When we clean up old buildings, do we erase history? [Part One]

Baku has many fine old buildings and over the past few years, the municipality has spent a lot of time, money and effort cleaning them up. Every prominent building on  the main thoroughfares of Azerbaijan Prospect, Nizami Street and the Bulvar now glow as if the hands of time have been wound backwards. Evidence proclaiming seventy-years of Bolshevik oppression and neglect is slowly being erased and a new Baku is emerging but with the cleaning of some buildings and the demolition of others, is something being lost?

I was born in 1955 and the London I remember before the age of about thirteen was dull, dirty and colourless. Although the Second World War ended ten-years before I came into the world, London was not the colourful, vibrant city it is today. More than a century of coal smoke and airborne pollution had left public buildings black and grimy. Here are a few examples.

The sadly missed Euston Arch in about 1960

St. Paul's Cathedral before the big clean-up

Nelson's column was black when I was a child

St. Stephen's tower was a dirty grey colour

Tower Bridge was black in the early 1970's, when i started work in the City

By cleaning London’s smoke-blackened landmarks, something has undoubtedly been lost. We could argue that in their uncleaned state they were more “atmospheric” and were a tangible link to the mythical London of Sherlock Holmes and the real city that survived the Blitz. To an extent I agree but cleaning London’s landmarks is one of the few things that nearly all Londoners believe has been a Good Thing. It was a visible symbol that a page of history has turned and a new beginning made.

The other issue is that although London’s air is so much cleaner now than it was forty years ago, there is still pollution in the atmosphere so buildings are starting to mellow again and accrue the patina of age they had lost when first cleaned.

The problem in Baku, is that most of the old buildings were faced with the same mellow sandstone that once cleaned makes them look as if they were just completed. This is particularly confusing as many modern constructions are being built in exactly the same style as those completed one-hundred years ago.

Anyway, on balance I think the authorities here in Baku have got it right to clean up the frontages that say to local people in a clear and obvious way “Azerbaijan, Under New Management”.

About stevehollier

Steve Hollier is the editor of AZ Magazine, an English language lifestyle magazine based in Baku, Azerbaijan. He began his career working for a firm of stockbrokers in the City of London then went on to attend the University of Essex where he was awarded an MA in Sociology in 1984. After a career in arts and cultural development work, he became a freelance arts consultant, writer and photographer.
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2 Responses to When we clean up old buildings, do we erase history? [Part One]

  1. Pingback: New Reads « Aaron in Azerbaijan

  2. Haoshan Jiang says:

    It depends, in China, for example, the government doesn’t care for history as much as tourism, and they usually destroy the historic environment. In countries like the UK, history and conservation are taken much more seriously, and I don’t believe cleaning up buildings damage history; instead it enhances it, by removing all the pollutants, historical conservationists return the building to its “original state” or as intended by the architects centuries ago. All buildings change and evolve, it, new additions, attachments, etc. Cathedrals are built over the course of centuries, with several generations adding their own touch, one generation might add a cloister, another adds a tower, etc. Structures like the Tower of London, different generations built different parts, the Palace of Westminster, the 19th century Gothic Revival structure attached to the 13th century St. Stephen’s Hall, Buckingham Palace, the facade was only put in the 20th century. Cities and buildings evolve, some buildings get destroy, others have new glass additions, and many are conserved long as these steps are taken with thoughts and considerations, I think the cities of the 21st century would be much better than the cities of the post war decades.

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