Archive for September, 2006

The Problem With Your Eyes II

September 13, 2006

new lofts bk

Originally uploaded by vincusses.

When was this building built? 1910? 2003?

More likely the latter, if your eyes are trained by looking at lots of buildings. But for many people. including a surprising number of urban planners, they either don’t know or don’t care.

Historic preservation was more difficult in the 1960s and 1970s, but it was easier to see. Modern was blocky with continuous surfaces and historic was fussy and detailed. Now it can be the opposite: 1950s houses are landmarks and brand new buildings have as many fussy details as a Charles Addams haunted Second Empire manse.

And the new generation of urban planners, indoctrinated in the New Urbanism, is all in favor of historic forms like porches and picket fences and houses with turrets and shingles and chimney pots. They have been looking at neoVictorian homes and neoVictorian streetscapes for so long that it has become STYLE.

STYLE is a commodity. It can be attached to something to sell it. It is replicable and suitable for mass production, mass marketing and mass consumption.

This is exactly the opposite of historic preservation, which is about authenticity and uniqueness. It cannot be replicated or produced. Like endangered species, landmarks can’t be regenerated. They are unique. It is about place, a commodity that cannot be produced or alienated.

But the new planners don’t get this, because they are selling “new place” I have seen a lot of plans lately – mostly for suburbs – that try to sell some town a flower planter or bench or mosaic riverwalk or quaint pedestrian bridge or retail/residential development with stone lintels and outrigger cornice.

This makes me nuts because most of these towns have unique resources and don’t need cute cookie-cutter commodities to “create place” or “new event space” or “community focus”. That doesn’t mean the new urbanist planners won’t try to sell them that. God knows it is easier to keep a collection of images of planters and mid-rises and bridges you like than to actually study a community and identify its inherent strengths: what makes it unique. What can’t be replicated, alienated or commodified (but can be marketed).

Preservation has no precedents. Because of that, it is harder work. You can’t just carry a bunch of swatches and styles around like the hack planners do. You gotta get into the place, find its uniqueness, and you have to think about how to highlight that, not simply to add new products.

But the planners have a good product, because they know that White Hen and Jimmy John’s and Quizno’s and CVS like these new neo-classical Victorio-Palladian red oversized brick buildings so if they can sell the community on one, they can fill it up with tenants.

Which is good for the economy – for a year or two.

Landmarks are landmarks because they are useful for more than one economic fashion cycle.

People get exorcised about Wal-Marts and other franchises because people really don’t want to be told that their home is like everyone elses and they are like everyone else and we only care about you because of what your demographic is buying this week and this year.

Because next year your beloved demographic won’t be buying Neo-Palladian Victorio Renaissance and the planners will have to pitch a new product and you just sold your patrimony for two years of economic boost and a lifetime of pottage.

Look at the bricks. Look at the foundations. You can see the difference between a historic building and a 2003 building. Train your eyes, because there are lots of so-called professionals out there who aren’t.