Aesthetics and Contemporary Layers

2011 to 2021

Willowbank School for Restoration Arts, Queenston, Ontario

[click] 2011 Workshop
[click] 2012 Workshop
[click] 2013 Workshop
[click] 2014 Workshop
[click] 2015 Workshop
[click] 2016 Workshop
[click] 2017 Workshop
[click] 2018 Workshop
[click] 2019 Workshop
[click] 2020 Workshop
[click] 2021 Workshop

Shelley Huson & François LeBlanc with 2014 workshop students

I began leading a one-week workshop at Willowbank School for Restoration Arts in 2011. The series lasted until 2021. The workshop was entitled “Aesthetics and Contemporary Layers”. The workshop's concept was developed by Julian Smith, Shelley Huson and François LeBlanc in 2010. The one-week workshop programme was as follows:

Day 1 Comprised introductions, organization and two formal interactive lectures.

Day 2 Comprised visits to various sites in Toronto and elsewhere in the region where contemporary layers have been added to heritage places.

Days 3 and 4 Were dedicated to practical team exercises. Students were grouped in teams of 2 or 3 and given the task to propose a contemporary layer to add to a heritage place of their choosing. This could be an archaeological site, an empty lot between two heritage buildings, a heritage building to which a contemporary addition is proposed or a cultural landscape in which a commemorative or utilitarian structure was to be inserted.

Day 5 The students presented their projects and a Review Committee commented on their proposals.


Throughout the world, conservation educators spends a great deal of time and effort teaching the theory and application of principles for the conservation of heritage places. The theory, doctrine, and conservation principles are set in quite a large number of conventions, declarations, charters and textbooks of all kinds. This interest for conservation doctrine began in 1931 with the adoption of the “Carta de restauro”, also known as the “Athens Charter”, adopted at the First International Congress of Architects and Technicians of Historic Monuments (

This doctrine was enriched in 1964 by the drafting of the “Venice Charter” and its adoption in 1965 by ICOMOS ( In the following years, an array of similar instruments were created to guide conservation decisions and interventions in all fields, from landscapes and gardens, to major historic cities and industrial complexes, including natural, built and intangible heritage.

The guidelines for intervening on heritage places and buildings comprised such principles as “minimal intervention”, “maintain, repair, replace”, "make use for some socially useful purpose", "preserve the setting", "only use techniques and materials the efficacy of which has been shown by scientific data and proven by experience", "keep valid contributions from all periods", "preserve the historic character of the town", "the participation of the residents is essential", "respect existing spacial layout", "Restoration work must respect the successive stages of evolution of the garden" etc.

For decades, conservation specialists have intervened on heritage places applying these principles with varying results. What has been missing all this time is an open discussion on the aesthetic results of conservation interventions. Yes, the conservation principles have been adhered to, but what about the result? From an aesthetic point of view, is it pleasing? Is it harmonious? Does it contribute positively to the overall composition? What about the choice of colors, textures and shapes?

In 50 years of practice in the field of heritage conservation, I am aware of only one relatively recent conference that focused on the subject of the aesthetics of conservation. To celebrate the centennial year of the birth of architect, educator, historian, and preservationist James Marston Fitch, the charitable foundation that bears his name organized a symposium entitled “The Preservationist’s Eye: Esthetics in Reuse and Conservation of the Historic Built Environment” in September 2009. Papers were published in: CRM: The Journal of Heritage Stewardship ; Volume 7, Number 2 / Summer 2010.

Day 1: Formal lectures

The first day begins by organizing the students in groups of 2 or 3 depending on class size. Everyone’s name is tossed into a hat and names are drawn to make up the teams.

Aesthetics of conservation

[click] To view the Aesthetics of Conservation PowerPoint presentation

Once they have graduated from Willowbank School of Restoration Arts, graduates will be regarded as ‘specialists’ in this field. They will inevitably be shown conservation projects and asked: ‘What do you think about this project?”. They should be able to express their opinion in an articulated and comprehensive way from an aesthetic point of view, as well as other points of views. The first session helps them to do this.

During this session, the students list on a flip chart the words that they believe they could use to describe art objects, paintings or architecture from an aesthetic point of view. These generally included concepts such as composition, colours, forms, shapes, rhythm, textures, proportions etc. Then as they are shown images of actual conservation projects from all over the world, all members of each team are asked in turn to express their opinion about the result. They are asked not to use words such as ‘beautiful, terrific, fantastic, and great nor their opposites ‘ugly, terrible, awful, etc. These words tend to generate confrontation instead of discussions. They are encouraged to use words such as ‘I like (or dislike) this or that, I like (or dislike) this but not that. When they have difficulty to express a specific feeling or impression, they are invited to use some of the words they have listed on the flip chart. The session usually lasts a couple of hours

Seven Approaches to Building in Old Neighborhoods

[click] To view the Seven Approaches to Building in Old Neighborhoods PowerPoint presentation.

Seven approaches to adding contemporary layers to historic urban environments are presented to the students. The presentation is based on an exhibition prepared by the French and held at the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris in 1980. To consult the exhibition catalog, click on the link below.
At that time, France's President Valéry Giscard d'Estaing was intent on defining a national policy for architecture. He was convinced that the renewal of architecture in France included the restoration of historic urban areas where more than 15 million citizens lived and that this required subtle and varied architectural solutions: modern creations or additions that would contribute to enriching forgotten urban landscapes and would transpose harmonies. The exhibition's goal was to illustrate this subject. It proposed seven approaches to adding contemporary layers to historic urban environments. It stated that each approach did not guarantee a qualitative or harmonious solution. Only good architectural design would achieve this. At least, everyone could now understand in what context contemporary interventions were being made in historic urban environments and could discuss them in reference to a common base.

[click] To see the 1980 catalogue for exhibition: Construire en quartier ancien

Additional presentations

[click] What is Heritage?

[click] Monumentenwacht, a European model for a national program of maintenance of heritage buildings and structures

Day 2: Site visits

During this 10-years period, the Willowbank staff organized visits to heritage places in Toronto, St. Catharines and Niagara-on-the-Lake where contemporary layers were added to heritage places. Willowbank Director Architect Julian Smith led several of these visits.

[click] To see images from the site visits.

Days 3 to 5: Contemporary Layers Projects

Following are the instructions given to the students for the preparation of their projects.


  • Select one of the following:
    • A heritage building or archaeological site to which you want to add a contemporary layer
    • A heritage building/structure/place that you want to reuse/revitalize
    • A vacant lot in a historic place on which you want to build a new structure
    • A room/space inside a heritage building that you want to ‘modernize’
    • A historic object that you want to ‘encase/protect/show’
  • Each member of the team must speak and present a part of the project
  • Don’t read to the audience… talk to the audience on the basis of a few notes
  • First introduce your team, say a few words about your background
  • Locate the place where your project is as though you were describing it to someone who is not familiar with that area
  • Describe the place, space or building; use illustrations, max 2 or 3 illustrations per slide, preferably only one per slide
  • Max 8 lines of text per slide
  • Share a few historic facts (dates, people, events, products etc.)
  • Share an anecdote or a short ‘story’ that you think will captivate your audience and make it ‘connect’ with the place or building
  • Tell us what values you associate with the place, values that you believe your proposal will protect and enhance
  • State your goal (reuse, addition, infill, integrate, tourism, interpretation etc.)
  • State which of the 7 approaches to adding contemporary layers you favour and why
  • Describe the contemporary layers that you are proposing to add, using models, sketches, photos, 3D drawings, similar examples of what you suggest, anything that you think will help the audience understand what you are suggesting
  • Thank your audience and invite questions


Reset 2022