The Materiality of the Built Heritage
29 June 2021
At the moment, it is as if the spirit of our time is supporting those of us who love old houses. More and more people are becoming aware of the beauty of traditional materials and good craftsmanship, also young craftsmen such as The Construction Company C.F. Hansen, with whom we collaborate in the property Vibensgaard on Østerbro in Copenhagen. You can read more about that project under the website’s News tab.
Most of the time, our work with older buildings is very tangible. On the first visit to a house, all the senses are open, and often one immediately gets an impression of the house’s character and mood. Then the actual registration of the building begins – we measure it, take photographs, peel off pieces of wallpaper, knock on walls and lift carpets. We use our noses – does it smell musty? We use our hands – is the masonry damp? Is the window sill rotten?
This check is important to be able to understand the building and its condition. What materials are available? What materials are missing or have been replaced by others? And what materials are applied to the building in such a way that its narrative is blurred and becomes difficult to understand?
The materials each have their own character. And older houses are fortunately built of relatively few materials, so over time it is possible to get a good knowledge of each of them individually. For centuries, wood, brick, straw, lime, granite, linseed oil paint, iron and glass have been enough to build a house. Later came plaster (stucco), wallpaper, and even later reinforced concrete, linoleum and bakelite. Only in the last half of the 20th century did the number of building materials explode to the enormous number in existence today.
The old building materials all have in common that they age with grace. They get worn, but can often be used despite the wear – or be repaired again. Their patina tells us about the time that has passed. Time becomes concrete for us when we can see a worn stair step and imagine all the steps that have caused the wear. When we see the window linseed oil paint crackling in the sunshine it reminds us of all the summers and winters that have washed out and bleached the pigments. Timeliness is part of the nature of the materials.
Restoration of old buildings is not only sustainable in a purely concrete sense – that we do not produce new, but reuse and preserve the existing, as we wrote about in the last Elgaard Architecture newsletter. It is also – which is not least as important – sustainable in a mental sense. When we preserve the existing, we also preserve the memory of the people who went before us. Their views on life and the world. We can see from the traces of the planer or ax that a human being did this. We can see from the layers of old paint that it has been painted according to the changing fashions of the time, and we may have even tried to use a planer or a brush ourselves and can thereby imagine how many hours have been put into the production. And in that way, we are reminded that the story does not end with us, but that we are part of a longer narrative.
By Architect Tine Neel Riber Teglbjærg, Elgaard Architecture