Responding to Rem: Is preservation really a creeping disease?

I’ve been intrigued by the recent attacks on preservation, initially by Rem Koolhaus/OMA’s exhibition Cronocaos at the New Museum in New York, which closed June 6th; the title, presumably, grafting chronos, time, to chaos. Many articles and blogs posted responses to this provocative exhibition, but the NYT op-ed piece by Sarah Williams Goldhagen, Death by Nostalgia (June 10, 2011) caught my attention because I was baffled by what she identified as preservation’s major problem – the amateur. I see it elsewhere. Here’s a small part of what she writes:

In other words, preservation morphed into a four-headed monster: a planning tool, a design review tool, a development tool and a tool to preserve genuinely valuable old neighborhoods and buildings. Today decisions about managing urban development are frequently framed as decisions about what and what not to preserve, with little sense of how those decisions affect the surrounding neighborhood.

Worse, these decisions are mostly left to the whims of overly empowered preservation boards, staffed by amateurs casting their nets too widely and indiscriminately. And too many buildings are preserved not because of their historic value or aesthetic significance, but because of political or economic deal-making.

While Koolhaus/OMA’s exhibition indicated that preservation encourages a lack of authenticity in favor of a sanitized (mostly white) past, Goldhagen takes aim at preservationists as narrow-minded amateurs with no sense of how local actions could affect a wider community. My experience as a historic preservation specialist and a professional architectural historian, is quite the opposite. First, we are professionals who must be qualified to assess and analyze cultural resources in a variety of ways: why is a landscape, building, or site worth preserving? Is it because of the designer, or because someone famous did something significant here, or because this place represents some broad cultural purpose? Is this the only place like it, or are there hundreds like it? Once we answer that–which can be an amazing adventure in research–my job is to distill that understanding in language that is rational, progresses logically,and if need be, to stand up in court. Second, the range of preservation is changing, deliberately and methodically reaching out to minorities and to wider definitions of what is valuable to a community: Maravilla Handball Court in East L.A.; China Alley in Ventura, and John and Alice Coltrane’s house on Long Island may be as important to preserve as a thoroughbred example of the International Style. Third, the boards I deal with are populated with both ‘amateurs’ — if you mean local members of a community who care enough about their surroundings to show up for long, unpaid meetings– and architects, some of whom are I would vouchsafe are just as sensitive, creative, irreverent and dynamic as the Koolhauses of the world. Preservation boards need ‘amateurs’ because what we as environmental consultants do needs to be transparent to a community, and because amateurs force professionals to communicate in language that is forthright and not elitist: like a democracy, it’s all about checks and balances. Fourth, the regulations of preservation are far more flexible and collaborative than most unversed in these regulations may be aware. Fifth, the concept of ‘authenticity’ is one we in the profession think about and agonize over all the time.

Take mid-century Modern. I for one am bemused when Formica, that emblem of postwar optimism that spoke to the “good” in plastics and the chutzpah of creating radical architecture with humble, inexpensive materials, is removed as oh-so-tacky, disappearing into the blender of homogenized contemporary good taste: Off-white engineered quartz and high-end woods replace the Formica and paint-grade wood … and that’s just the beginning. I love Duravit fixtures and Fleetwood or Metal Window Corps. windows as well as the next person, but does everything have to look like a Dwell feature? Why not acknowledge the staying power of Formica (I can’t believe I’m arguing for plastic meant to look like walnut, that moment in The Graduate) or build a new house and riddle it with as much good taste and self-expression as much as you like? As one veteran of World War II, USC-trained Lyman Ennis, buddy of Connie Buff, Cal Straub, Don Hensman, told me not long before he died, “We just won a war. How difficult could it be to build a house?” That kind of optimism, in the days of the $10-per-square-foot post-and-beam pre-Title 24, and before cumbersome seismic requirements that would weigh down the breathtakingly slender but elastic wood framing … that peculiar optimism is long gone, replaced by irony, and maybe the paralyzing self-conscious anxiety of getting it right. Perhaps that is why we both worship mid-century and have to clean it up, make it pretty.

There are seven terms that speak to a property’s integrity, or authenticity: location, design, workmanship, association, feeling, setting and materials. Feeling, especially, is subjective and has to be thoughtfully, carefully, thought through because though touchy-feely at first glance, it is also a technical term. What kind of feeling does a property convey? Does it feel authentic, or does it feel wrong, somehow, a bit too too perfect, all its authenticity banished? Does that example of postwar architecture convey that feeling of optimism … through, for example, preserving that Formica?

And if something does need to change to meet 21st century needs, again, my experience is that regulations do have oxygen. The process of deciding what can be jettisoned or altered can be collaborative and thoughtful, eliciting great philosophical discussions and imaginative strategies. If you visit the ultra-famous Eames House, apart from how remarkable it is, what also strikes me, unexpectedly, is the sense of humility and simplicity that percolates through a construct that feels an awful lot like joy. And what contributes to that feeling of humility leads us back to analyzing materials, workmanship, and design, and how they work in concert to convey that feeling.

I see the problem not with amateur status of boards ill-equipped to judge. Rather, I see the problem far earlier in the process. A client hires an architect to do X, who does so-and-so, and along the way each invests the other with the emerging deliverable, a project, which increasingly gets hard-lined, reified, and paid for. This is then presented as a fait accompli to a board. While the architects are working and the developers are running around dealing with entitlements and investors, someone remembers that the area where the new project will be located has to be evaluated to see whether any cultural resources might be affected, e.g. demolished or impacted in some deleterious way. Because all this is happening in parallel but with no collaboration, by the time it reaches a review board, either a planning board or a citizens’ review board, everyone involved with the project has a significant amount of expertise, time and money invested in a piece of knowledge or a vision.  Lines get drawn, and everyone runs around being shocked, shocked, that A didn’t know that the context had to be addressed, and B can’t embrace a truly great project, etc., etc. Everyone runs around proposing unsatisfactory bandaids, heels dig in, more time and money is spent, and finally, when the project gets built, it is watered down because the changes are superficial and last minute. No one’s happy, and still the public is dismayed that that X-1 or -2 got built: “how could they [and by this point everyone is up for blame: architects, preservationists, historians, developers, planners] get away with this?”

What is missing is a discussion at the beginning of the project, in which a short report indicates there may be some historic resources in the area. If the resource is a building, is there a way to exploit existing proportions, materials, rhythms, datum lines, landscape  plantings and trees, or other subtle relationships that might inform an addition or renovation or rehabilitation? … tasks that architects often impose on themselves even with a blank canvas, as any student who had to use the lessons of D’Arcy Thompson’s “On Growth and Form;” Edmund Husserl’s lessons in seeing familiar things in new ways; or Ernst Haeckel’s revelations on natural forms. (Thompson was a favorite assignment in the late 19th century at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. MIT was affiliated with the École, where renowned Classicists such as Richard Hunt and Charles McKim trained as well as brilliant iconoclasts Louis Sullivan and Henry Hobson Richardson; Thompson is au courant today in schools like the Southern California Institute of Architecture, aka Sci-Arc, and Woodbury University in Burbank, both influential institutions in architectural education.)

In my opinion, preservation preserves diversity. It doesn’t eliminate change or growth and rarely can stop demolition if that is what a community finally determines it wants, issuing a “Statement of Overriding Concerns” after the transparent process of evaluation and comment known as the California Environmental Quality Act, or CEQA, adopted in 1970. Preservation is also a question of scale: a community left to developers is a future of slick, branded, ultimately flaccid homogeneity, diminishing our sense of a rich, colorful, diverse history with a thinner historical fabric in which the remaining players have, unfairly, more symbolic work to do, and maybe more than they were ever intended to bear.

Or it just means leaving the Formica-that-will-not-die in place.

4 Responses to “Responding to Rem: Is preservation really a creeping disease?”
  1. Miguel Santos says:

    We have to keep in mind that Rem Koolhaus would have not been able to build his buildings in historic areas of European citiesif local preservationists were more organized. Case and point: His building The House of Music (Casa da Música in my hometown of OPorto, Portugal, required the demolition of a historic 1874 cable-car night storage building: His view on historic preservation is certainly biased.

    • Yes, it is … do you agree with the demolition? The Rem/OMA looks to be a gorgeous building, and I don’t know OPorto, but could the new building have been located elsewhere? Perhaps the significance of the storage building was not effectively understood or communicated, or was not analyzed for possible adaptive re-use? Thank you, btw, for writing. My brother and his family live in Santiago, not far, and I would love to visit Porto and of course, Siza.

      • Miguel Santos says:

        I have mixed feelings: I love the new building and the siting actually works, but think that maybe it could have been built in another part of town and the cable-car storage station saved. I think the demolition of the station happened because there was not a vocal and well organized group of preservationists pushing to save the historic building. The city government of Oporto has actually quite a bit of experience with adavptive reuse in historic buildings; somehow I don’t think that this particular building was a preferred target because so much attention and local effort was going into the preparation for the city’s 2001 European Capital of Culture celebration.

        Regarding Siza and the other architects of Oporto School of Architecture (Pritzker prize winner Eduardo Souto de Moura and others), they have a very unique and understated style of modern architecture: minimalist, modest and unnobtrusive. Many adaptive reuse projects performed by these architects are barely noticeable and highlight the period architecture of the buildings restored/adapted: a good example is Souto de Moura’s restoration of the Monastery of Santa Maria do Bouro (see halfway down this link :

      • Miguel Santos says:

        A flickr set showing many of the restoration/adaptation details of the Santa Maria do Bouro Monastery:

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