within a later part of the project focussed on Trafalgar Square, new histories and narratives were drawn between elephant fossils, renaissance paintings, pigeons and an abandoned train stop.

Certain histories at that site were not given enough time to be properly evaluated. Therefore, through a series of small interventions, the notion of buying time is introduced within certain conservation codes, to prolong the time in which certain developments take place. The dialogue between developers and historians is therefore renegotiated.

Another intervention within the project was to question the current renovation process taking place at the Sainsbury Wing of the National Gallery, a Grade 1 listed building. The project seeks to restore Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown’s initial intention of having an opening on the south façade. They believed that no Renaissance painting was grand enough to fill that space, and therefore an opening towards the street would allow the view of people walking by to become part of the surrounding paintings. There would be, they argued, a collapse between reality (people) and depiction (paintings), between fact and fiction. This is an example of how the context of the original architect or author’s intention might redress the narrative aspect of the preservation process.

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KOOZ The title of the project implies a continuum. What are your aspirations for the project: should it be passed down generations to come?

SS I am hoping to bring more ‘subjects’ into what is already an extremely subjective process. That way, there is more debate and conversation around each case of listing or de-listing. I also see it as an opportunity to question what preservation means today, and how this might vary by context. Local communities should have a say in the evaluation process, and revive an emphasis on the narrative values of heritage. We should not just be looking at it from a historical perspective. Or if so, expand the definition of heritage-worthy history to extend beyond the last 300 years. Conversations should be held near or on site where possible, to reduce this distance between the decision being made and the matter being discussed.

Write-over-write-over-write looks at how we value what we value. Heritage concerns should be rewritten, case by case, on evolving merits.

Write-over-write-over-write looks at how we value what we value. Heritage concerns should be rewritten, case by case, on evolving merits. This is what Warburg accomplished extremely well, in my opinion; that is, the ability to speak about historicity and temporality simultaneously, and in so doing, to constantly redefine value. Perhaps there is value in a series of fragments from different periods in time that would not normally be associated with one another. We could understand the de-listing process as a classification scheme that favours knowledge retrieval rather than known object retrieval, so that fragmentation is celebrated.

KOOZ What, for you, is the power of the un-built imaginary?

SS It allows us to live in realities of ideas where the unbuilt and built coexist so that value is seen to be attached to something beyond the physical materiality of the buildings. It is attached to life that takes place within it and without it.

Bio

Sonia Syed is a part 2 architect, researcher and writer, recently graduated from the Architectural Association. She has worked in practices in London, Copenhagen and Kuala Lumpur. The projects she has worked on have mainly been with existing heritage buildings. She is currently splitting her time between London and Kuala Lumpur and is working on a small studio and research residency project in Kuala Lumpur. She is looking to add to the conversation about preservation within this space through starting an archive of the existing surrounding buildings from the 1950s. She is also working with other local like-minded figures to publish essays and works relating to the topic. Along with these publications, she is hoping to organise small talks and lectures to host these conversations. She has also worked on group research projects in Italy and the Amazon and her work was exhibited at the Royal Academy and in Koln.

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Published
03 Jan 2024
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15 minutes
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