Architecture as interpretive infrastructure

Interpret Europe has just published a little introduction to heritage interpretation for architects and landscape architects. In one of my previous roles, I was regularly in consultancy teams that included architects, so the booklet got me thinking about some of those experiences as well as architecture that I liked, both in heritage sites and in museums.

Working with existing buildings

A lot of the projects that I was involved in were centred on existing buildings – historic houses, castles, courthouses, even a swimming pool [1]. Our remit was on the conceptual side, from feasibility studies to development/activity and business planning, so we worked very closely with the architects in imagining what might be possible within the existing spaces and what else may be developed.

Our approach was always to respect and enhance the ‘readability’ of a building or site as much as possible, even if it no longer functioned as originally intended. ‘Readability’ here means that you can connect what you see to what the building or feature originally was used for. The building or site is likely heritage precisely for its previous use(s), so retaining their visibility are paramount in creating a heritage infrastructure that facilitates people’s engagement. This may sound self-evident, and it is where you’re talking about a heritage (restoration) project that presents the site as was: for example, you restore a castle in order for it to still be presented only as a castle.

It’s a bit different when you’re looking at creating something more, which was generally the case in our projects. So for example, the courthouse project(s) I was involved in didn’t aim to present the buildings as courthouses, but rather develop them further into a museum and a cultural centre, respectively. In these cases, too, readability is key, as far as I’m concerned, and for the same reasons.

I may have been quite fortunate in our projects, but there was never any major conflict with the architects on this aim, even where additional buildings needed to be added. If anything, architects could sometimes seem overly protective of the status quo, but for all the right reasons.

Purpose-built visitor centres

Where there are no existing buildings involved, such as with purpose-built visitor centres, I personally really appreciate architecture that is an experience in its own right. That’s not to say that it need not pay attention to the surrounding site, on the contrary. In my opinion, good architecture can and should be the first point of interpretation, by providing a gateway to a site, sometimes guiding us in our approach, getting us ready for the encounter, as it were [2].

Example 1: Urquhart Castle

One memorable example for me is the visitor centre at Urquhart Castle. You watch a film about the history of the castle, at the end of which the projection screen pulls away to reveal a fantastic view of the castle ruins themselves. What an impact! And if my memory serves me correctly, you can exit from the theatre (almost) directly out onto the site. This truly enhanced my approach to the site, about which I knew nothing beforehand. I was ready to go and explore. Brilliant.

Example 2: Culloden Battlefield

The visitor centre at Culloden Battlefield where I worked for several years is an example of architecture that could have been equally brilliant, but for reasons I am not familiar with didn’t quite turn out that way [3]. The intention was for a rooftop viewing point to enable visitors to look out over the moor and battlefield. Unfortunately, from access issues (at the time I worked there you had to get an extra ticket for the rooftop) to odd alignment (you had to stand at an angle to really see across the site), this never quite took off in the way it was intended. It also wasn’t integrated into the official visitor journey through the centre which always seemed like a missed opportunity to me (if there was a reason for this, I wasn’t made aware of it). Just imagine if at the end of the exhibition you would have been naturally guided to that view! It would have been a climax and transition similar to that at Urquhart.

Example 3: Varusschlacht

My final example is of architecture that to me always seemed more of a distraction than anything else. It’s not a visitor centre but rather pavilions placed on one of the presumed sites of the Varusschlacht, or Battle of the Teutoburg Forest. In all fairness, the architects did have a form of experiential encounter (I cannot call this interpretation) in mind: a camera obscura shows the battlefield ‘upside down’; a listening pipe focuses visitors’ attention on outside sounds, and finally, a long-since defunct video installation of current newsreels also has slits that allow narrow glimpses of the battlefield beyond. However, these experiences seem arbitrary to me – for example, there is no framing of them that might link the now to the then. What is more, the structures that were created are massive steel cubes that disrupt the view across the site from wherever you stand. This may well have been the intention (I do not recall the specifics on this). However, in my opinion, if it actively gets in the way of people’s own heritage encounters, it has no place on a heritage site.

So, if I were to summarise my personal expectations of architecture with regard to heritage, then it is this: architecture must always be about heritage [4]. It must be the first piece of interpretive infrastructure, providing a gateway and transition and being a guiderail toward and for heritage itself. In a visitor centre, architecture can be bold, striking, confident – after all, architecture is a form of sculptural art. Yet it is art with a purpose and should always enhance, never take away from heritage, especially when it comes to people’s ability to engage with, make use of it, and perform it.


[1] These were all projects with a heritage focus. In other words, their aim was not to turn a historic building or site into anything other than a facility supporting the heritage of that site, i.e. as a visitor centre or exhibition.
[2] I’m not talking landscape architecture here.
[3] To be clear, I like the building itself very much. It’s bold and modern, with a very nice mixture of materials. However, as interpretation, it just was way too abstract – from the memorial wall to the internal alignment mimicking the direction in which the Jacobites were headed (this according to the architects, I never would have realised this myself if they hadn’t said). Having said that, the traditional interpretation (i.e. the exhibition) inside was, in my view, fantastic, and the architecture made that possible, too. So it worked very well in that regard.
[4] Quick reminder that I do not understand heritage as purely material, on the contrary. If there is a material element to it, it’s about its use in people’s performance of heritage and everything that is involved in that. That’s what I mean here when I write that ‘architecture must always be about heritage’.

One thought on “Architecture as interpretive infrastructure

  1. Absolutely! It never hurts to be reminded of points that should be self-evident, but can so easily be forgotten.
    Agree re: Culloden and also about Urquhart Castle. I can still hear the collective gasp as the screen pulled back to reveal the Urquhart ruins on a gloriously sunny day. An inspired conclusion to the visitor introduction to the property, and one of the most impactful one I’ve ever experienced. Let the architecture speak!

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