Project Management Institute

Projects to Preserve Cultural Heritage

Transcript

STEVE HENDERSHOT

To set foot in the Roman Colosseum, the Taj Mahal, Machu Picchu or the Forbidden City—or any of the other 1,117 UNESCO World Heritage Sites—is to get an immersive, visceral lesson in human history. It’s the sort of experience that even the most descriptive, evocative textbook or documentary could never fully conjure.

KACEY HADICK

These sites, there’s so many stories. I learn so much when I get to travel to these places. I think the more people learn about these places and care about them, we’re ensuring that they’ll be around for future generations. 

NARRATOR

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STEVE HENDERSHOT 

This is Projectified®. I’m Steve Hendershot.

On the 15th of April in 2019, a fire at the famed Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris raged for half a day. The landmark structure, completed in the 14th century, site of Napoleon’s coronation and the home of a prominent, fictitious hunchback, was severely damaged, and immediately French officials announced a major restoration project.

The first year of that undertaking has focused on setting the table—clearing away scaffolding and verifying that Notre Dame retains the fundamental structural soundness required for restoration. That work is ongoing, despite a brief pause during the COVID-19 crisis. And when the church bell rang out in support of healthcare workers on the one-year anniversary of the fire, it was a reminder of the symbolic power of historic cultural sites.

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Today we’ll hear from two project leaders whose work is focused specifically on the conservation of cultural heritage. The first is Ray Pepi, president of Building Conservation Associates in New York City, a pioneering conservation firm that he founded in 1985. BCA’s recent portfolio includes work on the United States Capitol in Washington, D.C., and St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York.

MUSICAL TRANSITION
STEVE HENDERSHOT 

Some cultural artifacts essentially live behind glass and are as shielded from wear and tear as we can make them. In other cases, such as your project at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City, you’re working to preserve the building’s cultural and historical significance, but it also continues to serve an ongoing daily purpose. So how do you juggle the priorities of preserving the essence of a building’s historical character and setting it up for the future while also ensuring it can perform its modern, day-to-day function?

RAY PEPI

If it’s a building that is an occupied building or building that the public goes in and out of, we have to take extreme precautions about how people will interact with the building. So, for instance, if there’s wood paneling or a decorative plaster or paint near the entrance of the building, that becomes a very big concern because there’ll be a lot of contact with the public, which would inevitably cause some erosion or a soiling of the surface. And so we take measures to try to protect those surfaces because we know there’s going to be a lot of contact or potential contact. People leaning against the wall, they inevitably put their foot back against the wall. We know that’s going to happen, and so we build in into our design and specifications protocols to alleviate that or mitigate any kind of effect of over-usage.

STEVE HENDERSHOT

To what extent are you able to identify and mitigate those risks during the research and design phases, rather than having to flag and address them down the road?

RAY PEPI

Well, it depends on what the schedule is. It seems like every project that we’ve ever done has an accelerated schedule. I can’t think of a time when we’ve asked a client, “So, how much time do we have to do this?” And they say, “Oh, just take your time. We’ve got plenty of time.” The normal answer is, “We’re ready to go. We want to get started right away, and we want to finish as soon as possible.”

So often there’s a limited amount of time to actually do the research and to do the study. And sometimes we’re fast-tracking the design with doing the research, which can be a challenge, but it’s a common practice. The technical issues, I think we can solve many of those technical issues while we’re doing the design. But the one thing that we can’t really do in parallel so well is the historic research.

This is a subject that many owners fail to recognize the significance of. For any kind of restoration or conservation of a cultural property, knowing the changes of that building over time and the alteration chronologies and conducting a significant study of the spaces is of primary importance before anybody lifts a pencil or types a key on their computer. And that is very difficult to explain to folks who aren’t accustomed to the way this process actually works. But without the historic research, it’s very difficult for us to make valid architectural design decisions about how a building should be altered or treated in a responsible way that reflects either the intent of the original designer, or reflects what is deemed to be the moment of historical importance of the building.

STEVE HENDERSHOT

I’ve seen that treated kind of in a hybrid way from a curatorial perspective. You know, one room will get the 1638 treatment, and the next room will be 1822. That seems trickier to do building-wide. Have you ever tried to do things like that, or is there ever a call for it?

RAY PEPI

Well, in a house museum, that may be perfectly legitimate. However, it gets more complicated and somewhat more interesting on a building. We’ll take St. Patrick’s Cathedral because you brought it up. This is a building that was started in 1858. It was interrupted by the Civil War, which caused some design changes to the building. So for instance, if you look at James Renwick’s drawings—he was the original architect for St. Patrick’s Cathedral—you’ll notice that he designed flying buttresses on the building. But if you look at the building today, there are no flying buttresses.

And the reason for that is the Civil War. When building resumed after the Civil War, there were less funds to construct the building. They had only gotten up 18 feet. And so Renwick had to change the materials of construction. The vaulting of the roof was no longer stone; it was plaster. The walls were no longer marble; they were a cementitious precast material. And so he lightened the entire load and the stress on the outer walls and eliminated the flying buttresses. That was one thing. We’re certainly not going to restore the building back with flying buttresses. It was never built with flying buttresses. But you have to understand the historical evolution of the building to really appreciate facts like that.

So in the course of the building evolving and changing over time and deteriorating, parts of it were removed. And not only were they removed, the molding profiles are different around the entrances. When we studied the building, we were confronted with making a decision about reversing some of those changes or not. Obviously, there are costs associated with doing that. We studied it; the cardinal asked us to give him the information about it. We did determine what changes occurred, but at the end of the day it was concluded that the changes that have occurred on that building have become known to the world as St. Patrick’s Cathedral today. And they’re just as important as the original components were. And so it was decided not to reverse many of those changes and that we would essentially conserve or repair the building instead of spending money on decorative elements that were stripped off 100 years ago.

STEVE HENDERSHOT

How do you see conservation practice changing over the next few years?

RAY PEPI

Well, I see the importance of sustainable architecture to be a dominant force. Historic preservation, by its very nature, is a sustainable action because we’re not demolishing a building. We’re keeping it. The embodied energy of a building that exists is maintained and is preserved. That’s all really good.

I think that there is an ongoing discussion or conversation about the priority of maintaining the character of a historic roofline, say, and installing solar panels. In order to make those decisions, there needs to be advances in our thinking about the value of certain types of architecture and whether we need to have 5,000 of the same types of historic buildings, say, perfectly preserved, versus having some representative number of them perfectly preserved, but having perhaps the larger bulk of them adapted to be sustainable buildings, so that we have a future to enjoy these buildings in.

MUSICAL TRANSITION
STEVE HENDERSHOT 

At the top of the episode, I mentioned how magical it is to experience cultural heritage sites in the flesh. Well, I believe that’s true, but I also have a confession to make: I’ve only been to one of the four places I mentioned. I know about the others because of the ways that they have been documented and described—a process that began centuries ago with books and travelogues, and that continues today with really extraordinary and detailed digital tools. 

One of the companies undertaking that work globally is CyArk—short for Cyber Archive—based in Oakland, California, USA. CyArk is a nonprofit organization that teams up with the groups around the world managing cultural heritage sites in their areas, and it trains those local teams to use 3D scanners, traditional photography and even drones to digitally document these sites. 

Projectified®’s Hannah Schmidt spoke with Kacey Hadick, the director of project development at CyArk, about how these local teams are using this technology to manage sites day to day and also to plan for the future.

MUSICAL TRANSITION
HANNAH SCHMIDT

What are some of the challenges you face when you’re working to document cultural heritage sites?

KACEY HADICK

Really, what we find is that no matter how much planning we do, once we get in the field, we find out all of these things that people forgot to maybe send in an email.

For example, when we work on Buddhist temples in Myanmar, we didn’t realize that we couldn’t wear shoes in the buildings. And so when we’re working on the roof of the structures, we had to be barefoot moving all this equipment around. And that’s fine if it’s a cool morning, but in the hot of the Myanmar sun, that was challenging. So we had to figure out ways to effectively move the equipment around the site to do the documentation work.

HANNAH SCHMIDT

So there has to be some on-site problem-solving when these things come up.

KACEY HADICK

Yeah, most definitely. And so really what helps us is since we’ve identified these local groups, they can kind of help us navigate these issues. Always CyArk is working with local teams. We not only do these documentation projects, but every project that we do is accompanied by these capacity-building workshops. In these workshops, we’re kind of sharing the ways that digital tools can be used to solve problems, but there’s a lot of listening, too. So we’re trying to understand what issues that the sites are facing, and then we’re sharing the ways that we know that these digital tools can be used to respond to these problems.

HANNAH SCHMIDT

One of your recent projects was in Rapa Nui, also known as Easter Island. You’ve been to the island a couple of times. How was the project launched?

KACEY HADICK

We had received funding from Oculus, which is this virtual reality group within Facebook, to create a virtual reality educational game around climate change impact on cultural heritage. Rapa Nui is cited as one of these examples that as climate changes, this island is struggling to adapt to this new kind of paradigm. And so I contacted them, and together over six months we identified 10 sites that were being negatively impacted by climate change, and then we did that project together.

And then we’ve now gone back two times since then. I just returned a few weeks ago where we were able to document that site from 2017 and actually witnessed the changes. Even just visually, I can tell. I went back in 2017 and I went two weeks ago, and I could see the changes that were there. And with these two digital models that we now have, we can say exactly how much the site has lost of its material.

These monuments, they have spiritual significance. I don’t know if you’re familiar, but they’re called ahu, these platforms, and then on them are these giant stone statues. And each of these statues was made to represent a living person from hundreds of years ago. Losing that heritage is very personal to the people of Rapa Nui, and that heritage is very important and is imbued with all of this spiritual significance. And a lot of times in those same places where these sites are are human remains as well. So burials, and so at this site that we worked at just a few weeks ago, you could see where these human remains were falling into the sea. That’s a very personal story, and it just kind of underlines the importance of doing this and equipping site managers with the tools that they can manage the many sites underneath their care.

HANNAH SCHMIDT

What’s the team in Rapa Nui going to do with all the documentation that you’ve all gathered over the years?

KACEY HADICK

So following our project in 2017, the team on the ground actually went ahead and purchased all of the equipment that we use. So now they have a laser scanner, they have drones, and they have terrestrial cameras. There’s many thousands of sites under their care, and so even when we’re not there, they’re using these same tools to create 3D models that they can use to better manage and understand the threats that are going on to these sites.

In Rapa Nui, it’s an interesting case. Even though it’s controlled by Chile, the island is not really Chilean. The people are kind of Polynesian, more related to Hawaiians and Tahitians. And so the national park there is actually managed by an indigenous group called Ma’u Henua. We’ve worked with both the Chilean government and Ma’u Henua, and so they’re using the data to make decisions on the management. They’re using the data to share with the Chilean government: Look at what’s happening, and we need to do something. And so then they’re making decisions to rebuild the seawall to protect the site from erosion or that kind of thing.

It’s really to make concrete steps to protect these sites. Not only is it to share what’s going on, but it’s in order to make decisions on whether or not they move sites or whether or not they create structures to protect them. Right now, the indigenous group is creating a seawall to protect a really important ahu that is close to the community that lives there. And so they’ve been able to use digital documentation to kind of understand how the site is being impacted by erosion and then kind of use that to communicate to both the Chilean government and the community on the necessity and the need to do this intervention.

HANNAH SCHMIDT

What do you hope these projects do for cultural heritage sites and the teams managing them not only in the short term but also in the future?

KACEY HADICK

We’re always focusing our work to ensure that the data that we capture is not just data that’s collected and put in a hard drive somewhere. So we always want to make sure that the data has utility in the short term. Whether this is providing an accurate record so conservators can understand cracking or deterioration or if the data is shared with the public to kind of raise awareness for the heritage. We’re always looking to solve problems in the short term, but as well, the very nature of this very accurate point-in-time record of the data allows site managers in case something catastrophic happens in the future, if there’s a fire or an earthquake, that they can use that really accurate record to rebuild or have a record of how it was, which goes much beyond maybe photographs or notes of the monument.

Fortunately, this hasn’t happened in many instances where we’ve worked, but there’s been a few cases. One when arson affected these wooden tombs in Uganda. So fortunately, there was data before the arson attack happened on the building, and so even though the building was lost completely, it was able to be rebuilt using the models and 3D drawings that we had generated from that project.

MUSICAL TRANSITION
STEVE HENDERSHOT

The steady march of time isn’t always kind to cultural heritage sites, but one thing the years have given us is an opportunity to learn, experiment and refine the way teams approach preservation and conservation projects. That, along with new technology that helps us better share these special places with people who aren’t able to visit in person, amounts to a pretty important service to humankind.

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