Traditional Modernity II

Nearly five years ago I wrote about a fantastic debate on the architecture of additions to historic buildings and infill in historic districts between Steve Semes and Paul Byard. You can see the old blog here:

Paul Byard sadly passed away but Steve Semes has finally put many of his ideas about the value of traditional architecture for new construction in and around historic buildings into a new book, The Future of the Past (Norton, 2009) and he spoke and led a discussion today at SAIC. It was fascinating and stimulating and I can’t shut up about it.

His lecture asked WHY we preserve and analyzed the motives for preservation, which include the historian’s motive of buildings and places as “documents of their time,” the populist motive of “places we love and want to keep,” and the most forgotten motive of all, “to learn how to build.” That latter one has often been anathema even (especially?) in architecture schools, where creativity is seen as the opposite of context.

In this blog I have often written that it requires more creativity to deal with an existing context than to start from scratch, so I agree with Semes there. I also agree with a really important issue he brought up in regard to historicism, which is sort of the traditional 19th century concept of history: it starts, it progresses, it changes and it sort of follows a logical trajectory.

If you look at my website you know I am convinced that the beauty of history is that it doesn’t start, it doesn’t progress, and it is – like all truths – rarely pure and never simple. It is a big mess all of the time that only gets messier with time and that is its mystery and beauty. So Semes had me there as well. And here is where he makes his big point: Why in following the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards do we insist on “contemporary” design for additions and infill? Why do we require architects to create a discontinuity of style between old and new?

Standard #3 requires additions and new constructions not “create a false sense of history” and Standard #9 requires additions to be compatible with the original but differentiated. Semes is upset with stark modernist additions to buildings in traditional styles, and blames it on the interpretation – and to a lesser extent the wording – of these standards. The Norman Foster example above in Manhattan is a good example of what he is fighting, and he asks – as he did 4 years ago – why don’t we allow traditionally style additions to Modernist landmarks? Fair point.

I told him I sometimes like the more contemporary additions, but he is right in his book at outlining a series of strategies for additions that range from rupture (Soldier Field) to absolutely exacting imitation (Cour Carree in the Louvre). We allow the ruptures – although we pointedly did not at Soldier Field, which lost its landmark status – more often than the continuities, says Semes.

“Tradition,” Semes notes, is a bridge between the past and the present, and culture is the tending of social life and all art forms – it is an attitude of “loving care,” quoting Hannah Arendt and should be at the center of preservation attitudes. Yet we often abandon that sense of stewardship for our expertise and modernist bias, which has affected preservation ever since it became a mass movement in the 1960s. I once asked a Landmarks Illinois founder why the group did not include the 1920 Chicago Theatre in its 1974 Inventory of Landmarks and he replied “we were all modernists.” Modernism was the handmaiden of preservation in the 1960s and 1970s, and the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards reflected the aesthetic movements of that time. But that time has changed. “Architecture of today” is a range of styles, most of them “traditional.”

Semes is also right about history, and we need to understand that every style is a style and every architecture is “a product of its time” because there is no single narrative. High modernism is already being revived in Dwell magazine and elsewhere, and the restoration of the Lever House is almost as much of a recreation as the reconstruction of the Governor’s Palace in Williamsburg was 70 years ago. So what if they are different styles?


I chatted with him later about some of the foibles of high modernism, which was a very historicist movement, not in a fashion or stylistic sense, but in the Hegelian sense of seeing history as a dialectic and a narrative. High Modernism was incredibly optimistic and egoistic because they saw all of history except themselves – they had the hubristic attitude of being outside history: being its conclusion or culmination.

Semes is of the position that exaggerating the continuity of style
is preferable to exaggerating the discontinuity. I showed him this 1990s addition to Daniel Burnham Co.’s Joliet Public Library and offered that in the 1990s we started to see traditional additions to historic buildings in spite of the tendency that Semes has identified as a problem. Contextual additions are much more prevalent since 1990 than in the previous quarter-century, although Modernism is still granted a funny space outside of history even as it too has become a revival style.

I have said it before and I will say it again: you can make two mistakes in looking at the past: one is to assume that people then were smarter than now. The other is to assume they were stupider than now. The fact is they were people living a life as inchoate and contradictory and aspirational as our own, and yes they had technologies but the fact is the Tribune Tower is more technologically advanced than the Auditorium and that has nothing to do with Gothic buttresses or Romanesque arches. We tend to judge books by their covers despite all the warnings to the contrary.

I also think we need to tweak the Standards. One of my favorite quotes from Semes had to do with arguing against the Standard that tells you not to create a “false sense of historical development.” Semes responds that there is no such thing in architecture as a false sense of historic development. If it was built in 1924 and it looked like a refrigerator or a Jacobean castle or an elephant or a Renaissance manor house or a log cabin, IT WAS STILL BUILT IN 1924 really. There is no one “true” history of architecture – the 20th century was not simply the rise of modernism.

And neither does the 21st century have a singular style or singular narrative. Time does keep everything from happening all at once, but that doesn’t mean it only writes one story.

Again, I like some disruptions and I love my modernisms in all of their variety. But I also value something that we have been holding dear at the National Trust as we lean into the preservation of the recent past and modernism: a lot of pre-1930 buildings were built really well. They are more energy efficient and sustainable and durable than anything built in the second half of the 20th century and likely more durable than many buildings built today. And that is why Semes point about preserving a culture of building and preserving buildings SO WE CAN LEARN HOW TO BUILD was the most revelatory comment he made today. This not only takes us beyond the archicentric and modernist tendencies of the Venice Charter and Secretary of the Interior’s Standards – it incorporates the sense of traditional culture and traditional building and cultural definitions of significance and stewardship that have modified Venice since the Nara Document of 1994 and subsequent revisions that have made our conservation project more conservation oriented and less preservation and restoration oriented. More than simply asking us to revisit architectural standards for preservation, Steve Semes asked in his presentation and his book that we look at preservation as heritage conservation in the broadest, most ecological sense. It is not about style and it is not about rules. It is a process and it is a loving care of tradition, or whatever it is we want to label that connection every culture makes between the past and the future.

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