Europe, America and monasticism

I like Europe. What’s not to like? Rich, gorgeous, relaxed. Yeah, gas is $6 a gallon but the next fabulous art museum, medieval castle, Baroque monastery, Roman ruin or mountainside lake is only 6 miles away. You can drive to the next country for cheap eggs or dental work and still be home before dusk. You don’t even need to drive since trains go everywhere and even small towns have bus and tram systems and bike rental. And they preserve their old buildings more often than we do.

Demolishing a historic building in Europe is harder to do than in the U.S. That wasn’t always the case – they had the same frenzy for urban renewal in the immediate post-World War II era that we did. Berlin demolished more buildings during the 1950s than were lost in the war (yes, it’s true: see the footnote.) But quickly they realized – with the help of GIs turned tourists like Arthur Frommer – that Americans liked to see the old stuff and would pay for the privilege. A combination of laws, practices and pure economics means that it is not easy to tear down an old building in Europe. Not true in America, where a powerful institution or developer can often clear a landmark standing in the way of their project.

Part of the reason for this is that America worships the free market and has steadily eroded the purview of the public sector over the last quarter-century, but that distinction is only one of degree – Europe is now moving away from collective capitalism as well, so the distinctions between preservation practice are explained less by government regulation and more by cultural predisposition. Europeans have no myth of the prairie; Europeans saw physical destruction in the context of war; Europeans feel connected to place while Americans are perpetually peripatetic.

Yet, while Europeans are more likely to preserve an old building, they are more likely to treat it with the latest in architectural fads. Yes, they will meticulously restore Notre Dame or the Fontana de Trevi but they have no problem dropping a solar dome into the Reichstag or draping slugomorphic computer-generated glassine trusses over stately old Renaissance facades. I was briefly shocked in Austria’s Wachau this summer as I walked past Baroque buildings with new holes in the walls, all filled with spanky plastic windows and squirt foam around the frame.

Eleanor Esser Gorski, architect for the Commission on Chicago Landmarks, made this point a couple of years ago following a residency in Rome. She observed that Europeans were less likely to demolish but more likely to agree to radical interventions into landmarks. Why is that?

I would blame Puritanism, the 17th century cult that founded New England and was distinguished by a dogged stern asceticism that makes a Benedictine monastery seem like Club Med. It is hard to save a landmark here, but once we do, we approach it with the reverence of an idolator, cherishing every inch of original fabric, holding as holy its floorplan, finishes and faults. I exaggerate, of course, but the contrast to Europe is strong. Notre Dame de Paris is 900 years old but its façade is barely ten, and the bits that are not are about 130 years old. The French are more cavalier about replacing original material with exacting copies in the same material. In the U.S. we first took our preservation cues from the Victorian English, so we privileged historic fabric over historic design. And we carry more than our share of asceticism or monasticism into our preservation.

Maybe that is another reason I like Europe. You don’t have an uphill battle convincing people that buildings should be saved, and you don’t have to take a vow of chastity and obedience in order to lead that battle. Preservation is a normal part of life, not something apart, neither elevated nor subterranean.

Footnote: Urban, Florian, “Recovering Essence Through Demolition: The ‘Organic’ City in Postwar West Berlin,” Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians Volume 63, Number 3, September 2004

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2 Responses to “Europe, America and monasticism”

  1. Jennifer Williams Says:

    An interesting train of thought popped into my head while reading this. Do you think we would have an easier time saving buildings from demolition if the owners knew we (the preservation community) would be more lax on alterations once it was “saved?” Is this why the Europeans can easily designate and “preserve” historic structures? Because they know in the end that they can add new windows and siding? Does this mean that we are perhaps focusing too much on the nuances of the structure and not enough on the big picture? Hmmmm

  2. west north » In My Back Yard Says:

    […] igh ground in speeches that exclaim their frequent travels to Europe. Well, one thing that Europe can teach us about historic preservation is that demolition may be bad, but that radical inte […]

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