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Karen Lips earns Master of Conservation in Monuments and Sites

by Laurel Smyth

Karen LipsA jaunty character with a playful personal style, Karen Lips is always at the heart of things; it seems we see her supporting local culture at every gallery opening, play, or book launch. Recently this landscape architect set wider horizons for herself: Karen has just graduated as a Master of Conservation in Monuments and Sites. “I think it gives me the qualifications to aspire to some new work in the national and international heritage scene, and that is something I find really challenging.”

Lips’ work had already made an impact on the landscape of Charlottetown. She transformed the Library Plaza into a much-used garden space, created raised Victorian seating in Rochford Square, and influenced the development of Hensley Green and King’s Square Housing Coops with their inner-block courtyards. These projects were satisfying. but Karen yearned for something more. “I wanted some time to look at the ideas and concepts behind design work… I had this feeling in the back of my mind that I wanted to have contact with some of the great thinkers and to learn more.”

Opportunity arose through a Belgian scholarship administrated here by the Societe Nationale d’Acadie. Karen won the chance to study at the Raymond Lemaire International Centre for Conservation located at the University of Leuven in Belgium, one of a select few centres recognized by the international conservation movement. “They only take a few students, and the professors come from all over the world—a really interesting range of practitioners, academics, and specialists. They’d come in for 2 or 3 days and we’d be bombarded with information, so it was a challenging and intensive program. The scholarship allowed me to spend that first year concentrating on daily classes and a lot of project work on weekends and evenings.”

She received a diploma for that year, but was determined to write a Masters thesis on ‘The Fountains of Paris.’ She spent 3 months walking all over Paris, visiting fountains. All 385 of them. “There were little invisible wall fountains left over from the time historically when they were the source of potable water for Parisians…. At the other end of the scale was the Place de la Concorde, totally fabulous, elaborate and showy. On my birthday I had a personal tour of the vaults under the fountains there.

“Conservation involves so much more than just technical perfection. It’s how the viewer experiences the place. UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee, the body that oversees designation of world heritage sites, recently expanded their definition of conserving authenticity…. They’re using words now like ‘feeling, spirit, mood’. You can’t conserve a monument in isolation—you must consider the way it fits into its modern city setting.”

Karen questioned how to look at restoration in the context of setting, if mood and feeling are important in conserving authenticity. “Nobody’d really figured out how you actually apply these intangibles to a particular site. My thesis looks at ways you could…. I developed a system of three zones around each fountain within which you could apply conservation solutions.”

Karen Lips’ work and its presentation earned her the highest recognition amongst her fellow graduates in a class of 13. “When I realized that I had graduated magna cum laude, I felt a sense of deep satisfaction.”

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