The past few months have shown we live in extraordinary times. We’ve witnessed some of the most remarkable political events which have left many of us questioning our understanding of the kind of communities we live in. The Oxford Dictionary recently announced that its 'word of the year 2016' was 'non-truth' because we apparently now live in a world where ‘the truth’ [i.e. proven fact] is no longer the basis of a lot of decision-making.
One of the main reasons I’m excited by the potential of our work, including with historic buildings, is that it seeks to find and protect authenticity, to carefully integrate new design, and to share it for the benefit of society in different ways. When we get the blend of conservation and design right the results can be extremely powerful.
So, how do we as individuals seize the opportunities to find authenticity and seek to 'tell the truth' in ways to achieve the maximum social benefit?
Unlocking and telling new stories
At Bath Abbey we are rediscovering the most amazing stories of the building. Bath is one of only two World Heritage Cities (the other being Venice) and the Abbey is arguably Bath’s largest and most important historic building. Hidden beneath its pews is a wall-to-wall mosaic of hundreds of carved grave stones and 8,500 recorded burials! Many of them relate to Bath’s Georgian ancestors – and the city’s heyday when Bath was one of the largest cities in England. Our project is going to fully reveal and conserve the floor and we will be the first generation to see the carved stones of the floor for over 150 years. As a missing piece of Bath's story, the 're-presentation' of the Abbey floor will significantly enhance the World Heritage Site status of the whole city. It will also be one of the most exciting conservation projects in Europe. And it will happen in the city centre in front of over half a million visitors per year and every school child in the county.
Helping to defining new futures
In Yangon, our Tourist Burma building is aiming to help a community at the dawn of a new democratic future for the country. Supported by Aung San Suu Kyi’s new democratic government we are developing strategies for the creative re-use of the first burmese owned department store, and former Ministry of Hotels and Tourism with Turqoise Mountain. One of the key concepts is that it will become a place to gather and debate the strategies for the future conservation and development of Yangon at this critical moment in its history. There are also plans to train at least 1,000 local people along the way.
With each of these schemes we are adding something of our time which will preserve and enhance their meaning and pass them on intact for future generations.
I believe we have a great deal to be optimistic about - and in particular in our ability to find authenticity, and to inspire our audiences and communities by sharing it in clear and compelling ways.
It feels to me like the world might need us more than ever.
This essay is part of the St Catherine's Papers, and was originally presented as a short talk at the Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios 2017 Awayday.