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Anna Sivula

Professor of Cultural Heritage Studies,
University of Turku

Visa Immonen

Professor FSA, Department of Archaeology, History, Cultural Studies and Religion,
University of Bergen

Heritagisation, public participation, and old wooden houses

WoodiSH: What is the value of residential / indigenous / tacit / non-expert knowledge on cultural heritage for its interpretation and preservation?  

Heritagisation is a set of processes which identify and value certain items and traits in our environment as heritage, and this has a variety of social and material consequences. In Northern Europe, these processes are largely conditioned by the state and its various administrative institutions and experts, which constitute the pursuit or practice, frequently named the Authorised Heritage Discourse (AHD). However, heritage is also always connected with everyday experiences and grassroot level activities, and part of them are tacit, local, and non-expert. Often such encounters with heritage are highly pragmatic. Some of these experiences become textualized and incorporated to the heritage discussions, while some of them remain non-verbal. Even these unspoken aspects of living, however, inform and orient our views on heritage, and constitute a vital element in heritage practices. 


As the AHD has changed during the 21st century, one of the big shifts has been the realisation of the need to incorporate bottom-up views and debates into identification and evaluation of heritage and subsequent administrative practices. Although these initiatives are still in their infancy, already the value of tacit and local has become better acknowledged. Similarly in scholarship they have gained more attention as public engagement and the communal aspect of heritage has become a more popular topic of research. 



WoodiSH: How to enhance the public participation model of heritage preservation/management and what are its challenges in the Nordic/Nordic-Baltic context? 


Since Sherry Arnstein published her seminal article “Ladder of Citizen Participation” in 1969, dozens similar models have been introduced. This shows that there probably is not any single comprehensive and all-inclusive model, a panacea, but instead a set of models which must be constructed based on the specific aims for the participation, and the individual context of interaction. The framework for public participation is, however, defined by such policy papers as the Faro Convention, and nationally defined cultural heritage strategies. 


In Northern Europe the heritage institutions and experts seem to be aware of the Faro Convention and national heritage strategies, but so far, their implementation has been narrow. The Faro Convention is actually very radical in its definition of heritage as well as heritage communities and how their participation is secured. It argues that public participation is much more than the possibility of voting for one’s favourite item of heritage online. Moreover, heritage experts often seem to be afraid of tensions and conflicts over heritage when local and indigenous communities are involved, and instead they tend to be overly cheerful of how fun and games heritage can be. 


Heritage is always political and contested and that should not be shied away from. Conversely, talk about heritage is often actually about rights, duties and relations between different social groups and communities. The obligation of heritage management should be to provide a space or forum for such discussions. Although the content of such public engagements can be difficult and the problems unresolved, the space itself should be open, transparent, safe, and inclusive. 


WoodiSH: What are the challenges of urbanization for the tangible and intangible cultural heritage to be found in nowadays urbanized territories? If more specific, challenges for historical wooden housing. 


Before directly addressing the challenges, we need to talk a bit about urbanisation and its relationship with heritage. Urbanisation can be understood as a group of administrative, cultural, financial, social, and technological processes which radically alter landscape. Usually, it also involves heritagisation which is an attempt – typical of modernity – to manage change through the concept of heritage. In practice, heritagisation means the identification and evaluation of some elements in the landscape as heritage, which often implies conservation and care. However, modernity has again and again shown itself to be hostile towards wooden houses. Consequently, during the 20th century, heritagisation of wooden houses has been a highly volatile process, leaving some urban areas entirely cleared of wooden houses, while some districts have become protected and seen as nationally important heritage. Although the value of wooden houses, whether old or newly built, has gained much more appreciation in the 21st century, this ambivalence is still present when decisions are made on whether old wooden houses are to be demolished or new ones built. 


The 20th-century conflict over the protection of traditional wooden houses considered houses mostly as architecture, and districts as objects of urban planning and administrative processes. There was a shift in attitudes in the late 20th century, however, and this can be seen also in the changes of scholarship. While earlier literature focused on large-scale and top-down issues, like legislation and management, more recent scholarly output has taken a more bottom-up perspective to wooden architecture. It analyses how living in a wooden house is related to the identities of its inhabitants, their views on the cityscape, and the communal aspects of living in wooden houses. Heritagisation is no longer seen solely in terms of management but something that stems from and affects communities. 


If the challenges posed by urbanisation on wooden architecture is approached from a bottom-up perspective, one of the central themes is financial. On the one hand, urbanisation means a boost to the value of land, and this has consequences for urban living. It makes land use more efficient and profitable, and through more dense urban structure, perhaps even more ecological. On the other hand, not only urban plots have become less affordable, but also living in wooden houses has become more exclusive as they have developed into status symbols. The designation of old wooden houses as officially protected heritage usually means more expensive renovations and maintenance. Consequently, acquiring and living in a wooden house requires a certain level of income. There is the well-known joke that the modern architects who designed concrete suburbs for the masses lived themselves in wooden houses of Art Nouveau style. One could argue that urban heritage is in danger of becoming a synonym for social exclusivity. 


It is important to remember that wooden buildings in an urban environment are a very different phenomenon from wooden buildings in a rural environment. When analysing the history of heritagisation of townscapes with wooden houses, there are several and well documented examples in the western Finland, for instance, the heritological cases of wood-built districts in Rovaniemi, Tornio, Oulu, Kokkola, Raahe, Pietarsaari, Kristiinankaupunki, Vaasa, Pori Town, Pori Reposaari, Rauma, Uusikaupunki, Turku, Tammisaari, and Hanko to name just some. All heritagisation processes which involve wooden buildings and built environments are local and individual. Yet each of these cases reveal some general patterns and challenges for the future heritagisation of wooden buildings in an urban setting. 


We only point out these three cases: 

1) The heritagisation, by UNESCO, of Old Rauma into a world heritage site is a case which shows the advantages and disadvantages of heritagisation from the point of view of residents. This case was investigated primarily by Outi Tuomi-Nikula (but see also Tanja Vahtikari) in the first decade of the 21st century.  

2) The more ordinary or rather nationally oriented heritagisation of Wooden Pori is a case where the protection of wooden buildings was mostly based on national, regional, and local regulations on the protection and enlisting of built heritage. The maintenance of this architecture is more or less on the responsibility of the house owners and other residents. The heritagisation process of Wooden Pori was documented, for example, by Liisa Nummelin based at Satakunta Museum. 

3) The case of dark heritage of so-called Turun tauti, or ‘Turku Syndrome’. The term was coined to describe the unscrupulous demolition of old buildings to make way for the construction of modernist apartment blocks, and the related corruption at the highest levels of the city’s public and private sector in Turku in the 1960s and 1970s. These events sparked the first popular movements to preserve historic districts in the city, and public demonstrations took place when old buildings were demolished. Gradually these movements led to a better and more systematic preservation of old architecture and urban landscapes in the city and altered the planning of land use. 


These three well documented cases are examples of variations in the heritagisation of wooden houses in an urban environment.  


The cultural heritage processes of the wooden urban districts in the past should be analysed and interpreted in the light of several such local case studies. If we want to find key ideas and patterns for the future heritagization of wooden houses, we must know what happened to such localities earlier. What heritage was destroyed during the Second World War, which elements of wooden architecture were consumed by efficient urban land use, and, finally, which items of wooden heritage became intentionally protected by who and why? To discover future pathways for heritagisation, we should trace, classify, and name these actual patterns of heritagisation in the past. 


WoodiSH: What is your perspective on the link between circular knowledge and circular skills and preservation/management of the cultural heritage?  If more specific, can we treat residential knowledge and skills in managing wooden houses and urban nature around these houses as circular in any possible way? 


Wooden houses have been built, used, and maintained in the Nordic-Baltic region for millennia, and this has generated a variety of traditions of different historical depth: some traditions have continued for centuries, some have much shorter lifecycles. Despite their long history, however, the traditions are not necessarily ecological or circular. Since forests and timber have been so abundant in Northern Europe and the populations relatively small, wooden resources could have been used wastefully. The length of a tradition is thus not a guarantee of how ecological or circular it is the use of natural materials. 


Although old wooden houses have been used and new ones built throughout the modern period, there was a major rupture in the 20th century, when new technologies and materials as well as attitudes emerged with the modernisation of society. Those who lived in wooden houses no longer necessarily knew how to maintain the building, and this created a demand for professionals who might not know the traditional practices either. In parallel with increasing professionalisation, many traditions related to wooden houses were disrupted or even discontinued. However, in the late 20th century with the developing interest in heritage, some professionals and scholars from different disciplinary backgrounds have tried to revive or reconstruct traditional construction and maintenance practices. Some of them, like the so-called House Doctor, Finnish architect, and professor emeritus Panu Kaila, have gained wide media attention and fame among wider audiences. 


The growing interest in maintaining wooden houses brings out another essential outcome of heritagisation: it alters the value of things and practices deemed heritage. Not only items of old architecture but also their construction techniques and even materials have attracted value as heritage. Importantly, this value creation can be extended to new wooden buildings because they – in some sense – continue the local building tradition. Heritagisation has thus important instrumental usage in the promotion of wood as a construction material. With thoughtful and systematic work, heritage could give additional aura to living even in new wooden houses, because of its materials and ways of construction. Through heritagisation, wood can become a lifestyle choice. Therefore, it is fundamental that the heritage aspect of wooden houses is integrated into discussions on circular economy and circular knowledge. 

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