What Keeps Conservation Current and Makes it Count?

What Keeps Conservation Current and Makes it Count?

It is often said in conservation circles that no two projects are the same. Some, however, are so very different from anything else that they challenge the limits of possibility, dramatically change our approach and experience, and even change people. They are more than just unusual, they are unique.

by David Millar, Director and Head of Conservation, Austin-Smith:Lord

David Millar

“On any commission there will be at least an element of learning, training and upskilling on the part of the professionals, the site team, suppliers and sometimes the client, too. The difference with a unique project is that the lessons learned can be of such significance and value that wider knowledge-sharing will influence a whole sector.

Such projects are more than just exemplars, they are gamechangers. Going forward, they inform best practice, innovate with technology, demonstrate capability, shift perceptions and bolster the business case for heritage work, to the benefit of all sector-wide. These are the projects that keep conservation current and, ultimately, make it count.

Great Pagoda Kew GardensThe restoration of The Great Pagoda, in the Royal Botanic Gardens, in Kew, London, is one such project. It is a story of lost dragons and architecture rediscovered. Its twisting tale takes us from cultural artefacts and Chinoiserie, to computers and laser sintering.

As conservation architects, Austin-Smith:Lord have been working with Historic Royal Palaces (HRP), providing the technical expertise on the two-year project to restore this famous landmark structure to its original, eye-catching splendour. It is, without doubt, unique.

At almost 50m tall and adorned with some 80 richly coloured, decorative Chinese dragons, the Pagoda proved a landmark attraction when it first opened to the public more than 250 years ago. Probably commissioned by Princess Augusta, it was designed by the eminent architect Sir William Chambers and saw Londoners and tourists alike flock to visit. It not only formed part of an homage to the Grand Tour in the famous gardens, but it also offered one of the earliest and finest bird’s eye views of London.

Fast-forward to the present decade and the dragons have long since disappeared, sunk without trace. Removed in the 1780s, when repairs were undertaken to the roof of the 10-storey building, they were rumoured to have been sacrificed in payment for the Prince Regent’s gambling debts, although, being made of wood, may simply have rotted over time.

As a result, these mythical creatures not only add mystery to the history, they also pose a restoration puzzle for the modern-day conservation architect to solve.


The job of a conservation architect calls for a combination of almost contradictory sensibilities and skillsets: part historian, part heretic; part curator, part innovator; part designer, part detective. Solving the dragon puzzle called for all those talents put together.

Amazingly, we simply do not have a single surviving example of the original dragons. What we do have, thanks to painstaking investigative work, are instances of their artistic representation, in watercolours and oil paintings, plus original etchings.

The research carried out by HRP involved tracking down every possible image of English Chinoiserie in dragon form. The difficulty then for us as architects was translating these multifarious findings into 21st-century objects. In response, we have had to be very innovative, not just with the design form, but the material of production and how it all relates to the building itself. The answer was 3D printing.

The decision to 3D-print many of the dragons brings cutting-edge modern tech into play on restoration of a period structure. This solution illustrates how heritage work can build skills capacity and advance technological understanding suitable for a whole host of architectural design and construction projects, including new build. Sometimes the answer to the past can be found in the future, and vice versa.

Selective laser sintering (SLS), or 3D printing as the additive manufacturing process is more commonly known, represents a pretty radical departure for restoration. In fact, usage on the Pagoda may well constitute an industry ‘first’.

In construction, thus far, 3D printing has often been associated with big, unsophisticated concrete walls and box-like rooms. In consumer markets, it has successfully been employed on intricate custom craft work, such as might be undertaken by home-based start-up jewellery makers and decorative art enthusiasts.


The dragons sit somewhere between those two poles: involving detailed lightweight design, but also scale and robustness for exterior use. On the Pagoda, therefore, we have harmoniously blended old and new, featuring traditionally carved dragons alongside modern 3D-printed forms. The common denominator between the two analogue and digital manifestations is that both were underpinned by quality preparatory historical research.


At one level, restoration work is all about the research. That research enables the decision-making process on the project, plus is also itself of educational merit. However, it takes time – and time, as they say, is money.

Especially perhaps in an ‘Age of Austerity’, such investment in heritage and conservation activity comes under scrutiny, if not pressure. Where is the value, what is the payback?

The answer is threefold: there is shared value in the professional learnings; revenue in the visitor spend at the restored attraction; and, maybe most importantly, both personal reward and public gain in the wellbeing of emotional attachment to places and people, plus the securing of cultural wealth for current and future generations.

Saving buildings, whether they be museums, churches, libraries or even follies, preserves tangible links between the past, present and future. In addition, enlightened clients like HRP and Kew Gardens, understand that whilst the emotional value of forging attachments to physical places and social histories cannot exactly be computed or calculated in their funding model, it is nevertheless also real. This is public ‘edutainment’ on a grand scale.


When it comes to scoring the success of conservation, restoration is primarily judged on its authenticity and here again research holds the key.

Like the forensics team in a detective drama, conservation architects are after clues. Surprisingly, the exact chronology of a structure can often be determined through something as specific as the science of paint analysis – in the case of the Pagoda, fixing a date in time of 1762.

On a project like this, paint can tell you so much about the development of the building and how it originally looked. You can strip layers off the object, microscopically examine the surface and the thickness, then deduce from that the colour and chemical constituents. You should then be able to work out the age of the paint and therefore when it was likely applied, which in turn gives a timeline for your building.

Paint told us that the Pagoda was green and white, but it also told us when: 1762.”


Projects such as the Pagoda are unique. They have history and they have life. As such, their legacy is much more than just the sum of data archived on some office server in the digital afterlife. They exist in the experience and expertise of individuals and teams, almost as much as on the drawing board and the site. They give back.

This timeless and tireless energy is what inspires their conservation.

They are truly memorable, maybe even magical.