H@R! : Heritage at Risk


Texte en Fran├žais

In France, there are several coexisting listing levels for built heritage:

  • Buildings listed in the "Inventaire des Richesses Artistiques de la France" (Inventory of Art Treasures in France) are for the most part rural constructions and small urban buildings of an age which ranges from the Middle Ages to the 19th century and the authenticity of which is extensively preserved.
  • Buildings protected as urban sites, safeguarded areas, "Zones de Protection du Patrimoine Architectural Urbain et Paysages" (Protected Zones of Architectural Heritage and Landscapes) and the conservation of which is recognised as desirable or obligatory.
  • Buildings located in visible surroundings of a listed historic monument.
  • Listed historic monuments or those which are on the additional inventory as individual and specific types.

Concerning the last three categories, an assembly of regulating and legal documents ensures their conservation conditions under the auspices of the Monument Conservation Office. Concerning the first category, these buildings are not protected by any institution and are therefore exposed to the risk of decay.

The Monument Conservation Office tries to ensure the conservation of heritage. But conservation depends in most cases on the owners which are mostly the local municipalities (63%), private owners (28%) and to a small extent the State (6%).

Neglect which is not always benevolent, is a major factor for a default by the inheritors of heritage. But it should be indicated that the clumsiness of numerous public management programmes leads - sometimes unconsciously - to the destruction of old buildings or sites: urbanisation is a particularly fierce player.

Natural factors should also not be neglected, for example the storm of 26 December 1999, which raged and caused irreparable damage to parks and gardens.

Of course, problems from pollution must be stated, which leads to the destruction of heritage fabric.

The lack of qualified craftsmen, the lack of identical or at least appropriate materials; research of a high standard concerning the operations, where chemistry and top methods put aside traditional measures - which should be revived - often result in tremendously high costs which the parties involved cannot cope with.

The public entity (State, local councils) is attempting heritage operations which are carried out as incentives:

  • Financial assistance (subvention, tax reduction...) up to very increased fees,
  • Technical assistance (in undertaking the project, specialist architects, laboratories, companies),
  • Interventions by authorities (office work)
  • The acquisition of a building by a council is very rare in France.

The conceived dispositions which have been put into action have demonstrated a positive result world-wide, and one can say that the totality of heritage places in France is on average in a tolerable state of conservation.

However, the following matters are causing serious concerns:

  • Vernacular heritage has been seriously affected by the constant exit to the city and the ageing of the inhabitants of small market towns and small rural villages. A very short-term danger (one or two generations) will be the decay of heritage connected with this departing of people. The creation of natural regional parks cannot be the answer to the extent of this occurrence.
  • Military heritage suffers from the monumentalism of its appearance: façades, ramparts, terraced installations, which have been more or less well maintained to a considerable extent, but the reduction of effective military will irremediably condemn them to deterioration.
  • 20th century heritage which is too close in time, too poorly understood and constructed with badly controlled materials (reinforced concrete, metals, synthetic materials, etc.), does not yet profit from the advice of recognised conservation which is founded on certainty.
  • Change to natural materials - especially stone - is seriously developing and accelerating, and will soon oblige us to totally reconsider restoration and conservation concepts, when the threshold of what is possible will be exceeded.
  • Paradoxically, unpredictable and unexpected phenomena can be seen at the same time: heritage is the victim of its success. The growing number of visitors overrunning the highlights in the history of architecture result in heavy damage concerning the authenticity of the work and could lead to irretrievable loss.

Important is the development of social factors, which express themselves according to the following parameters:

  • A lack of capacity and competence of the majority of the involved parties: the decision makers (mostly the owners) who are not sensitised to conservation difficulties; the people in charge, in most cases no architects; craftsmen and architects who, in spite of specialised schools and boards of architects, are in their majority not trained for restoration techniques;
  • The standardisation which applies to ancient heritage, the rules conceived for new constructions concerning work safety, safety of the public and the use of traditional materials, as well as concerning the habitability.
  • Systematic use of competition rules which eradicate the special expertise and banalizes the levels of competence.

The following conditions should be mandatory:

  • Heritage should be given the statute of Public Interest, which would justify more effective and more energetic activities of public mutuality in favour of its conservation (financial and technical means).
  • Execution of laws concerning budget programmes for heritage at risk.
  • Acknowledgement of the statute as a Cultural Exception, over-riding current rules and norms of new constructions.
  • Educational activities should be started to "teach understanding of heritage", beyond a simple "know to look" and superficial approach. There is a strategy to redevelop areas and local cultures, which are to be promoted, real cultural re-adaptation answering the social default of heirs of heritage places.
  • Starting programmes of study and research (laboratories, architects, engineers), which are strongly and generally supported and mainly dedicated to conservation of materials.
  • Requirement of competence and mastership of all in charge. Formulae for substitution.


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