False Choices and the Process of Preservation

I am fond of saying that heritage conservation (historic preservation) is a process. It is the process whereby a community (however defined and constituted) determines what elements of its past it wants to bring into the future. The process consists of establishing context (historical, architectural, environmental, social), criteria, evaluating resources (tangible and intangible) and then determining how we want to treat those resources in the future.

Reportedly the largest chandelier in the United States and the 7th largest in the world. Would you hold a party under this for a 25-year old preservation planner who had been working in the field for less than three years? I will be there again tomorrow.

We have been getting questions a lot lately about the wisdom of Prentice Women’s Hospital, one of the National Trust’s National Treasures and the most important preservation issue in Chicago for the last two years or more.

This building is a bold statement, a brilliant combination of engineering and architectural design. It is the first building designed with the aid of a computer. I love it, aesthetically. So do a lot of other people. But a lot of people hate it, also aesthetically. I think the reasons behind this are:

1. It is a bold expression. People love or hate such expressions.

2. It is modernism, and probably viewed as Brutalism by some, and Brutalism has a bad rap, and a bad name, although if we had avoided Francophony and called it Concrete Style it might not have been better.

3. It is modernism, which like modern art, deceives many into confusing what can be VERY difficult-to-achieve simplicity with my-kid-could-do-that simplicity. The lack of ornament signifies for some a lack of polish, even though great modernism is much harder BECAUSE of the lack of ornament: scale, proportion and detail are magnified in importance.

4. It was built in 1975. For decades, I have been fond of saying that if you take any American family photo album and look at 1975, people will look their worst, regardless of age or gender, due to a perfect storm of clothing fashion disasters that coalesced that year. So maybe people are remembering – with appropriate horror and denial – what they were wearing when Prentice was built.

But some people will not warm to this building, at least in the near future. As I have pointed out before, it was always like this. People LOATHED Victorian architecture for more than half a century, and Art Deco was anathema as recently as the aforementioned 1970s.

This was a slum then. And ugly. Really ugly. Now it is REALLY expensive and REALLY beautiful.

There is a second aspect here that affects both the public perception of why we keep certain buildings and streetscapes and landscapes and the professional practice of heritage conservation. Charles Birnbaum just wrote a great blog about the battle over a Brutalist plaza in Minneapolis and he talked a lot about false choices.

The first false choice is the one Birnbaum describes. Officials or owners want to tear something down, so they get an estimate of what it would cost to restore it like a museum object. That is always expensive, excessive, and – d’uh – a false choice. Conserving buildings is about adaptive re-use, not museums.

The second false choice is between what is there and what might be there. When I worked for Landmarks Illinois and advocated landmarking of buildings and sites in Chicago I always pointed out that the landmarking process was only concerned with whether the site or structure met the criteria, not what it might be replaced with. While this argument gained some traction from the Commission on Chicago Landmarks, it held no water for the City Council, which said it wanted to see what the alternative was.

This sword cuts both ways. Sometimes the proposal will swing the pols and the public to the side of preserving because it the alternative is so awful. In other cases it will have the opposite effect, because the new thing looks swell. In the case of Prentice it can work both ways: some commenter said ANYTHING would look better on the site, and Northwestern promises a millions-of-dollars and hundreds-of-jobs Research Center on the site, BUT…. they aren’t saying when, or what, really. The only image they are offering is a green vacant lot with a fence around it. Lovely. Can’t. Wait.


One of my favorite vacant lots – Block 37! It was only vacant for 19 years and then it was built on three years ago. And then it went bankrupt!

The underlying assumption is that the potential donor who will fund the $200 million research sometime in the next generation or two will PREFER a vacant lot, in order to better envision the new building. Funny thing about it is, leaving the building there gives that future donor at least one MORE option than they would have with a vacant lot. The “blank slate” theory of creativity, which posits – illogically – that it is more creative to imagine something from nothing than something within a context. No, in fact imagining something within a context or within an existing structure is HARDER to do. Go back up there to the “my-kid-could-do-that” argument.

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One Response to “False Choices and the Process of Preservation”

  1. Don Tishman Says:

    Having developed in many major US markets I agree with Prof Michael. Why eliminate an alternative especially one that may produce income in the interim.
    I found your comments on Shanghai architecture enlightening. Going to Shanghai to see the new and old architecture.Your architectural et. al. suggestions would be greatly appreciated. Recently Shanghai recently had the world’s highest office rents.
    Don Tishman @ dontishman@gmail.com
    Blog is http://tishmangroup.com

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