Craftspersons or Conservators? A Response to a Matter Arising From ITES, Tallberg, Sweden

Response by Dr Gerard C.J. Lynch to the proposed European Conservation Practitioner’s License (ECPL) Leonardo project preseneted at IPTW-ITES 2007, Tällberg, Sweden, May 2007. (used with permission of the author)

A danger of the push for a "Conservator’/’Restorer" qualification, solely through the academic/university route, is that one has to recognise the potential of creating an environment whereby a traditionally apprenticed building craftperson could no longer be recognised as ‘qualified’ to undertake remedial work on historic buildings.

Historically high-level craftsmen have always undertaken the many facets of remedial works on traditionally constructed buildings so as to conserve or restore, but which were almost always referred to under an umbrella term ‘REPAIR’.  This was successful both because these craftsmen knew intuitively the best materials and skills need to produce high-quality work that dovetailed neatly into the surrounding existing original, and because it served as the catalyst for the retention and passing-on of vital craft knowledge of the traditional materials and the selection and skilful utilisation of time-honoured tools to the following generation of future craftsmen – the handing on of the historic heritage that all crafts have a duty to honour.

This is seriously under threat if one follows a proposed "conservator" qualification through to its logical conclusion.  We need to understand that the conservator has, to a large degree, emerged out of the archaeology, arts and science disciplines working in ceramics, fabrics, paintings etc.  The revival of interest in architecture and in turn traditional craft practices has resulted in many academics coming into the relatively new field of "Historic Building Preservation", seeking to work as conservators – undertaking remedial works to plasters, yet are not qualified plasterers and indeed would be incapable of undertaking plastering, or perhaps repairing small sections of brickwork, but unable to set out and build in brick etc.  Their methods of work and choice of materials are often met with scepticism by qualified and experienced leading craftsmen; who are frequently shocked by the high prices being charged for these works, the unnecessary bureaucracy involved, and overall elitist overtones that increasingly permeates an environment that, until relatively recently, only required skilful and pragmatic craft practices.

Consultant Architectural Conservator Richard O. Byrne (private correspondence, 2007) summed up an important difference between a craftsperson and conservator:

"craftspeople in general do not know the pathology of the materials they are working with, and conservators know material pathology and know nothing of a craft."

Conservators have, in recent years, gradually come into the arena of historic buildings preservation and slowly but surely begun to sit over the top craftpersons.  The proposed conservator qualification seeks to provide these with a legitimate licence to be specified and exclusively practice on remedial works to historic properties and therefore be able to gain the necessary insurance cover to do so.  This has the very real potential to result in even the very best  - the peer-acknowledged masters - not being considered ‘qualified’ and therefore to be written out of specifications and be unable to gain insurance cover to undertake such works. 

As the writer has stated for many years, conservation and repair have always been part of the heritage of the building crafts and must never be divorced from them. They may possess Master’s degrees but are not master conservators.  Bureaucrats with self-interested policies have no right to interfere with the traditions and practices of our historic crafts and in so doing, seek to isolate this arena of work and ultimately remove it to make it the preserve of conservators; in affect robbing us of our birthright.  One could argue that the need for the stirling work of the International Preservation Trades Network (IPTN) that seeks to raise craft status through promoting the appreciation and promotion of the priceless heritage of historic/traditional knowledge, tools, materials and skills, could be muted by such a development.

The writer’s work over many years to promote the revival and teaching of traditional knowledge, skills, materials, tools and equipment, alongside contemporary craft needs to gain ‘holistic craftspersons with a foot in those two worlds, is of record.  For far too long those not of our crafts but with the power to direct future training needs have instigated a ‘dumbing-down’ of programmes to a pale shadow of former apprenticeship schemes; that ironically in a time of governmental budget restraints are costing a fortune in unnecessary bureaucracy to deliver.  In the United Kingdom the former on-site learning accompanying a day-release system of college-based tuition under the auspices of ‘The City and Guilds of the London Institute’ (CGLI), through which the writer was apprenticed was superb.  It did need some adjustments to accommodate both the passage of time and meet aspects of changing modern demands, but certainly not scrapping to be replaced by the present and definitely inferior National Vocational Qualification (NVQ) modular system of skills training. As Gaius Petronius, the ancient Roman satirist correctly stated, almost 2,000 years ago:

"Reorganisation is a wonderful method for creating the illusion of progress while producing confusion, inefficiency and demoralisation".

Scotland has, to its credit, not adopted NVQ in its entirety and thus preserved an apprenticeship scheme that has great strengths.  In the rest of the UK, however, the new system is enforced.  Discussing the fact that each year the Construction Industry Training Board (CITB) arranges apprenticeship and college courses for 1500-2000 new entrants, Steve Snaith (2007, 21) writes that the acknowledged drop-out rate at the end of their first year NVQ level One is a staggering 75%.  The main reason given for this appalling situation is that it is due to students being laid off by their employers, but this is not the full picture.  The programmes are geared towards attracting disadvantaged 18-25 year olds - many of whom struggle with basic literacy and numeracy skills – and who are pushed by teachers and career advisors who patronisingly treat the building crafts, and an industry they neither care to know nor understand, as a dumping ground for those who have no interest in educational or skilful advancement.  The writer knows this directly as a result of interviewing many craft lecturers across the UK, as part of his PhD research, and the conclusion they reached that the majority of these students simply do not wish to attend college to learn a craft and as a result quickly become a disruptive and distracting influence on the rest of the class.  Of course all teachers and firms wish to help well-motivated students that are in anyway disadvantaged to overcome any barriers and maximise their potential within whatever craft they clearly wish to learn; but as has been discussed a majority do not; and these frustratingly waste the valuable time of craft teachers.  This is a far cry from the well-motivated and academically capable students that were traditionally targeted and came into the crafts up until the advent of NVQ; the majority of whom maintained their commitment to the years of their apprenticeship. It has also had a very negative, demoralising effect on an already under-funded teaching staff tasked with its delivery.

Despite repeated warnings from leading craftsmen and experienced craft lecturers of the long-term consequences of the then new training initiative of promoting training at the expense of education, it was implemented in the early 1990s.  The writer made his concerns felt on this issue a long time ago (Lynch, 1994, 69):

Shortening the apprenticeship period, removing some areas of skill and theory from the curriculum to attempt to produce the multi-skilled workforce demanded by the market place, is seen as the way forward.  Such an approach does not, however, address the question of how to train bricklayers to possess a wide range of knowledge and skills, equal to that which forty years ago would have been classed as average.

It is by providing places for carefully selected apprentices, and by ensuring the right calibre of craftsmen, that we will be able to meet the many modern demands and be able to make use of traditional craft techniques.  This will help ensure that the best of designs in good-quality materials are built, with skill, by craftsmen who have a pride in the noble art of bricklaying.

The removal of traditional knowledge and skills from craft syllabi, by these bureaucrats has resulted in trainees (not apprentices) that are deemed ‘competent’ - not ‘qualified’ - to work on new-build, yet wholly untutored in the knowledge and the skilful utilisation of the different craft materials, tools and equipment necessary for traditionally constructed buildings. If these people had truly cared for the well-being of the crafts, they could and should have sought to increase the value of craft education and training, encouraged the recruitment of capable students – young and old - who want to be stimulated and challenged; raising the bar of their expectations and empowering them to pursue and gain top-quality qualifications recognised and admired by all stakeholders.  Many apprentices and adults in the crafts would answer such a call as they do wish to discover the joy and fulfilment of working with their head and hands by being properly taught a more ‘holistic’ approach to the crafts that balances the best of traditional and modern knowledge, materials, tools and equipment, developing their ability of selecting the most appropriate for the job in hand. Craft students simply need to be re-connected to their materials to discern what they are and are not capable of, through learning traditional ‘crafting’ skills, and to have quality education that develops a full and meaningful appreciation of their craft as well as expanding their intellect.  The very best of modern craftspeople would then be well able to advance to any necessary high-level arena of academic and practical studies and meet conservators on a level playing field. 

This is what the leading craftsmen and educators tasked with designing the craft syllabi of City and Guilds apprenticeships in the last quarter of the nineteenth century sought to do; its success being their legacy in the quality of craftsmanship on the many buildings of that period we now respect and admire.  Modern western society in general needs to change, however, and return to a re-introduction of such an ethos and belief in aiming for the very best in all aspects of life and work, to elevate people’s aspirations to achieve, and accept, only top quality, instead of this ‘anything goes society’ which we now live in; that tends to be expressed in elevating mediocrity and image over substance as the desired norm.

Linked directly into this is another pressing need, however, and that is to educate the wider public to enable them to discern the crafts as a noble calling and be able to appreciate and place value on the craftsmanship they produce. As Richard O. Byrne (private correspondence, 2007) astutely observes:

Musing trades training concepts focuses one’s mind on the concept that the creative act is not completed until the creation is consumed…otherwise all one would have is a pile of bricks and never a building.

This is a fundamental problem with almost every trades training scheme…train the tradesman, but hardly a thought or societal effort into training the customer in a structured way to be aware of the tradesman’s great abilities.  We cannot, and must not rely on our historic structures to bear the burden of just using our trained craftsmen; we will be defeated before we start.  We will be judged irrelevant and passé.  We should be looking to the now and to the future with the tradesmen playing a major role in the architectural creations of today.  That takes knowledgeable customers who demand their services.  That is what we lack today.  I do hope we can get past the word ‘heritage’ that has been, and is so limiting.

Friedrich Schiller, Goethe’s great aesthetic friend, summed this up when he said:  “There is no other way of making a reasonable being out of the sensuous man than by making him aesthetic first.”  We have whole societies who revel in their sensuousness and who know nothing about aesthetics.  Thus again is the need to make people visuate, to be aware of great design, to demand more than the limits the machines provide and greed promotes.  It all comes down to what we value.  Enhancing the values that trades and craftsmen display is the key to the future of the trades again gaining their greatness; and that means primarily training the customer.  We cannot just rely on training tradesmen and then just hope for the best.

Clearly there is a need for both conservators and craftspersons to develop initiatives that allows for a development and uniting of their knowledge and skills, that serves the best interests of both; and most importantly the precious stock of historic buildings that are in their trust and care.

Gerard CJ Lynch is an internationally acclaimed and highly respected historic brickwork consultant, master bricklayer, educator and author. He followed an apprenticeship as a bricklayer, and over the years through his natural ability within his craft he gained many awards, including the Silver and Gold Trowels from the Brick Development Association and is a Licentiate of the City and Guilds of London Institute (LCG).