One of the things that I loved about studying Building Conservation has been the opportunity to visit usually inaccessible places guided by people who knows them like the back of their hands. When I was an Architecture student, in Naples, I had the impolite habit of using my academic transcript as a passepartout to persuade people to let me enter barred buildings. Here in Cardiff, I discovered that my lust after “touching the untouchable” had been institutionalized, and these field explorations have become integral to my knowledge.
When in a rainy January afternoon I found myself walking through the Coal Exchange building galleries, for the first time I had the opportunity of deeply understanding the “spirit of the place” of the city in which I had moved to a few months before. Everything seemed to me like a Sherlock Holmes novel. The “Tempus Fugit” inscription on the clock dominating the huge central room didn’t catch me unprepared: if time was flying, I was keeping still in that very moment, doing what I loved.
If I was there, it was because a fellow student and I had followed our professor to assist her during a laser scanner survey of the building. The aim was to produce a three-dimensional representation of the timber central room, aimed to register and popularize the exceptional architectural features of one of the symbolic buildings from Cardiff’s epic industrial history. Our guides for the occasion were members of “Save the Coal Exchange”, a community group set up to defend the building from the threat of demolition in order to make space for new buildings in the Bay area. Speaking with them, I felt grateful to have the opportunity of exchanging ideas with people whose passion reminded me of my own struggles for the defence of cultural heritage in my country.
Walking through the building’s rooms, I felt part of a community of people linked by a sensibility for the past. I had the opportunity of watching the sophisticated mechanisms on the back of the big central clock, I caught the possibility of visiting the usually closed upper galleries. Basically, I could give free rein to the little Sherlock that is into me, investigating every corner, and do you wanna know what was the result of this “curiosity satisfaction fiesta”? Hear ye, Hear ye, we ended up featured in the local paper, Wales Online! Can you believe it?
Seriously, though, I firmly believe that allowing people to visit closed places is the first step to save them. Inaccessibility is the harbinger of abandonment and a locked door an injustice to the community. You have no idea of how many buildings in Naples are closed to public! In most cases, this means sentencing their destruction. For this reason, I really appreciate when a university is engaged in the diffusion of the knowledge of local heritage. The possibilities of appreciating in the first person the historic built environment maybe is the most powerful source of motivation for people who are specializing to conserve it. The numerous field visits have been to me a valuable source of enthusiasm. Every time that you put on the red helmet to visit a conservation yard, believe me, you feel like a renewed Indiana Jones! You feel like if somebody put in your hands a master-key for history.