A retrograde opinion by a thinker of apparently native good sense can generate a cavalcade of truths from another thinker in response. Thus we have Michael Mehaffy’s response to Duo Dickinson’s curious “Sprinting to the Past,” against the idea of rebuilding Penn Station. Mehaffy notes that humans have long rebuilt beloved buildings snatched away before their time, and then expands the theme:
Why we rebuild
by Michael Mehaffy
The [Duo Dickinson] article completely overlooks the question of quality of what came before. I would be all for replacing the original Penn Station with something even better. (That happened to Grand Central, by the way – what is there now replaced a previous building that was also quite beautiful.)
Consider the Venice Campanile – a structure that dated from the 9th century, with its current appearance dating from the 16th century. It collapsed in 1902 as the result of a defective foundation. The Venetians were militant about rebuilding it “com’era, dov’era” (as it was, where it was). Most people, including historians, are now very glad that they were. Interpretive materials satisfy all of the Venice Charter stipulations of “contemporary stamp” (i.e. the history and reconstructions are identifiable and distinguishable to the public).
This is only one example of many others that we now take for granted – including the very idea itself of revival or renaissance, which is nothing other than the rebuilding of previous styles or even buildings. (Jefferson’s reconstructions of Palladio are just one case in point.)
Yet for most people, there is something disquieting about rebuilding of this sort. After all, aren’t we “modern” people, for whom such rebuilding is just somehow “inauthentic” on its face? After all (as the Modernists argued), the entire world has fundamentally changed forever, thanks to modern technology. Don’t we have to do everything differently now?
This is ex cathedra thinking – a kind of cultish “kool-aid” – more appropriate to marketing a program of industrialization of the human environment than to a serious philosophical discourse. Indeed, one can find little rational basis for such an idea.
Note how Modernist doctrine has been ideologically rabid on this point from the beginning. The CIAM 1933 Athens Charter (drafted by Le Corbusier) stated:
70. The practice of using styles of the past on aesthetic pretexts for new structures erected in historic areas has harmful consequences. Neither the continuation of such practices nor the introduction of such initiatives will be tolerated in any form.
Such methods are contrary to the great lesson of history. Never has a return to the past been recorded, never has man retraced his own steps.
The sheerest nonsense, on its face! And the sheerest totalizing fanaticism. Yet this ideology is steeped into the thinking of our age, as received orthodoxy and emotional anchor. We have been marketed to, and we must now have the New! the Improved! Any violation of this received framing causes cognitive dissonance.
So a more radical idea is to challenge this orthodoxy, and to ask if we have not become brainwashed in a very real sense. (I don’t have time for it here, but yes, I think we have. We have bought into the fallacy that we can “re-invent ourselves in a new age.”)
By the way, I do agree that technologies will change architecture – and they always have. The first Greek temples were wood, only later stone – but they largely kept their form. Glass, steel and lighting produced remarkable embellishments on this same architecture. Only later were these elements cited as part of a radical formula of tectonic determinism, arguing for a fundamentally altered architecture “of our time.”
Michael Mehaffy is a founder of the Sustasis Foundation, in Portland, Ore., an organization devoted to the study how good, livable, workable, sustainable streets and cities are made, and works to carry out its ideas and the good ideas for cities and living conceived by others.
This passage is reprinted from a TradArch email from Michael Mehaffy enlarging on a response by Calder Loth, both of whom wrote against Duo Dickinson’s article against rebuilding Penn Station. I commented on Dickinson’s article in my post “Gird Penn Station’s rebuild” last week.