Old and modern architecture the focus of building conservation

25 September 2018
In a time of dramatic change, conserving precious architecture, objects and places becomes even more important. But alumna, Susan Macdonald, knows it takes more than good intentions - it takes detective work and new thinking.
Susan Macdonald

Standing in the famous Eames House of Los Angeles, Susan Macdonald believes there should be more effort to conserve significant modern buildings.

She has explored ancient tombs in Egypt and seen churches made entirely of earth in the Peruvian Andes. But ask conservation architect Susan Macdonald (BSci '83 BArch '86) to name a favourite building and the one that springs to mind is a house on a residential street in Sydney.

It’s a place in Longueville that’s more than 100 years old. For Macdonald, it was home for most of her childhood. She remembers its elegant proportions and constantly leaking roof of French tiles. “I loved that gracious house,” she says. “I hope its new owner treats it gently. It deserves a respectful, timeless approach.”

For the past 10 years, Macdonald has lived in Los Angeles, working for the Getty Conservation Institute. As Head of Buildings and Sites, she leads a multidisciplinary team of conservators, architects, engineers and other professionals working on iconic structures around the world, from Tutankhamun’s tomb to masterpieces of modern architecture.

The institute’s work helps keep important buildings and objects in good shape. But its broader goal is to improve the way conservation work is done. “We’re asking: what are the big problems in conservation and how can we solve them?” Macdonald says.

When she studied architecture and fine arts at the University of Sydney in the 1980s, she loved the soaring Gothic towers of the Quadrangle. She was among the last of the University’s architecture students to be taught art history by Australian landscape artist Lloyd Rees. It meant a lot to Macdonald to learn about the art of the early 20th century from someone who had lived it.

You have to be good at historical research and science to understand, for example, why materials are decaying and what might happen next.
Susan Macdonald

Throughout her career, she has focused not just on centuries past, but also on more recent architecture. “Traditional buildings often have no-one to speak for them,” she says. “But with a modern building, you may be talking to the creator. That’s one of the things I like about conservation. You’re working at the interface of past and present.”

Early in her career, Macdonald mainly focused on old buildings such as the 19th century home in which she grew up. After a period working for architecture firms in Australia, she headed to the United Kingdom in search of structures with roots deeper in time. Here she delved into the secrets of historic buildings, including Chastleton House, a 400-year-old Jacobean manor down a winding lane in the Cotswolds.

 The Great Hall at Chastleton House, Oxfordshire

The Great Hall at Chastleton House, Oxfordshire, where Macdonald worked to uncover its history. 

Before it was given into the care of the National Trust, Chastleton House had belonged to the same English family for most of its history. Macdonald worked with the architectural team to uncover the manor’s stories and preserve them for visitors.

“Working on that house was like reading a book,” she says. “You’d discover things about the building and its materials, but you also needed to understand things about the people who’d lived there and why they did the things they did.”

She ended up working for English Heritage (now Historic England), the government organisation responsible for England’s historic places.

Architectural conservation mixes technical and scientific knowledge with history and design. There are big questions about what should be conserved and why, along with all the practical hows. For Macdonald, it’s an ideal mix. As a teenager, she was so interested in science, she wanted to be a doctor, like her father. He convinced her to explore her interest in design and history at Sydney.

“My work is very multidisciplinary,” she says. “You have to be good at historical research and science to understand, for example, why materials are decaying and what will happen next. Will what you’re doing create long-term harm or will it be OK?”

In Peru, the Getty’s architects and engineers are working to protect traditional earthen buildings from earthquakes. Macdonald has travelled there with her team, sharing meals of guinea pig with the locals and working with them to preserve their heritage. They want to introduce technology that will help the buildings stand firm while preserving their special features.

Earthen Church

The earthen Church of Kuño Tambo in Peru is threatened by earthquake activity. Macdonald is part of the Getty team looking for ways to protect it. 


Her team in Egypt has faced some thoroughly modern problems in one of the world’s most ancient built environments. Their work in the Valley of the Queens and Tutankhamun’s tomb – curtailed by the conflicts of the Arab Spring but now resumed – aims to preserve the wall paintings and tomb interior while creating tourist-friendly spaces. “You have to find a way to circulate air and manage dust so you don’t have people passing out,” Macdonald says. “And you have to find a way of circulating visitors efficiently without causing damage.”

In recent years, there has been an international push to protect the architecture of the 20th century, particularly buildings of the modernist period. This has become a specialty for Macdonald. It’s a challenging field; concrete is difficult to conserve without replacing much of the original material. What’s more, conservators sometimes have a hard time convincing the general public that modern buildings should be preserved at all. “Part of our work is an education process – changing people’s opinions about what’s important,” Macdonald says.

In Los Angeles, she is working on the famous Eames House, a glass and steel expression of modernism designed and constructed in 1949 by husband-and-wife team Charles and Ray Eames as their home and studio. The glass box of a house is full of valuable (and sunlight-sensitive) Eames furniture and objects. The challenge is to protect the collection without altering the sense of light and space that makes the building special.

Discovery is a crucial part of the Getty’s work. There are plastics and timber veneers throughout the Eames House and, says Macdonald, “we don’t quite know how to conserve them yet”. But history is a work in progress, and so is keeping it in shape.

Standing the test of time

This year, the Sydney School of Architecture, Design and Planning has been celebrating its centenary. For 100 years the school has pioneered teaching and research across the built environment. If you have memories of the school, share them at:

Written by Louise Schwartzkoff (BA(Media&Comm) ’07)
Photography by Andrzej Liguz and supplied by The Iris and UK National Trust/Peter Greenway.

Read more alumni stories