Duncan Marshall was recently named the inaugural winner of the Bathurst Macquarie Heritage Medal.

Marshall is a heritage conservation consultant and immediate past chair of the ACT Heritage Council.

Architecture and Design spoke to him about changes to heritage conservation, why it’s difficult to work around the myths of heritage work and his dream of working on a farmhouse.

How has the approach to heritage architecture changed in the past five years?

I am not sure much has changed over the last five years, although the Burra Charter has been revised which influences the way in which heritage conservation is practised in Australia. Perhaps one thing that has changed is the declining fortunes of government heritage agencies which advise and regulate conservation practise. In general, these agencies have been squeezed, reducing their capacity to play a proactive role. What this means is that greater responsibility now rests with heritage architects and other practitioners to protect, to conserve and to sensitively adapt.

What is one thing you would like to see changed in regards to how architects approach heritage architecture?

To be very cautious in their approach, to respect the heritage building they are dealing with, and not to assume that heritage provides a wonderful opportunity for a grand creative flourish. The Bundeswehr Military History Museum in Dresden (the Militärhistorisches Museum der Bundeswehr) is one of those examples of a very dramatic modern element added to an old building, and it raises many questions in my mind.  It may be the right answer in that case.  But there is a need for great care and thought.  Often, the best creative response for heritage architecture is a modest, understated response, which allows the heritage building to be the focus of attention.

What is the most difficult aspect for you in terms of heritage architecture?

I have to try hard not to be surprised when I bump into one of the many myths that surround heritage conservation, such as that heritage can’t be touched or changed at all, and that a heritage building must always be treated like a museum. There is a temptation to believe that the general understanding of heritage has evolved considerably, and is now quite sophisticated given the passage of time. While the best of heritage thinking is sophisticated, there are still a lot of myths that are based on an earlier and much simpler understanding of heritage. The lessons are not to assume too much, and that as a community we need to continue to foster a better understanding about heritage.

Is there any project you have worked on that you wish you could go back to and do again?

I have been involved with several major heritage surveys In Australia, such as those for state of environment reporting. I would love to go back and do them again because they were a great deal of fun, if exhausting too, because of the extensive travel to remote locations as well as major cities. And it is a great privilege to get to see such a range of heritage buildings and places.  I am also very interested in the outcome of such work – what is the health of Australia’s heritage? Are we looking after our heritage or is it in poor condition?

Why is heritage architecture so important to you?

There is a certain charm about many old buildings, and coupled with their stories they speak to me of the rich tapestry of human endeavour, of triumph, of belief, of struggle, of pain, of the everyday in times past. Even the modern examples of heritage architecture like the High Court in Canberra have a strong appeal – it was a rare moment in time for Canberra and architecture in Australia, and it is a powerful and thrilling example.

I also find heritage work intellectually challenging and satisfying. There are always a special set of issues, analyses and tangible problems to solve with every project. After 30 years, I still enjoy the intellectual puzzle of heritage work.

Is there a building in Australia that you wish you had worked on?

I often travel long distances across Australia by car, and every time I see an abandoned and ruinous old farmhouse in a paddock I start thinking about what would be needed to restore it. So there are lots and lots buildings I wish I could work on, dotted across the landscape of Australia. Maybe some day I’ll choose just one farmhouse.

If you weren't an architect, what would you be doing?

Trying to bake perfect sourdough bread.

Image: Chair of the ACT heritage council Duncan Marshall
Photography by Jay Cronan
Source: Canberra Times