I’ve always loved old buildings so spending a month in Zürich, Switzerland, is a real treat. When walking through the Altstadt (Old Town) I always find my gaze drifting up to admire the decorative cornices and oriel windows. Several structures have their date of construction on them and – although they look pristine – many are 500-700 years old! Keeping these medieval edifices structurally sound is a monumental task.
I was curious about how these buildings are documented and protected, so I did some digital digging. The Swiss Federal Office of Topography has a great interactive map that you can use to view information on listed natural, archaeological and historic places. When you search for Zürich the entire space of the Altstadt is covered by small dots marking historic structures. The ‘Swiss Inventory of Cultural Property of National and Regional Significance’ is a register of cultural property of national significance (class a) and regional significance (class b) that can include old towns, sacral buildings, houses, archaeological sites, object collections, etc. These are protected under the Federal Act on the Protection of Nature and Cultural Heritage (NCHA). Article 1 of this act states its primary aim: to carefully manage and protect heritage landscapes and sites of local character, historical sites, and the country’s natural and cultural monuments, and to promote their preservation and upkeep.
In order to maintain and conserve historic properties sometimes compromises have to be made between the legislation on preservation, the legislation on building safety, the available budget and the current use of the structure. The Swiss Federal Office of Culture oversees the maintenance and protection of historic buildings by working with their colleagues in the canton (state) and city governments. The maintenance of historic structures and townscapes is important not only for the tourism industry in Switzerland but is also closely tied to a sense of national and cultural identity. While the integrity and authenticity of historic buildings is maintained as much as possible, these locations have not existed in a time warp or vacuum! They’ve been continuously affected by their environment and by their inhabitants since they were first constructed. An area’s climate or seasonal variations may have changed over the last few hundred years and factors such as increased or decreased humidity can have huge repercussions for an old structure. It is important to take all of these factors into account when conservation strategies are developed.
Achieving the Swiss federal aim of preserving and promoting the upkeep of historic buildings is certainly not easy. In fact, the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) in Zürich has a whole institute devoted to it – the Institute of Historic Building Research and Conservation (IDB). Architectural conservation allows us to gain knowledge of the past through the investigation of building materials, construction techniques and even tool marks on stone and wood. With modern technology we can date components of structures (dendrochronology), find out what materials were used for constructing and repairing in the past, detect and correct damage, and create detailed and accurate maps (photogrammetry) of interior and exterior spaces and features. These days architectural conservation is a very high-tech profession.
A major component of the maintenance of the historic buildings in the Altstadt of Zürich – like other historic city centres around the world – is maintaining a particular “look”. This is a factor that goes beyond simple aesthetics, as it is fundamental for preserving the architectural character of an area. However, in many cases the needs of a modern population (heating, electricity, running water, etc.) have been catered to so the buildings could continue to be used. By necessity, the interior spaces of historic structures have often been updated. Sometimes so many updates have taken place that there is no trace of the original interior features. These places are not stuck in time – especially those in the centre of cities – they are lived and/or worked in, and often have been continuously since they were first constructed hundreds of years ago. The materials and methods used to repair or modernise these structures in the past are sometimes today considered unsafe (asbestos!) or could have an impact on modern products or practices. Clearly, understanding the “biography” of the building is important to ensure its longevity. That is one of many reasons why specialist knowledge is required to identify authentic from update.
Architectural conservation has been a formal practice since the 18th-19th century. Before then, structures were left standing only if they were sacred, still in use or had been overlooked! Without it thousands of tourists, and locals, wouldn’t be able to walk between the historic buildings that line the narrow winding streets of Zürich’s Altstadt. Each corner I turn reveals a new fountain, stairway, overhanging window or heavy wooden door that I had never noticed before. Even the painted decorations transport me back in time – every archaeologist’s dream.