Academic journal article The Town Planning Review

Negotiating Postcolonial Legacies: Shifting Conservation Narratives and Residual Colonial Built Heritage in Ireland

Academic journal article The Town Planning Review

Negotiating Postcolonial Legacies: Shifting Conservation Narratives and Residual Colonial Built Heritage in Ireland

Article excerpt

As recorded by Pendlebury and Strange, in the post-war era, urban conservation moved centre-stage as a planning goal, shifting conservation practice from the margins to the mainstream, and in this shift, 'urban conservation has become an inescapable element of the way cities remake themselves in the twenty-first century' (2011, 361). In this context, conservation professionals have long enjoyed an overarching technical remit and privileged knowledge within built heritage policy decision-making, with 'experts' able to control decision-making through an 'authorised heritage discourse' (Smith, 2006; Waterton et al., 2006). Based on this technical rationality, conventional conservation practice typically conceives buildings as objects constructed under the gaze of a single architect that retain exemplar properties worth preserving (Tait and While, 2009); in other words conservation based on an appreciation of the craftsmanship, historical and artistic value in an artefact subject to professional knowledge.

Within place-making strategies, however, conservation policy and practice are framed by competing and often overlapping rationalities beyond technical discourses, from nostalgia for traditional urban forms and appreciation for intrinsic aesthetic properties of buildings, to neoliberal place-marketing strategies whereby conservation of built heritage performs a role in urban competiveness agendas in an era of globalised urban homogeneity. Moreover, in addition to competing policy agendas, the values represented by built heritage can also be contested, underpinned by latent social conflicts reflecting collective remembering, cultural politics and identities, intertwined with the symbolic representation of the built environment. Though there is a longstanding tradition of examining how literature has been used to express the postcolonial experience in Ireland, the role of the built environment has been neglected (Kincaid, 2006). Therefore, drawing on postcolonial experiences in Ireland, this paper explores the shifting representations of built heritage over the postindependence era and the extent that a residual colonial legacy can perform a key role in framing contemporary place-making processes, involving character, place distinctiveness, heritage and identity. These relationships are not fixed, but are in constant flux (Neill, 2005; Moore and Whelan, 2007). In this context, different groups in society, through time, have constructed their own alternative and competing heritage narratives relating to the meaning and value of the historic built environment. Some of these groups, in various positions of power (e.g. politicians, policymakers, etc.), have shaped heritage discourse - and thereby national policy.

In this paper, we firstly examine the evolution of built heritage priorities in postindependence Ireland, from antipathy towards colonial legacies, towards ambivalence, and a more recent revalorisation of built heritage. We then focus on representations emerging within contemporary 'elite discourses' - built heritage policy-makers, leading conservation practitioners and civil society conservation groups - to explore how conservation practitioners negotiate this postcolonial context, mobilising heritage discourses within everyday practices and to understand the implications of this in planning for the urban environment in postcolonial contexts. We argue that conservation policy actors downplay the symbolic meaning of the built environment, instead focusing on architectural qualities and the intrinsic building properties framed within expert knowledge, leading to a narrow prioritisation of heritage values, excluding vernacular architecture or buildings of limited 'architectural' value, but with significance for Irish nation-building and in the formation of local identity. However, we also chart efforts within the heritage sector to counter a perceived lack of public ownership or interest in colonial built environment legacies, by attempting to mobilise an 'Irish identity' surrounding the historic built environment to create a more inclusive heritage discourse with wider public support. …

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