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Don’t let our heritage turn sour

Our heritage is at risk, underlined by the collapse of the 2,000-year-old House of the Gladiators in the ancient city of Pompeii late last year. It was a stark reminder of the importance of protecting and conserving treasured sites, buildings and structures around the world.

Photography: Corinne Fortier for Heritage Montreal

While it may not be as old as the Italian city of Pompeii, the eye-catching structure which towers 15 meters (50 feet) into the air atop an old Art Deco dairy in Montreal, Canada, is arguably one of the city’s most iconic monuments. But over the years, the harsh weather and changing environment took their toll on the giant Guaranteed Pure Milk bottle, and it slowly began to rust away.

It just couldn’t be allowed to happen. So Heritage Montreal decided to act. The organization was set up 30 years ago to promote and protect the architectural, historic, natural and cultural heritage of Greater Montreal. They brought the plight of the landmark water tower to the public’s attention, and in 2009 – thanks to a project sponsored by AkzoNobel and other partners – the results of the renovation were proudly unveiled (pictured).

Dinu Bumbaru is Policy Director of Heritage Montreal and former Secretary General of the International Council for Monuments & Sites, and he says it was a great way to raise awareness of the need for people to protect their heritage.

“The milk bottle is a fun part of our history, whereas people traditionally think this subject needs to be serious. It reminds us that our grandparents had home-delivered milk, yet this great piece stood there deteriorating. People came along, said it was a shame, took a photograph and left. We wanted to show it was possible to save such monuments, especially when others lent their energy and enthusiasm, and we succeeded.

“People are into sustainable development, but don’t realize it’s not a case of add water for instant results,” he adds. “The whole point of sustainability is that it’s long lasting.”

It’s a philosophy echoed across the Atlantic by the English equivalent of Heritage Montreal. The steward of more than 400 significant historical and archaeological sites, English Heritage works to protect the country’s heritage for future generations. Its Heritage at Risk Register lists the country’s most important Grade I and II* listed buildings and monuments that are at risk of damage or loss if urgent steps are not taken to stabilize their condition. The number of listed buildings at risk actually fell 17 percent between 1999 and 2007, but since then, there has been a significant – and worrying – slowdown in the annual rate of decrease.

“One of the main reasons buildings are at risk is redundancy,” explains Rosslyn Stuart, Planning & Development Director (East) for English Heritage. “There’s been an unprecedented disposal of hospitals, schools, town halls, court buildings and the like. If relocation happens in a heartbeat and you get a time lag between the current user leaving and a new one coming in, the structure sits derelict and begins to decay.”

She adds that places of worship are especially at risk due to demographic changes. If population diminishes, a village might have just 100 or so residents, only a dozen of whom are church-goers. In such cases, it becomes a challenge to both worshippers and other enthusiasts to maintain the building and keep it in use. Development is another factor, with buildings left stranded on roundabouts where they become a blight and fall into rack and ruin. Early action is the key, insists Stuart, and it also makes economic sense.

Further afield, AkzoNobel has appealed to more aesthetic ideals to further the cause. Adding color to people’s lives is an evocative phrase, but the paints and coatings being used as part of the company’s global community initiative (including five cities in Indonesia) are as much about protecting an area’s heritage as making it look attractive. “This program reinforces our mission of adding color to people’s lives,” explains Jeremy Rowe, Managing Director of AkzoNobel Decorative Paints, South East Asia & Pacific. “It also incorporates restoring the colors of a nation through our work on heritage sites with governments. We believe that such priceless assets have many stories to tell, especially to future generations.”

So how do you persuade people to get involved with saving the fabric of their history? Dinu Bumbaru favors a two-pronged approach. As well as running home renovation classes (also sponsored by AkzoNobel) through Heritage Montreal – which teach people practical ways to look after their own worlds – he also poses a stark question. “I ask people if they’d be proud to tell their children or grandchildren, in 25 years’ time, that they themselves were the ones who’d done nothing, and who were therefore ultimately responsible for something being pulled down, abandoned or condemned. It might sound harsh, but the reality is that doing nothing is destructive. When people realize that, it gives them a fresh perspective on the future.”

For the full version of this feature, download issue six of AkzoNobel’s A Magazine.