Posts Tagged ‘architecture and creativity’

Creative Destruction

January 30, 2010

I got a question about Creative Destruction at my lecture at the Chicago History Guild a couple of weeks ago and my first response was: “that is the hottest thing in preservation scholarship.” It has been for over decade, actually, from Max Page’s Creative Destruction of Manhattan and Michael Holleran’s Boston’s Changeful Times to the recent release of Randall Mason’s Once and Future New York. Dan Bluestone has also contributed to this scholarship, as have many of the pieces in Future Anterior and other journals.

I think many people confuse creative destruction with the concept of creativity and the tabula rasa, and thus come to the curious conclusion that preservation stifles creativity. This noxious notion doesn’t pass the sniff test: any child can draw on a blank canvas – it takes real creative skill to express yourself in context.

What creative destruction really means is the selective erasure of certain landscape elements (including buildings) in order to reinforce a particular story. It has happened a lot in preservation history, with perhaps the most famous example being the restoration of Colonial Williamsburg in the 1920s and 1930s, where lost historic buildings like the Governor’s Palace were reconstructed from scratch while historic buildings from the 19th century were demolished in order to “restore” the place to a more perfect vision of its Colonial past.

In Mason’s Once and Future New York he notes that this is NOT how we think of historic preservation/building conservation today. Today we approach it from the point of view of avoiding waste, maintaining identity and depth in a fast-paced society, and conserving precious resources. A building is an incredible amount of embodied energy and destroying it is like throwing out gasoline or burning forests.

But that is not the history of saving buildings. A century ago, during the Progressive Era, the preservationist impulse arose – as it often does – in response to rapid changes in society and the landscape. The United States was becoming an urban society for the first time, and immigrants were pouring in, causing cultural consternation among the established classes.

In this environment, landmarks were preserved as moral and cultural lessons. Most of the buildings saved in the 19th and early 20th centuries had connections to Revolutionary War heroes or other “founding fathers.” Those preserving them were explicit in their motives: they wanted to keep American culture in the face of foreign influences and they wanted stability in contrast to the uncertainties of modernization.

Mason recounts how the preservation project became the creation of a memory infrastructure designed to reinforce a certain narrative of American history and American society. And, in many cases, to actively erase the foreign immigrant presence, as in the development of the Bronx River Parkway, which restored an idealized version of nature to be appreciated from automobiles by, among other means, removing immigrant settlements along the route.

Creative destruction thus served the purpose of shaping historical narratives embodied in built forms. It didn’t matter if those forms were built out of brick and stone or forests and streams. Mason’s other examples included City Hall Park, a major preservation effort that focused not only on saving the early 19th century City Hall but on removing later buildings like the Tweed Courthouse that had been added to City Hall Park, obscuring the original landmark and conveying unpatriotic messages about corruption.

By the time Colonial Williamsburg opened in the 1930s, preservation had been professionalized, largely by architects. It had also expanded its focus beyond associations with founding fathers to include architectural landmarks. And the same approach of creative destruction helped shape architectural narratives. The practice of restoring an historic landmark to a certain date may involve “creative destruction” of later additions, again in the service of a more coherent narrative or more coherent design. In the case of sites like the Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio or the Gaylord Building, reconstructing the original appearance enhances a visitor experience, and ideally the interpretation documents everything that happened.

Reading Mason’s book I started thinking about our own more current memory infrastructure, which has evolved over the last 50 years to incorporate more social history, more vernacular architecture, and a massively broader understanding of the American experience. For my entire life the memory infrastructure has been almost the exact opposite of the jingoistic solipsisms of the Progressive Era preservationists: it has been all about diversity and immigration. A quick visit to one of the most important preservation projects of the last 20 years – Ellis Island – is proof of that, as is the POTUS.

Of course this doesn’t mean the old sites are no longer seen. No, they have been reinterpreted. At National Trust sites like Woodlawn, Belle Grove, Montpelier, Cliveden, Drayton Hall, Oatlands or Shadows-on-the-Teche, the history of the enslaved population in the 18th and 19th centuries has become a central part of the interpretation. And rather than creative destruction, that expanded narrative results from creative investigation – archaeology of slave quarters, research into a great variety of historical records, and contacting ALL of the descendants of those who lived and worked at these sites. Unlike the preservationist project of 1910, which involved winnowing and narrowing the story, our current memory infrastructure requires an ever expanding field of relevance and revelation. And it is growing.

postscript: Creative destruction also refers to conditions in capitalism where technologies or systems are superceded, which is not terribly relevant to buildings and landscapes still used and usable.

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February 18, 2008

Friday I gave my first Powerpoint lecture on Barry Byrne, although I have given lectures on the only Prairie School architect to build in Europe for 10 years – it was all slides until a couple of years ago. Great audience for the break-the-box lecture series at Unity Temple and kudos to new UTRF Executive Director Emily Roth! Saturday, sold the house. Tomorrow, discussing The Modern with SAIC colleagues, then off to DC to meet with AIA on putting preservation into architectural curricula.

It is amazing how resistant some architects are to preservation. They see it as stifling creativity. Huh? Do you define creativity by how blank your slate is when you start? By how much you get to twist and reshape the world without input from others? Is that dumb or what? Isn’t it harder and MORE creative to devise an architectural solution in the midst of existing conditions? Aren’t there always existing conditions? I don’t get it, but maybe that is because I don’t mind formal and discursive oppositions taken by new architectural interventions into existing fabric. Plus, if blank slates are better for creativity, why does every bit of exurban landscape LOOK EXACTLY THE SAME? I suppose one answer is that architects weren’t involved, but that just begs the question Why Not? At any rate, many architecture schools teach no preservation even though three-quarters of all architectural commissions are for existing buildings.

This resistance is especially amazing in the new GREEN GREEN GREEN environment. How can you run out and get a LEED certification and use it to SELL NEW PRODUCT? How is selling new product sustainable? “I made it out of bamboo so it is renewable.” Yeah, well, I made it out of what was already there. “I used recycled materials” Great – how did they get there? In a fusion-powered truck? My materials WERE ALREADY THERE. Green may be the newest fashion but if architects and others want to prove that they are more than fashionistas they are going to have to embrace a sustainability you can’t buy at Home Depot. You can’t buy sustainability – you have to make it locally, ideally on-site. That’s called preservation.

There is a perception problem caused by numbers. In real estate, people value buildings and their systems and materials and finishes based on age, which makes sense for about 10 years. They talk about a new building as if it were 10 better than a building 10 years old and 100 better than a building 100 years old, but this assumes that all buildings at all times were created with the same lifespan. That is not so. In fact, buildings built before 1930 are generally designed to last for a hundred years or more, from the structure to the windows and doors. Buildings built before 1920 are also more energy efficient than buildings built between 1920 and 2000, on the whole. This actually makes sense if you study history. From 1945 to 1970 we had to build tons of buildings quickly. We had lost a generation of craftsmen, and we had gained a military industrial production system that could churn out cheap buildings quickly. These were not made to last – in fact, they were designed like other postwar consumer products, to become obsolescent so we would buy more and stimulate the economy. They were also built during a rare period in history: from 1945 to 1970 energy was cheap. Energy was not cheap in 1910 and it was not cheap in 1880. But it was cheap in 1960, so we switched from double glazing to single glazing, from plaster to drywall, from subfloors to plywood and from cavity walls to platform frames. The problem is arithmetic. Since we know that buildings 40 and 50 years old are inefficient, we think that buildings 90 or 110 years old must be more inefficient, when the opposite is true. The past does not work arithmetically. A building 100 years old can last twice as long as a building built 50 years ago. This even applies to systems. We have an older boiler heating our house right now and the heating contractor advised against upgrading it to the modern ones that operate at a low and high setting and are thus more efficient. Why did he do that? Because ours already operates on those more efficient settings! That was how they used to design boilers! Like double glazing.

Next time you try on your latest green fashion, see if the mirror isn’t reflecting more than a little history.