Authenticity in Heritage Conservation

Calif St Ital TudorS
California Street, San Francisco

In this blog I have often celebrated a definition of heritage conservation (historic preservation) as a process whereby a community determines what elements of its past it wants to bring into the future. The virtues of this definition are many. It allows for both tangible and intangible heritage: buildings, sites, structures and landscapes as well as music, costume, craft, festivals and a host of other folkways, without privileging one or the other. It allows for the passage of time: how we define what is important in the past cannot remain static. Even the definition of authenticity changes over time, a point made by Yan Zhang at our Asia Forum in May and quoted by me in a Huffington Post blog recently.
LG Main StreetS
Downtown Los Gatos, California

The definition also has the virtue of addressing some of the failings of preservation, failings not in its design but in its history. Preservation arose as a field of practice and knowledge in the 1960s, in reaction to a coordinated public and private policy that favored demolition of the historic built environment. There was also a social ethic that new was superior to old, reinforced by the conscious adoption of planned obsolescence throughout the consumer economy.
skyview vinyardS
Near our home in The Villa, Santa Cruz mountains

Preservation also arose during the Great Society and thus became quite quickly a regulatory and bureaucratic endeavor. While the contemporaneous environmental movement also became regulatory, by the 1970s it had adopted a consumerist approach (recycling, etc.) that allowed broad social participation. Moreover, its regulatory targets were and are large corporations, whereas in the world of preservation, regulation more often impinged on the perceived rights of individuals.
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Historic home, Santa Cruz, California

The legal framework, embodied in the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 and its local analogs, also bore the marks of preservation history. It enshrined the values of the Venice Charter of 1964, which insisted on authenticity, although interestingly Americans were never comfortable with that term, preferring “integrity.” This fact, combined with the then-30-year old Historic American Building Survey, a partnership between the National Park Service and American Institute of Architects, gave preservation an architectural and visual bias that very nearly excluded intangible heritage and exacerbated the sense among the public that preservationists were “design police.”
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My office, downtown Palo Alto

The definition recasts preservation as a site of negotiation: between the members of a community; between the past and the present, between the demands of consumption and production; between the patterns and forms left behind by historic endeavor and the processes that created or inhabited those forms.
Carmell shoppesS
Shop in Carmel, California

Authenticity also resides in this site of negotiation. In my recent blog about Disneyland I wondered whether I had turned my back on the authenticity enshrined in the Venice Charter and its 1990s successors that incorporated the diversity of intangible heritage. Authenticity is always something to be wrestled with, it is not simply design nor is it simply practice. It is a calculus of form, content, interpretation and ultimately, the will of a community. Disneyland is an environment controlled by a corporation, but most of our communities are, to some extent, controlled by the community itself, and even a corporate environment will respond to its clientele.
oswalds gas
Gift shop that looks like a gas station, Disney’s California Adventure

History is dynamic and its preservation must also be dynamic. A process of conserving heritage insures that dynamism, whereas a rulebook can only stifle it. Heritage conservation is not the act of freezing buildings or artifacts in history. Rather, it is the art of activating historic resources for a contemporary society and its economy.
san carlos hobby shopS
Hobby shop, San Carlos, California

3 Responses to “Authenticity in Heritage Conservation”

  1. C. Says:

    I totally agree with your point that preservation must be dynamic. There are a lot of historic buildings (especially churches) in Europe where it gets so cold during winter due to the absence of heating and in most cases preservation guidelines prevent the installation of a heating system as it ‘interferes’ with the original form of construction.

  2. adrianpetry Says:

    Reblogged this on not so private history and commented:
    A fantastic look at the issues and needs of heritage designation and preservation. We need to make sure that our planning principles and preservation techniques are sustainable and useable for the future and not solely freezing elements of the past.

  3. New Legal Column: Friday Filings « I Speak Vintage Says:

    […] accurate term. The strongest argument for that can be found on Vince Michael’s blog here and here. And if you want some real knowledge dropped on you, […]

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