Saving The Rest Not Just The Best




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Originally uploaded by vincusses.

“Saving the best” is an old idea in preservation, dating from the early 20th century, the period when architects “professionalized” the practice. It survived into the 1960s when preservation became a popular phenomenon thanks to historic district activists. For the last forty years, it has been an outdated idea. For two generations, preservation has been about vernacular architecture, social history, historic districts and “background” buildings. It has been about improving a place by rebuilding, not building new.

Yes, there are still masterpieces, like the Farnsworth House, that escaped the recent floods by an inch or two. (See http://www.landmarks.org for cool photos of the flood and Brad Pitt too – should be a link at right).

Masterpieces have a special status, special requirements, and they are by definition rare. Most preservation is simply a matter of how citizens demand a voice in the future of their community. Nowadays only the haters trot out “saving the best” because they want to knock something down that is perfectly serviceable and economically viable, like the Lake Shore Athletic Club.

We no longer consider saving the “best example” of rainforest or glacier as sufficient for the planet; so why do we still listen when someone argues to save only the “best example” of architecture or history?

BUT, you say, the natural environment that nourishes our bodies with protein and oxygen is not equivalent to the human-built environment, not essential to our existence.

You must live by bread alone.

More to the point, every time a building is demolished, a ton of lead-lovely dust and debris is released into the atmosphere, a landfill overflows with bricks and lumber and plaster, and a truckload of trucks burn a truckload of diesel fuel. Every demolition has a corresponding new construction which means someone is cementing over some of the best agricultural soil on the planet in Will and Kendall Counties to put up a bunch of sticks that won’t last 35 years. Don’t tell me this stuff isn’t environmental or essential to our survival.

MOST of what is preserved is not masterpieces but PLACES. Real places with depth and texture that you can taste, with history you can feel in your bones even if you never, ever read history. Good design, too, because if it worked for 50 or 150 years there must be something NOT BROKE about it. The haters like to use old 1950s terms like “functionally obsolescent,” which humorously enough, usually only applies to buildings from the 1950s.

Look at the progress of preservation since the 1960s and you can see this democracy of the built environment and you realize this thing is bigger than architects and historians by miles and miles. First historic districts, then Main Streets, then heritage areas, then multiple resource districts, now conservation areas and buffer zones – this is the democratic expansion of preservation to include community planning and activism. It is what preservation is today: the most sustainable development practice possible.

PS Tomorrow marks two years and 125 posts of this blog.

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