Posts Tagged ‘the best preservation’

Pure

November 17, 2005

Next year is the 40th anniversary of the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966. Like much progressive legislation, the Act not only codified historic preservation practice – it pushed it forward. Suddenly we cared about properties of local significance (despite the fact that it was a national act) and historic districts. Much of preservation history had focused on individual sites and architectural significance. In 1966 preservation moved to the community level and embraced social history.

Forty years is a long time for a movement, and it has changed. I was speaking yesterday with Judy Hayward about next Spring’s Traditional Building conference in Chicago, where we are having a panel on “When preservation involves demolition.” Judy opined that this shows how the movement is maturing, looking at issues with a balanced eye. The same is true in preservation education and scholarship. The last two years have witnessed a spate of publications revisiting and revising the traditional view of preservation.

Forty years gives a movement enough self-confidence to be able to look critically at itself. Until 1978 preservationists weren’t even sure that their activities were constitutional. Well into the 1980s both legislation and public support seemed very thin. By the 1990s most people felt preservation was legal and desirable, and a new criticality began to emerge.

Yet the monastic impulse remains. Secret lists are supposedly kept of those who testify against preservation. This sounds like a religious fraternity, a political cell or an advocacy organization like the NRA, that views even a hint of compromise, sanity or outreach with venomous disdain.

When you come from the desert into the city and become a mainstream movement there will be those who claim you sold out and should still be fasting in the sagebrush. I wrote here not long ago about criticism I got from preservation purists (fundamentalists?) for being in compromise positions. By the way, these sell-outs pay just as well as purism – which is to say nothing at all. The movement has not lost its volunteerism.

I remember a Peanuts cartoon from childhood were Linus decides what he wants to be when he grows up: a fanatic. Charlie Brown asks him what kind of fanatic and Linus responds “a wide-eyed fanatic” whilst widening his eyes.

I wanted to be one, too, but I could never quite manage it. I have testified against fellow professionals I know in various cases over the years. I don’t hold it against them. Holding grudges doesn’t seem pure at all.

There have always been differences of opinion, even when the movement was young. Tim Samuelson tells the story of how he stormed out of an early LPCI meeting because they decided to try to save the old library (see http://www.ci.chi.il.us/Tourism/CultureCenterTour/) and he found it incomprehensible that preservation cared about such historicist crud – it was really about Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright and their romantic tilt against the windmills of fashionable architecture. Chicago preservation was so architecturally-focused in the 1950s and 1960s that they landmarked buildings before the paint was dry – Inland Steel became a landmark three years after it was built under the toothless 1957 ordinance. You can see it – designated in 1998 under a real ordinance – at http://www.ci.chi.il.us/Landmarks/I/InlandSteel.html.

We live in a time of ideologues. Sometimes I think “All ideology is wrong” because ideology is static. It is not dynamic and changeable like history, which is a mess of contradictions. Ideology is in the form of answers, which are temporal. On the other hand, questions are eternal.

Why do we save buildings? Why should we save this one? Why didn’t we save that one? What should be done with them?

Questions don’t go away, even after the answers we give today turn to dust and shadows.

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


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