Style and Authenticity (versus Sustainability)

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“Retro” describes the design of a hipster’s bicycle, and “Old World” describes the interior design of a lawyer’s new suburban house. The past, or rather, the FORMS of the past, are popular and thus marketable. They carry connotations that are coveted in 2009.
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A bath remodeling catalogue announces that “recreating a retro look is definitely in vogue” as well as “traditional décor is never out of style.” The homes section of the newspaper defines “Old World” as “a look or a feeling” rather than a style. Both stress the importance of modern conveniences and the ability to realize same within the comforting confines of traditional style.
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I look through the bath catalogue and every fixture looks a hundred years old. I glance across the photos in the new homes section and the details have the same appearance – leaving the massive windows and conspicuous lack of walls to tell you this is a 21st century building. I wonder at a phrase like “recreated the ambience of Old World charm” that would stymie a logician. Talk about nailing jello to a tree.
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I have seen the return of traditional style in the last quarter-century. We could call it a by-product of the preservation movement, especially the mass movement starting in the 1950s and 60s that saw Victorian neighborhoods restored. A guy named Clem Labine started a little newsletter to help his fellow brownstoners find the products they needed to restore these homes in the appropriate style, and today that catalogue is the centerpiece of Restore Media, which runs several magazines and trade shows with restoration workshops across the country.
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Success breeds imitation, and as soon as a sizeable demographic proved their devotion to the past, entrepreneurs decided that it would be simpler to manufacture it than preserve it, and thus we have the plethora of ersatz home styles. This is not a bad thing in an of itself. Most of our historic buildings were themselves, and in their time, trading on historic associations: Colonial purity, Romanesque stability, Classical refinement, Moorish exoticism.
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The problem comes when market demand for modern habit – the ginormous bathroom; the cathedral ceiling – takes over and authentic traditional homes are destroyed because they can’t provide the “authenticity” and convenience we now demand. Of course they can, if you are a talented designer. But we are economically set up for waste, hence the destruction of the old. I remember a decade ago watching the demolition of a fabulous Italianate commercial building on North Avenue, which was replaced – without announced irony – by a Restoration Hardware.
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There are many reasons for preservation, but the most compelling today have to do with sustainability. Historic buildings represent embodied energy and their destruction creates a massive carbon footprint that even a vacuum tube of a building coated in solar panels and windmills circled by winged Priuses can’t erase. Pre-World War II historic buildings can – and usually do – operate more efficiently than all but the most recent green buildings. This is my biggest concern about the mass marketing of authentic traditional retro style – it deceives us into thinking that form always reflects content.

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One Response to “Style and Authenticity (versus Sustainability)”

  1. Sabra Smith Says:

    We have just had a heart-breaking loss outside Philadelphia — a 1929 mansion with a white knight who arrived with money in hand to move the building — but the former owner reserved salvage rights he would not give up (fine with the new owner) and… the building is being stripped. Not just stained glass, ornate doorways, mantels and iron railings, but they are even punching holes in the wall and stripping out the copper piping and wiring. Who knows what new homes will create their “old world charm” with these bits and pieces. And they all could have been left intact and simply shifted to an empty lot next door.

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