Real Authenticity

AH, the challenge of Authenticity. We discussed this last night at an APT Fellows forum (I was the non-Fellow) with plenty of examples of challenged authenticity, from the replacement parts of Soldier Field and the 63rd Street Beach house to the relocation of Cape Hatteras and the reconstruction of churches in Kyiv. We had the meeting – kicking off the Great Lakes Chapter of APT – at Glessner House, which is itself a sort of lab for the changing attitudes to authenticity since its first rescue in 1966. The speakers were Walker Johnson, Harry Hunderman, Deborah Slaton, Paul Gaudette and Steve Kelley. I have known most of these people for a REALLY long time.
A big part of the challenge was defining authenticity, because while there are lots of international preservation charters (notably the 1994 Nara Document on Authenticity) that use the word, here in the U.S. we tend to focus on “integrity” instead, which is the word we use in the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Rehabilitation, Preservation, Restoration and Reconstruction, which is itself based on the 1964 Venice Charter, still the closest the preservation world has to a written constitution. And as someone noted, we chose to focus on integrity because “authenticity” was too challenging a concept, incorporating intangible elements – which is what the Nara Document added to the mix, along with a more diverse understanding of what makes something authentic.
I always like to use the example of the Shinto temple in Ise (which was capital of Japan before Nara, which in turn was before Kyoto which in turn was before Tokyo.) which is 1000 years old and holds the mirror of Ameratsu. Only the building is taken down every 20 years and completely rebuilt. In our minds, this lacks integrity and authenticity, but only because in the west we are focused on the physical fabric – the piece of the true cross if you will. The Shinto temples are rebuilt using the same tools and crafts as were used 1000 years ago, so the authenticity is in the act of construction. They might be scandalized to see us restore a 17th century house using nail guns, laser levels and epoxy, but somehow we are concerned with the thing, not the process of getting to the thing.
Paul Gaudette talked about the interesting challenge he had with the 63rd Street beach house and Soldier Field, where the original popcorn concrete was made in such a way that no two panels were the same, and how HARD it was nowadays to get that inconsistency. He called it the challenge of putting in variability. We also discussed the challenge of preserving the Modern, since the design intent of those buildings was a picture of pristine newness – they weren’t designed to age, as Deborah Slaton pointed out. And often their materials don’t age well. The travertine at Crown Hall was replaced and will need to be replaced again in 50 years – that is often the decision made with the Modern and it is arguably the correct one because it preserve the design intent.
Integrity – and authenticity – can be judged by both form (design) and fabric (material) and in the case of the latter for pre-Modern architecture that fabric should bear the marks of craftsmanship in some form. Yet, every charter since Athens in 1931 has talked about the value of various periods of history and has admonished AGAINST returning a building to some ideal of perfection, which was the fallacy of James Wyatt in 18th century England and Prosper Mérimée in 19th century France. It was a cultural choice our Western culture rejected in the 20th century and rejects still. Indeed, my wee slide show of the succession of international charters dealing with authenticity illustrates a clear trajectory toward a more inclusive system and a more inclusive process for determining significance, authenticity and even context, the great buzzwords of the preservation profession. The challenge, of course, is to maintain some form of best practices while accommodating the values of the many cultural and professional communities involved. That challenge will likely remain fugitive but the attempt is essential in order to insure the broadest incorporation of values and thus the broadest possible stewardship because that, ultimately, is what this is about.


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