Architectural conservation and therapy

Following Mayat Hart’s presentation on their award-winning work at DAS Pretoria, we interviewed them about architectural conservation, and determining what historical value is.  

Read their insights in this exclusive article. 

There is more to architectural conservation than one might think. Yes, it does centre on preserving heritage, but it is equally about contextualising that history. An old building with no value attached to it – that is, no person or community sees value in it – is just an old building. The action of conservation is about determining what the historic value is, why it has value, and then taking action to conserve it. 

Principal architects and heritage practitioners, Yasmin Mayat and Brendan Hart from Mayat Hart Architects and Heritage Consultants, share some insights into this important topic. The duo is also honours architecture history lecturers at the University of the Witwatersrand.  


Architectural conservation and therapy

The best conservation is a space that is used, as these are looked after, for the next generation. Credit: Restoration of Aiton Court, Hillbrow. Photographs by Mayat Hart Architects

Heritage is an expression of value and an appreciation of history. It is therefore more than a building – it is closely tied to the emotional connection that someone has to it. The perception of value goes beyond the immediate or those directly connected to the space. It can also be memory, and therefore not necessarily tied to a specific place or thing. 

“It’s important to understand that one may own a heritage home, but one does not own the heritage itself,” says Hart. 

National heritage resources 

The National Heritage Resources Act (Act 25 of 1999) gives guidance on how to a conserve heritage for future generations. According to the act, provincial heritage authorities should provide for the protection and management of conservation-worthy places and areas by local authorities. Where no provincial body exists, the South African Heritage Resources Agency, together with its Council, co-ordinate and promote the management of heritage resources at a national level, with overarching oversight. 

“Application of the act needs to be done sensitively, with an understanding of the limitations, and working with these,” advises Mayat. Resources are always an issue, with the need to find a balance between return on investment (ROI) and heritage. 

Architectural conservation and therapy

Architectural conservation includes adding new elements that link the past to the present, like the rose patterns in the square tower of Merton Keep, a whimsical nod to the tea brand launched by the home’s original owner. Credit: Restoration of Merton Keep, Pretoria. Photographs by Mayat Hart Architects

Determining value 

An older property that was a beloved family home, may be of great value to the people who lived there, but if nobody else attaches value to the property, it is not necessarily conservation worthy. A building designed by a well-known architect or that was the home of a significant individual, or even if something historic happened within or at the location, would be considered of greater historic value within the broader community. 

Value also extends to materiality, which is particularly important when considering whether to restore or rebuild. There is a heritage value in the material. Even if it is more expensive than rebuilding, the original stones, walls and windows should also be conserved. 

Psychology of conservation 

Historical sites can be seen as divisive, with different communities having opposing viewpoints on the value. 

Meetings need to be held with representatives of each group, to fully understand the issues and concerns. “Our role is to take the emotion out, to scrutinise and present the information as evidence. There is often a lot of research involved, to find a compromise between the parties. This is often a case to determine which solution both parties hate the least,” explains Hart. 

The firm focusses on big picture thinking and future-forward solutions. In the end, the space should conserve the history but also still have a purpose. “Our role is almost that of a therapist, in managing the trauma, hopes, fears and other emotions of the community with regards to a project,” shares Mayat. 

Subtle intervention 

Conservation must be informed and well thought out. Does the entire structure qualify for heritage status or does only one aspect of it need to be conserved? Perhaps only the facade needs to be protected, with the interiors modernised according to the client’s wishes. 

With this in mind, the intervention is usually subtle, showcasing the heritage above all. Mayat Hart believes that the best conservation is a space that is used – it must live. Spaces that are useful and loved, are looked after for the next generation. 

For example, a monument within a park ensures that the history is conserved and provides a usable space for the community. These multi-purpose spaces respect the existing feelings of the community and make space for new feelings and memories. 


Mayat Hart advocates the following key factors when working with heritage projects: 

  • Historic buildings are already unique and special. Critically consider the value before altering anything. 
  • Do due diligence on projects to ensure that there is no heritage that must be protected, or to include the conservation thereof, in the initial planning. Where heritage conservation is not addressed, this can lead to delays and increased costs. 
  • Should a heritage site be demolished, whether knowingly or not, the penalties could include a ten-year development freeze on the land, where the owner is prohibited from using the land, but must still pay rates and levies on the site. 
  • Rather than a hindrance, consider heritage as an opportunity to enrich the project, creating a space for new memories to be made. 


Architectural conservation is a combination of research and critical analysis, as well as a level of therapy, to understand and address the emotional connection between the project and the community. 


For more information, contact Mayat Hart: 



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