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Maintenance and repair of old urban buildings as ‘politics of tradition’: experiences from a Swedish modernist context

Conference contribution
Authors Ingrid Martins Holmberg
Published in International Association for the Study of Traditional Environments, Conference Coimbra, October 4-8th 2018
Publication year 2018
Published at Department of Conservation
Language en
Keywords caring, everyday practices, maintenance and repair, old buildings, beyond ‘heritagization’, resource perspective, urban glue
Subject categories Human Geography, Settlement studies, Architecture, Cultural Studies


The paper puts focus upon the ways in which caring (knowledge and skills of 'maintenance and repair’) promotes socio-material continuity of the city’s material features. The aim is to address these everyday practices of maintenance and repair of buildings as a core concern that is constantly at work against physical and sociocultural disruption. On an overarching level of understanding, these practices question and undermine an urban politics and planning that aims to degrade old buildings in order to enable exploitation for new construction. The paper argues that such practices need to be explored beyond quick and facile notions of ‘heritagization’ (serving the politics of tourism, inter-urban competition and/or intra-urban segregation, or an identity politics). The overarching perspective is to, instead, push the interpretation in another direction: to consider them as an impulsion towards another future, one that goes beyond the hegemonic (modernist) linear conception of time which despises the past as something dated and old-fangled. In this perspective, the practices of concern transmit the past into the future as a means to create alternate resource-oriented visions for the future. A central contribution for understanding the impact of practices of maintenance and repair on the urban scale is provided by Nigel Thrift's (2009) notion of “urban glue” with covers the 'tying together' of the entire city through the ever continuing practices of caretaking, cleaning, mending and repair. These constantly ongoing practices for counteracting deterioration of material matters, point to modes of tradition that often remain hidden: how at the core of maintenance work we find the mediation of urban temporality (the past-present-future) through particular knowledge and skills by craftsmen (-women): i.e. bricklayers, carpenters, plasterers, janitors, caretakers, pipelayers or pavers etc. The logic within this context is closely related to what we call 'tradition' -- to do as usual, to habitually mend broken items, to put things back into place, to maintain. It is known that craftsmanship skills are kept up by ‘bearers of tradition’ that comprehend habitual ways of evaluating and making. In the context of this paper, craftsmanship is not to ‘make something with the hands’ and is not set in opposition to theoretical knowledge, instead it is intrinsic to all kinds of work, it is about quality: “the skill of making things well” (Sennet 2008). This opens up for including a spectrum of skills and competences, such as architects, conservationists, designers but also the general puboic, such as house owners, etc., that interact in making and mending, caring and repairing.

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