Books (March 01, 2002)

The Invention of the Historic Monument. Franoise Choay, Cambridge University Press, 2001.

Review by Graham Livesey

In light of the global forces shaping contemporary built environments, there is an enormous urgency to protect a dwindling stock of historic buildings and urban districts. This is particularly the case in Canada where the federal government has recently awoken to the fact that our built heritage, including works from the recent past, is disappearing at an alarming rate.

Originally published in 1992, the recent translation into English by Lauren M. O’Connell of Franoise Choay’s Allgorie du patrimoine provides a contribution to the heritage discussions currently surrounding architecture and urbanism. Choay’s study begins strongly with an introductory essay that sets out in an eloquent manner–expected from an author of Choay’s experience and calibre–the critical issues that plague architectural heritage, the historic monument and architectural preservation. From the introduction one expects to proceed into a detailed discussion of these issues. Unfortunately, this is not the case. Instead we encounter a somewhat pedestrian account of the architectural monument and heritage across history, and a focus on the development of legislation in these areas, particularly in France and Britain.

Several vital figures appear in the text including Eugne-Emanuel Viollet-le-Duc, Victor Hugo, Alois Riegl and Camillo Sitte; however, John Ruskin’s ideas of architectural memory and history seem to most strongly influence the work. Buried in this survey are a number of surprising and informative sections, particularly those that address the French Revolution and the career of an obscure Italian urbanist named Gustavo Giovannoni (1873-1943). Giovannoni, among various pioneering contributions to the field, was responsible for the remarkable rehabilitation of the old Italian city of Bergamo (completed in 1936).

Towards the end of the book, Choay reconnects with the ideas presented in the introduction, but she fails to deliver a conclusive ending. There is no doubt that Choay raises many of the complex issues that continue to surround architectural and urban heritage, but this book is primarily of interest to historians; it could have had much wider appeal.