Posts Tagged ‘preservation ethics’

Death To Nostalgia

August 26, 2008

Back in the late 1980s I was in a hearing at the Commission on Chicago Landmarks on the landmark designation of some surviving 1870s buildings in the Loop. The great real estate expert Jared Shlaes was testifying against the designation of several buildings because they had no functional or economical use. Somehow we had become a “party” to the hearing and I was able to cross-examine him. I thought I was clever and brought up the Chicago Water Tower, which was also functionally and economically obsolete. He fired back with a withering glare noting that the Water Tower was a landmark with great nostalgic value.

That hurt, man. Not losing an argument to Shlaes (although in retrospect he was wrong – the buildings are still around). What hurt was THAT WORD. Nostalgia. He was calling me nostalgic and that stung.

Nostalgia, is, as the ending of the word implies, a disease. Pining for a past that is dead and gone. What, you say? Isn’t that historic preservation? NO. Check out this quote:

“The National Trust for Historic Preservation promotes community development in older and historic neighborhoods.”

This was news today, thanks to a $1.3 million grant from the Knight Foundation to the National Trust (link at right). The grant is part of a $5 million loan pool targeted at developing affordable housing for some 28 communities across the U.S.. As this news makes clear, historic preservation is in fact an attitude toward the future – an attitude that our environment is richer by preserving HISTORIES embodied in buildings; that our future is brighter by preserving the ENERGY embodied in existing buildings; and that our life is richer by preserving the ARCHITECTURE of earlier periods. And preservation is a mechanism for securing a range of development goals including affordable housing.

Nostalgia afflicts many of those who support preservation, but I recoil at the term. I LIKE it when things change because that is history. History is not about standing still, it is about dynamism and the mechanics and infinite variety of change. We lived in a lovely house for 12 years and sold it this spring and now everyone is telling us how the new owners painted it white. So what? They should paint it however they want. It’s theirs now. I loved and enjoyed that house for 12 years and so did Felicity and the girls and it was time to move on so we moved on. That house will always be a part of my life but I don’t need to get DISEASED about it. I need to move on.

“The Moving Finger writes, and, having writ,
Moves on; nor all your Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a line
Nor all your Tears wash out a Word of it”
Rubaiyat of Omar Khayam by Edward Fitzgerald

I don’t want to perpetuate the 1970s or the 1980s or the 1990s and even if I did it wouldn’t work. Nostalgia the disease leads the pious and the clever to attempt erasure, to attempt to stop time, to hold on to institutions, practices, media, social orders and technologies that have died. That is as creepy as the stuffed Jeremy Bentham at the London School of Economics.

I hate it when people suggest that preservation is about stopping time. Ludicrous. Preservation is, in part, about limiting formal changes to the environment, but that is an attitude toward the future, not a misplaced reverence for the past. Museums can be about describing what life was like in the past, and there are architectural museums and house museums and museum villages and Civil War reenactments and the like. Those things could be described as nostalgic, although I would prefer to call them interpretive and educational. But museums – as much as they have proliferated in the last half century – are still relatively rare. You can have one for every 20,000 people or so. And even then, your goal is not to preserve something in aspic or amber or dry ice but to create an educational experience about the past that can plausibly (and usually positively) influence the future.

I like house museums. But I like historic districts and landmark buildings when they aren’t museums – and 95% of the time they aren’t. I like them because they served one purpose once and serve another now – because they have more and richer histories than most one-note new buildings. I like them because their history is visible and legible in patina and alterations over time, and I like them because they show me a style, a design and a sense of place that appeared once and will never appear again in exactly the same way.

I don’t ever want to go back AND I don’t ever want to forget.


Saving The Rest Not Just The Best

August 29, 2007

217 grove 406s

Originally uploaded by vincusses.

“Saving the best” is an old idea in preservation, dating from the early 20th century, the period when architects “professionalized” the practice. It survived into the 1960s when preservation became a popular phenomenon thanks to historic district activists. For the last forty years, it has been an outdated idea. For two generations, preservation has been about vernacular architecture, social history, historic districts and “background” buildings. It has been about improving a place by rebuilding, not building new.

Yes, there are still masterpieces, like the Farnsworth House, that escaped the recent floods by an inch or two. (See for cool photos of the flood and Brad Pitt too – should be a link at right).

Masterpieces have a special status, special requirements, and they are by definition rare. Most preservation is simply a matter of how citizens demand a voice in the future of their community. Nowadays only the haters trot out “saving the best” because they want to knock something down that is perfectly serviceable and economically viable, like the Lake Shore Athletic Club.

We no longer consider saving the “best example” of rainforest or glacier as sufficient for the planet; so why do we still listen when someone argues to save only the “best example” of architecture or history?

BUT, you say, the natural environment that nourishes our bodies with protein and oxygen is not equivalent to the human-built environment, not essential to our existence.

You must live by bread alone.

More to the point, every time a building is demolished, a ton of lead-lovely dust and debris is released into the atmosphere, a landfill overflows with bricks and lumber and plaster, and a truckload of trucks burn a truckload of diesel fuel. Every demolition has a corresponding new construction which means someone is cementing over some of the best agricultural soil on the planet in Will and Kendall Counties to put up a bunch of sticks that won’t last 35 years. Don’t tell me this stuff isn’t environmental or essential to our survival.

MOST of what is preserved is not masterpieces but PLACES. Real places with depth and texture that you can taste, with history you can feel in your bones even if you never, ever read history. Good design, too, because if it worked for 50 or 150 years there must be something NOT BROKE about it. The haters like to use old 1950s terms like “functionally obsolescent,” which humorously enough, usually only applies to buildings from the 1950s.

Look at the progress of preservation since the 1960s and you can see this democracy of the built environment and you realize this thing is bigger than architects and historians by miles and miles. First historic districts, then Main Streets, then heritage areas, then multiple resource districts, now conservation areas and buffer zones – this is the democratic expansion of preservation to include community planning and activism. It is what preservation is today: the most sustainable development practice possible.

PS Tomorrow marks two years and 125 posts of this blog.


August 23, 2007

top secret2s

Originally uploaded by vincusses.

No, this isn’t an comment on the Incompetent-In-Chief or his latest misreading of history – that would be too easy.

This is about the more difficult issue of taste and how it intersects with that most essential of historic preservation issues: time.

I was in the Wisconsin Dells recently, which is akin to admitting that you visited Branson or Vegas or Gatlinburg. It is quite outside of the educated taste that seems the center of preservation, and indeed many preservationists are refined in both taste and education. Preservationists don’t like billboards or overt commercialism, only the comfy chenille draped over their windows to history.

But at the same time, it is preservationists who first got us interested in Googie architecture and it is preservationists who led the charge for things like the Recent Past and Route 66 and Times Square and all sorts of Wisconsin Dells-like Paul Bunyans and Sinclair dinosaurs and even upside-down White Houses like the one pictured at right.

But it was always the new generation. Eight years ago, most members of preservation organizations did not care much for the recent past – it was the younger enthusiasts who embraced it. My former student Jeanne Lambin has just published an excellent National Trust publication “Preserving Resources from the Recent Past” which even has a Dells-style motel on the cover.

Kitsch becomes cool after a certain amount of time. It has always been so. When preservation began to take off in the earlier part of the 20th century, it was all about Georgian and Federal architecture, the period that was just over a hundred years old. As late as the 1950s the National Trust would go begging their membership to try to develop a feeling for Victorian architecture, which was viewed with Charles Addams’ horror well into the 1970s. There is now a Victorian Society in England, but there was not one a few generations ago.

Early Modern had it a bit easier, only because the first generation of architectural historians were generally modernists, and thus linked the “pure” styles of Georgian and Greek Revival to Early Modern, jumping over what Thomas Tallmadge called the “parvenu” of Victorian. In contrast, William Sumner Appleton found Greek and Roman styles offensive to Anglo-Saxon sensibilities. Like fellow Bostonian Richardson, he liked the Romanesque, a 900-year old style being reinvented as the latest thing.

Every generation creates the illusion of “new” by rejecting what immediately preceded them, often in favor of an older style, far enough removed to be rendered inoffensive, or at least far enough removed in time to be “rehabilitated.” Picasso’s Cubism drew heavily on “tribal” cultural forms, which he rehabilitated and appropriated. Newness is always scary, but it is rarely new. And “oldness” is always comfortable, because it has been rehabilitated. There is a key element of time at play here, the kind of time that makes what was obscene or outrageous in 1975 relatively innocuous in 1995 or 2005.

On my way to Wisconsin Dells, I passed loads of shopping malls and guess what – they are all Victorian, or at least the 21st century version of the style. Modern is back again – if you read Dwell, they are apostles of mid-century modernist minimalism and they do a good job of that. Of course, in this milieu, the tacky 1960s restaurants and motels of the Dells look, well, special and irreplaceable, because by temperament and demeanor they are over and done with. And thus nostalgic.

“Nostalgia” is like “neuralgia,” a disease of longing for the past. It is an odd disease, because rather than requiring rehabilitation it causes rehabilitation – of buildings, of ideas, of culture.

My sister Clare suggested we pick up rubber tomahawks as appropriately tacky souvenirs of the tacky Dells. And it struck me as we passed Indian trading posts and Pirate Coves that these ultimately kid-friendly thematic diversions – cowboys and pirates – were of course once the most terrorizing and uncivilized elements of the world. And now they are child’s play, just as the architecture of the pretty brutal medieval world of 1000 A.D. appealed to the sophisticated elite of 1910 Boston.

But is is never what it was. My Victorian house is not what it was, it is not used the way it was (we have toilets, for example) it had to be rehabilitated and preservation is always that rehabbing of buildings and concepts and even styles. Does this mean someone will want to preserve our neo-Victorianism someday? Probably. The haters always like to say that they will replace a landmark with something that will be a future landmark, as if they could know that. You can’t know it – even Picasso failed in his first try at the Parisian art scene. Hell, the Victorians thought what they were doing was Free Classicism or somesuch. The names and the fame come later.

Rehabilitation happens in history, too. The reviled master planner Robert Moses was the subject of 3 exhibits in New York last year, perhaps expressing a longing for a similar builder/autocrat.

Whether anyone can turn the White House right side up again is quite another story. Sometimes, there is nothing left to rehabilitate.

Europe, America and monasticism

October 20, 2005

I like Europe. What’s not to like? Rich, gorgeous, relaxed. Yeah, gas is $6 a gallon but the next fabulous art museum, medieval castle, Baroque monastery, Roman ruin or mountainside lake is only 6 miles away. You can drive to the next country for cheap eggs or dental work and still be home before dusk. You don’t even need to drive since trains go everywhere and even small towns have bus and tram systems and bike rental. And they preserve their old buildings more often than we do.

Demolishing a historic building in Europe is harder to do than in the U.S. That wasn’t always the case – they had the same frenzy for urban renewal in the immediate post-World War II era that we did. Berlin demolished more buildings during the 1950s than were lost in the war (yes, it’s true: see the footnote.) But quickly they realized – with the help of GIs turned tourists like Arthur Frommer – that Americans liked to see the old stuff and would pay for the privilege. A combination of laws, practices and pure economics means that it is not easy to tear down an old building in Europe. Not true in America, where a powerful institution or developer can often clear a landmark standing in the way of their project.

Part of the reason for this is that America worships the free market and has steadily eroded the purview of the public sector over the last quarter-century, but that distinction is only one of degree – Europe is now moving away from collective capitalism as well, so the distinctions between preservation practice are explained less by government regulation and more by cultural predisposition. Europeans have no myth of the prairie; Europeans saw physical destruction in the context of war; Europeans feel connected to place while Americans are perpetually peripatetic.

Yet, while Europeans are more likely to preserve an old building, they are more likely to treat it with the latest in architectural fads. Yes, they will meticulously restore Notre Dame or the Fontana de Trevi but they have no problem dropping a solar dome into the Reichstag or draping slugomorphic computer-generated glassine trusses over stately old Renaissance facades. I was briefly shocked in Austria’s Wachau this summer as I walked past Baroque buildings with new holes in the walls, all filled with spanky plastic windows and squirt foam around the frame.

Eleanor Esser Gorski, architect for the Commission on Chicago Landmarks, made this point a couple of years ago following a residency in Rome. She observed that Europeans were less likely to demolish but more likely to agree to radical interventions into landmarks. Why is that?

I would blame Puritanism, the 17th century cult that founded New England and was distinguished by a dogged stern asceticism that makes a Benedictine monastery seem like Club Med. It is hard to save a landmark here, but once we do, we approach it with the reverence of an idolator, cherishing every inch of original fabric, holding as holy its floorplan, finishes and faults. I exaggerate, of course, but the contrast to Europe is strong. Notre Dame de Paris is 900 years old but its façade is barely ten, and the bits that are not are about 130 years old. The French are more cavalier about replacing original material with exacting copies in the same material. In the U.S. we first took our preservation cues from the Victorian English, so we privileged historic fabric over historic design. And we carry more than our share of asceticism or monasticism into our preservation.

Maybe that is another reason I like Europe. You don’t have an uphill battle convincing people that buildings should be saved, and you don’t have to take a vow of chastity and obedience in order to lead that battle. Preservation is a normal part of life, not something apart, neither elevated nor subterranean.

Footnote: Urban, Florian, “Recovering Essence Through Demolition: The ‘Organic’ City in Postwar West Berlin,” Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians Volume 63, Number 3, September 2004