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Engaging Authenticity

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13:30, Lundi 6 Juin 2016 (1 heure 30 minutes)
Changes in Heritage (New Manifestations)Notions of HeritagePublic event
Changes in heritageNew manifestations of heritageNotions of heritage

This proposal makes the case that heritage’s capacity for change may be dependent on a paradigm shift in how heritage is interpreted. With this paradigm shift in play, a question is then asked: Can authenticity be used as a design driver to resolve how best to incorporate the four pillars of sustainability in a building’s design?

The proposal begins with a discussion about the difference between using heritage reactively and proactively. It then presents a brief introduction to the evolution of the concepts of sustainable design and authenticity over the last half-century. The argument is made that the idea of authenticity as developed by the efforts of the World Heritage Committee has had a minimal impact on the general architectural community.

To maximize authenticity’s impact on the practice of architecture, a suggestion is made to change the definition of authenticity from an idea that is not a value onto itself to one that is its own value. It is then suggested to use authenticity proactively as part of the design brief mentioned above. 

Engaging Authenticity: thinking of authenticity as a design driver

Heritage has changed how the architectural profession deals with historic buildings. It could also change how an architect approaches design. Yet if this change is to happen on a go forward basis, a paradigm shift in how the profession thinks about heritage may need to occur. A main objective of the session Engaging Authenticity: thinking of authenticity as a design driver is to identify whether this paradigm shift is needed to get engagement.

The question: What Does Heritage Change? has lead to the above two disparate answers. The first answer, what heritage has changed, is aimed at the institutional mechanisms and bureaucracy that have been put in place to deal with the question about how to treat an existing historic building. The second answer, what heritage could change, is directed toward the vocation of architecture and how the individual deals with a yet un-designed building. Another way to consider these two answers is that the former deals with architecture reactively while the latter suggests the relationship between heritage and architecture can be proactive. It is because of this change from the reactive to the proactive that a paradigm shift in thinking may be needed.

Reactive vs. Proactive

At the institutional level, heritage is the body of work that includes courses, degrees, standards of practice and guidelines. It is the world of the heritage elites where the authoritative heritage discourse is learned and practiced (Smith 2006). The sole purpose of this heritage is to indoctrinate the practitioner with ideas about what to do, as well as what not to do when identifying and maintaining the significance of a historic building. As such, and because of this imposed institutional rigor, the field of heritage conservation of the built environment has put a box around itself. In its desire to make itself different from the mainstream, it has also introduced a degree of alienation between itself and the rest of the profession; yet heritage thinking can also be something else. 

Heritage also represents a philosophical approach about how to design.  For the purposes of this brief, this philosophical approach is called heritage thinking. Heritage thinking may be applied to other problems of architecture, for example, sustainable design. 

One problem humanity faces within the Anthropocene is re-establishing human kind’s relationship with itself and the natural environment. Beginning in the early 1970s there has been a great deal of intellectual effort spent to understand and then define what sustainability means and what sustainable development includes and incurs in terms of responsibilities and expectations.

The Brundtland Commission’s definition of sustainability and its working definition of sustainable development lead to Agenda 21 and the paradigm of sustainable development. That paradigm included the three pillars of economic growth, social inclusion and environmental balance (Kates et al 2005); however, these three pillars alone did not reflect the complexity of current society (United Cities and Local Government 2010). To address this issue, cultural sustainability (or cultural inclusion) has been added as the fourth pillar of sustainable development. 

There is no agreement about how to incorporate the four pillars in the design of a sustainable building. A relevant question is whether heritage could provide an answer to this design problem. The challenge is to get beyond the intellectual, institutional box that has been put around heritage. To do this, some of the ideas germane to heritage may have to be reconsidered. A case in point is the idea of authenticity. To appreciate why the idea of authenticity may need to be changed, one needs to understand how it is presently defined.



The World Heritage Committee has done the bulk of work around the definition, tests and condition of authenticity in the modern era. This work was done with specific reference to validating the significance (outstanding universal value) of proposed World Heritage sites as a prerequisite for including these sites on the World Heritage List.

The idea of authenticity as it applies to the heritage of the built environment was first introduced in the United States through a 1953 National Parks Service Administrative manual. In it, the term integrity was described as “a composite quality connoting original workmanship, original location, and intangible elements of feeling and association” (Stovel 2008). Over the next forty plus years, the definition of authenticity would evolve back to something similar to this definition.

The Venice Charter also introduced the word authenticity. In the Charter, authenticity is not defined but was implicitly understood by those who drafted and were expected to follow the Charter, a recognition that it was part of the lexicon of those responsible for conserving the monuments and sites of post war Europe. 

“The common responsibility to safeguard them for future generations is recognized. It is our duty to hand them on in the full richness of their authenticity.” (Venice Charter 1964) 

The idea of authenticity was brought forward to the World Heritage Committee in 1976/1977. The World Heritage Committee was formed to develop a set of operating guidelines for the World Heritage Convention and in particular establish working criteria for the establishment and operation of the World Heritage List. It was during the Committee’s meeting between 1976 and 1977 that the American term integrity was introduced into the discussion. The idea behind the term integrity was accepted, but its name was changed to authenticity. This work lead to the World Heritage test of authenticity that was applied to four related physical attributes: design, materials, setting and workmanship.

A watershed event in the evolution of the idea of authenticity came in 1994 with the Nara meetings. The result of these meetings was the Nara Document on Authenticity (1996) which included the intangible as well as the tangible in its understanding of authenticity. This document, along with materials resulting from subsequent meetings in Africa, Europe and America lead to the World Heritage condition of authenticity referenced in the Operational Guidelines for the Implementation of the World Heritage Convention 2005 and forward.

This brief history highlights the theoretical development of the concept of authenticity as practiced by the World Heritage Committee. The work done by the World Heritage Committee aside, the idea of authenticity has had little impact in the practical application of heritage conservation outside of the World Heritage Committee (Stovel 2008) or in architecture in general. For example, authenticity is only mentioned twice in the Standards and Guidelines for the Conservation of Historic Places in Canada. In short, it has not found its entry point.  


Authenticity’s Impact

The question is why has authenticity had such a minimal impact in the both the conservation and mainstream discourse? Considering authenticity as a value onto itself, one can make the argument that there is a visceral connection with the idea. It could be argued that one, if not the primary survival skill of human kind is our ability to cooperate with each other. Fundamental to idea of cooperation is the need to be truthful, credible and real, adjectives that describe the very definition of authenticity

It must be asked why has it not had more of an impact with our intellect, on the way we think and act? What is the disconnect? The premise for this session is that this disconnect exists because of how it has been defined and used. Authenticity as defined above is primarily a tool used to validate and make decisions about existing tangible and intangible creations. It is not considered a value in its own right and is assigned to the relative, dependent on context and time. It is used to ensure that the creation being considered is a genuine representative of a particular cultural value. 

While a noble, this is a limited use. If authenticity is to be more of a part of the mainstream rather than a particular way to think about a specific aspect of heritage, then it must have an expanded utility. A paradigm shift in the definition and/or application of authenticity may be needed in order for it to find its entry point into the larger conversation.

Maybe this shift is not required. All that needs to be done is introduce the ideas of heritage differently, in a manner that sparks the general practice’s interests.  Part of what I want to achieve in this session is to take a few steps in one direction with the hope of understanding whether that direction is appropriate or not.


Authenticity and Sustainable Design

How can the idea of using authenticity as a design driver be applied to the problem of sustainable design, and in particular the design of a sustainable building that focuses on the relationships between the four pillars of sustainability? A design brief will need to be constructed as part of the session. 

The brief will set out the parameters of the problem as well as its focus. Within the design brief, the history of how authenticity has been interpreted from within heritage and the sustainable design community will be presented. An alternate definition of authenticity will then be given. It will be considered to be a cultural value in its own right (Dushkina 1995). It is this change in definition that represents the paradigm shift mentioned above. As a value in its own right, and thinking about the design brief, practitioners could use authenticity as a decision maker. 

Once you open a door, you do not know who will come in. One potential rabbit hole with using authenticity in this manner is that it would inevitably lead to people asking the question authentic to what? Historically, within the field of sustainable design, this question has been answered by referring to places (Guy and Farmer 2001). But I would like to get beyond this definition because it would lead back to the World Heritage definition detailed above.

The brief will have to get the attention of practitioners. It will need “street appeal”. At this point, architects will need to be consulted to help in crafting the brief. They will have to buy into the idea, so it will have to be marketed sooner than later. Part of this idea’s buy-in will be the normal and expected give and take; however, what is not negotiable is the focus of using authenticity as a design driver. The exercise’s objective is to determine whether or not authenticity helps the sustainable building design process by linking the objectives of the four pillars of sustainability as well as resolve the tensions that exist between each pillar in the design of a building. The designs would be critiqued accordingly.  I do not have an exact answer for how this would turn out, but this the point of the session.



Dushkina, Natalia. 1995. “Authenticity: Towards the Ecology of Culture”. Nara Conference on Authenticity, ed. Knut Einar Larsen. Trondheim, Norway: Tapir Publishers. Pp. 310 (in Stovel 2008)

Guy, Simon, and Graham Farmer. 2001. “Reinterpreting Sustainable Architecture: The Place of Technology”. Journal of Architectural Education. 54/3 (February 2001). pp. 140-148

Guy, Simon and Steven A. Moore. 2005. Sustainable Architectures. London: Routledge

Kates, Robert W., Thomas M. Parris, and Anthony A. Leiserowitz. 2005. “What is Sustainable Development? Goals, Indicators, Values, and Practice”. Environment: Science and Policy for Sustainable Development. Vol. 47, No. 3. pp. 8-21.

Smith, L. 2006. Uses of Heritage, London: Routledge

Stovel, H. 2008. “Origins and Influence of the Nara Document on Authenticity”. APT Bulletin. Vol. 39, No. 2/3 (2008), pp. 9-17

United Cities and Local Governments. 2010. Culture: Fourth Pillar of Sustainable Development. accessed August 8, 2015

Venice Charter. 1964. International Charter for the Conservation and Restoration of Monuments and Sites. 2nd International Congress of Architects and Technicians of Historic Monuments, Venice. ICOMOS. accessed August 11, 2015

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