Heritage unpacked

Heritage unpacked

As architectural and heritage practitioner I am starting this blog to share information regarding events and concerns involving the built environment. I tend to be philosophical about the world we inhabit and am probably more partial to its poetic qualities than its quantitative value. My reasoning for this is simple – monetary value is time-bound while cultural heritage is infinitely valuable – it remembers our past and offers a way of being in the present while providing the potential of a future without getting lost. I am talking about a continuum of our experience in space, (culturally, socially and politically) and its effect on our wellbeing.

It is interesting how certain new buzz words are emanated in society, and before long, you hear it everywhere. Property advertisements which read: “Buy a piece of heritage in our new estate.” Firstly, if the property does not exist yet, there is no heritage, unless intangible.

Heritage as a concept extends beyond individual ownership and the state has a responsibility to manage it on behalf of future generations. In South Africa heritage resources are managed through the National Heritage Resources Act 25 of 1999.

Recently I received a phone call: “I purchased a heritage graded property and now I am told that I have to apply for special permits to do additions and alterations on it. How can this be, I own this property ?”

Indeed, you own the property but not its heritage value. In fact, any structure older than 60 years triggers Section 34 of the NHR Act governing structures. This means that one is required to make a presentation to the Provincial Heritage Resources Agency to apply for a permit in the event of demolition, additions and alterations. The relevant heritage body in the Western Cape is Heritage Western Cape. Some structures carry a conditional grading which means that they are provisionally protected until they have been properly assessed and their grading ratified for possible formal protection.

Heritage sites are assessed for significance in terms of specific values: intrinsic value, contextual value and associative value. It is also motivated in terms of specific criteria with regards to: aesthetic, cultural, scientific, social, linguistic, religious and further considerations such as rarity and vulnerability are taken into account in terms of grading and protection.

In brief, the national estate has been graded in terms of heritage significance: There are formally gazetted protected sites and provisional protected sites. Section 27 sites – Grade I would be sites with exceptional qualities of national interest such as Table Mountain, Robben Island, The Union Buildings, etc. Grade II would be sites of special provincial significance. These sites would trigger heritage impact assessments for any changes effected. Grade III (A, B & C) would be of contextual regional significance.

If the site shows human activity older than 100 years it potentially also triggers (Section 35) archaeological significance. Important to note that it is not only buildings which are protected but also old burial and grave sites (through Section 36), cultural landscapes and intangible heritage. Even objects of special significance are protected under Section 32 of the Act. The question of statues, which frequented the news lately, is also protected under the Act in section 37.

A further category of actions which may trigger the NHR Act, Section 38 requiring a Heritage Impact Assessment, would be development which is larger than 5 000 square meters in area, involving three or more erven which were subdivided or consolidated within the past five years, re-zoning of a site which exceeds 10 000 square meters in area or a pipeline, powerline, canal, wall, road, barrier or similar development which exceeds 300 meters in length.

In closing I would like to touch on one last category of heritage protection which I have not mentioned yet, that of heritage areas as contemplated in Section 31. These are designated areas of special cultural or environmental interest (in the opinion of the provincial heritage resources authority). The local planning authority may proclaim such heritage area by means of a notice in the Provincial Gazette. An example of such an area would be the Stanford Urban Conservation Overlay Zone: OZ1 – S/CA. I am presently commissioned to design a new house on an empty stand in the conservation zone. Special rules have been determined of how you may build in such an area, rules which governs maximum roof height, pitch and type. Bulk, window proportions and exterior wall rendering are all determined by such regulations.

You may wonder why an empty stand would trigger heritage concerns. It is to protect the urban design character – meaning the town and streetscape. Think about it next time you drive through a small town. Notice the scale of buildings and how one large new super store conflicts with its bulky imposition. Are we not attracted to small towns precisely for the harmonious and cohesive human scale development-grain and texture; offering special character which is calming in contrast to the high-rise and discordant trumps of the world?

So what is heritage resource management all about? On the one hand it is about conserving very special buildings and sites as historic documents while on the other managing inevitable change by mitigating negative impacts on heritage resources. If this is done responsibly it will ensure a sense of continuum so that we do not undermine the special qualities and cultural achievements of the past for future generations to enjoy.

Websites of interest for further reading: