roast this chestnut

It is a reflective time of year and I was reflecting on the oldest, most thoroughly roasted chestnut of all. One of the most frequent anti-preservation arguments, it goes something like this.

“If we had preservation laws back then, X would never have been able to build Y.”

(Where X = Daniel Burnham or Frank Lloyd Wright or Mies van der Rohe or any other resplendent architectural genius; and Y = Reliance Building or Guggenheim Museum or Crown Hall or any other munificent architectural landmark.)

This is an intriguing position, a sort of “dropped from heaven” philosophical argument that works in the brain even though it doesn’t in the world, which is overdetermined, messy and complex now matter how hard you wish.

We have examples that seem to support this position. Mies van der Rohe’s Crown Hall was built on the site of the Mecca Flats, the architectural and historic center of Chicago’s Black Metropolis, and there was even an effort to save it.
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Also in Chicago, we have the Field Building, built in 1934 on the site of the first skyscraper, the Home Insurance Building. In fact, they only proved the Home Insurance was the first skyscraper by dismantling it.
field-bldg-lower

But there are several problems with the argument. The most important is the “gotcha” implied: if we had preservation laws, we never would have built the landmarks we now try to preserve – and isn’t that ironic.

No. First, it is wrong on the face of it – preservation laws have been around for at least two thousand years. This is why the Pantheon is still there – an excellent example of multiple adaptive re-use projects over the years. Even in the absence of laws, people have saved buildings that were functionally pointless and worthless – like the Chicago Water Tower, which Chicago saved at least three times (1906, 1918, 1948) before there were any preservation laws.
water-tower04
Second, the assumption that preservation somehow inhibits new development is laughable. Did Frank Lloyd Wright or Mies van der Rohe need an infinite number of potential building sites in order to be creative?

Today, in 2008, if you landmarked every single building identified in the Chicago Historic Resources Survey, and added those to every building already landmarked in the city, what percentage of the city would be inhibited from development? Of course, the real answer is 0, since a creative developer can work with existing buildings, but even if all developers were knuckle-dragging mouth-breathers (which they aren’t) you would have landmarked less than 3% of the city. Okay guys, you only have 97% of the city to work with: are you feeling inhibited?
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Third, the argument implies that the past was bold and the present is timid. We whine and save our precious relics while our noble ancestors snorted, thumped their chests, strapped on, rode roughshod and made history.

I said to Bruce Sheridan the other night there are two mistakes you can make when judging people in the past. You can make the mistake of assuming that they were smarter than us and you can make the mistake of thinking they were stupider than us. The same holds for braver, stronger, etc. We tend to idealize or marginalize the past and both attitudes are WRONG.

High Modernist architects like Le Corbusier added fuel to the anti-preservation fire by proposing to demolish central Paris and inventing urban renewal, which laid waste to vast swaths of historic buildings worldwide. Modernists, more than the architects before them, seemed to disdain past architecture, but that is deceiving, because they disdained the IMMEDIATE PAST while revering the DISTANT PAST.

Le Corbusier loved the Parthenon and waxed rhapsodic about “When the Cathedrals were white.” The Paris he sought to demolish was only 50 years old, the High Victorian Second Empire of Hausmann. Gropius launched the Bauhaus with the visual and narrative image of a Gothic cathedral. Wright had great disdain for the Queen Anne architecture around him in Oak Park but he loved the vernacular barns and farmhouses of the Midwest. Every modernist wanted to save something: the only difference was in what they valued.
notredame
vil-roches
This brings us to the fourth and least tested aspect of this misguided aphorism. If places that preserve stifle creativity and new landmarks, then where are the landmarks of tomorrow? Well, they must be in Houston and Atlanta and Orlando or other places that don’t landmark much. They can’t be in Manhattan, which has preserved so many buildings and districts, or Chicago.

And the idea that anything new or creative could be in Paris or London is completely out of the question, right?
grandearche
the-london-gherkin
WRONG. Time to take this hoary chestnut off the fire because there is nothing left but a charred husk.

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