Why preserve? PPS speaks

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Max Page shows photo of the old Penn Station on display in the existing Penn Station.

I caught today’s “plenary” lecture by Why Preservation Matters author Max Page, and the “In the Moment” panel discussion that followed. Page kicked off a day of panels and tours for the Providence Preservation Society‘s “Why Preserve” symposium with an engaging talk called “Bending the Future.” You can see him in the photo above showing us a photo of a photo of the old Penn Station mounted underground at the new Penn Station.

Not all that funny, really, and I’m sure Page agrees. By the way, in the background that’s one of the arched windows of the Industrial Trust (“Superman”) Bank Building, the empty icon of 1928 in whose banking hall the symposium was held.

Page’s talk stressed new ways to make preservation relevant. Saving old buildings as a primary focus strikes some as overly elitist, so Page urged the Providence Preservation Society’s audience to “bend” preservation toward reducing society’s carbon footprint, fighting gentrification and redressing through design the wrongs of U.S. history. To give a flavor of Page’s thinking, here is a guest introduction of him on WBUR radio in Boston:

From the Public Gardens to the Old South Meeting House and the Quincy Market, Boston is a city of historic landmarks. We preserve these places for their architectural beauty, their historical significance, the impact they had on society.

But what if we preserved for sustainability? Or to stand against gentrification? Or to challenge societies to confront ugly pasts?

That’s the progressive preservation movement contemplated by Max Page, a professor of architecture and history at the University of Massachusetts. He says preservation is not just about the past — it’s about building the more just communities of the future. In other words, he says: “Not your grandmother’s preservation movement.”

And that pretty much sums up where PPS and most other preservation groups, from the National Trust on down, are headed. The three presenters on the “In the Moment” panel were generally of the same view. The only dissenting voice – if I may characterize it as such – was that of an audience member who wondered why these new directions for preservation might not be deemed equivalent to a library de-accessioning its book collection in order to go digital or engage in other efforts that, frankly, line up alongside what preservationists feel, with every good intention, they should be doing.

I am sensitive to the strong rationale for all of these goals, but I think preservationists are overthinking the question of “Why preserve?” and undervaluing what preservation as originally conceived already does to advance those three goals.

PPS’s annual list of endangered properties argues persuasively that there remains plenty of work to do in the old ways of preservation. What follows is an argument for retaining and even ramping up preservation’s focus on saving those buildings.

With each old building saved, the carbon footprint of its site remains essentially in the black. A new building would accrue a massive carbon debt that, according to Page, would probably not be paid off (with accruals from its “green” technology) until well after the building is demolished. Page expressed the same skepticism I feel toward conventional “gizmo green” strategies of carbon emissions reduction. Good for him, but does he favor erecting new buildings that use pre-Thermostat Age strategies to heat and cool buildings, such as windows that open and close, to name one of many? Not abandoning the conveniences we love, but offsetting their cost with age-old strategies of sustainability. I doubt it.

Neighborhoods of new houses traditionally designed would contribute to sustainability even as they reduce the pressure of gentrification on poor communities with increasingly shabby housing conditions. Gentrification certainly displaces the poor more slowly and gently than urban renewal. But if the goal is to eliminate gentrification altogether, why not try creating new neighborhoods built from scratch with new traditional architecture? That would give wealthier families a way to occupy homes amid beauty without gentrifying poor neighborhoods. Page did not seem to have any new ideas about how to stop gentrification – driven by market forces that see lovely old houses as a rare commodity. Without such an alternative as new traditional architecture, preservation is indeed just another word for gentrification.

Traditional preservation also does a better job of healing the wounds of this nation’s uncivil history. More so than new buildings, old buildings create a more civilized space for public discourse. Saving them pushes back against the incivility and the anomie that has increasingly characterized our built environment. This is important for all citizens, but most of all for citizens who have grievances that are much more likely to be addressed in settings that promote the kind of civility that breeds compromise, reconciliation and brotherly love.

This line of argument may seem tame, indeed lame, but I believe it is more firmly rooted in the better angels of our nature than some of the alternatives. Often there is no silver bullet.

Max Page argues that preservation should instead use design to remind citizens of the sins of our nation’s past. This important task is better left to books, libraries, museums and scholarship. My concern is that few architects or preservationists have the necessarily considerable sensitivity to accomplish such a daunting task effectively. A good example of what might go wrong is the stolpersteine of Berlin – “stumble stones,” bronze memorial cobblestones with names of Nazi victims that, as Page put it, “force you to trip a little bit.” Suppose someone falls and is hurt? Or imagine that someone who merely “trips a little” might recover his balance with the intended message angrily reversed inside his mind?

Our multiplicity of sins offers the opportunity to make an abundance of mistakes in every community. Will such “interpretive” interventions contribute to the healing of national scabs or to picking at national scabs? In a nation already raw with polarization, efforts to use architecture to address even legitimate grievances are leading with our chin. The effort may be even more challenging than attempts by architects to reflect “our era” in the relatively blunt shapes and crude materials of the construction trades.

Ultimately, the error being made by many preservationists today, more by the staffs and boards than the rank-and-file whose memberships sustain preservationist organizations, is to overthink. Most preservationists, let alone average citizens of whatever shade of diversity, do not believe that saving old buildings is elitist, or somehow directed at fostering continued suppression of legitimate aspirations. These are the effusions of preservationist theorists who believe saving old buildings is old hat. They want to be “relevant.” I understand the impulse, but I do not buy it. Your grandmother’s preservation movement is relevant now.

Our era is too complex. Every field of human endeavor is currently pushing beyond its ability to understand let alone control its own actions or their effect on human life and society. Preservation and architecture are two fields that have an outsized influence on whether the world can be made to work. Both architecture and preservation need to get back to basics.

Will the young people understand? They will if you trust them.

Steve Semes, perhaps America’s most carefully thoughtful preservationist, reading this post, adds: “Preservation must have an aim, and it must be to help build cities that are beautiful, sustainable, and just. In that way, Max Page is right. That does not in any way preclude saving specific buildings and places as a means to that end, but, I believe, that is not an end in itself.” I cannot agree more.

Modern architecture is the epitome of overthink, and has been since its beginnings a century ago. Preservationists could make more progress toward the three goals they have outlined – sustainability, fighting gentrification and healing the sad history of our imperfect union – by getting back to the basics of preservation’s heroic era. We could ramp up our effectiveness at all three by embracing new traditional architecture, building new buildings, new neighborhoods, new cities, new places that we can love. This should be the subject of the next annual PPS symposium. Such discussions are excellent but if at first we don’t succeed at understanding “why,” let us try, try again – try again on the beaches, try again in the streets. Eventually, preservationists will figure out what Winston Churchill (yes, yes, a dead white guy) meant when he said, “First we shape our buildings; thereafter, they shape us.”

About David Brussat

For a living, I edit the writing of some of the nation's leading architects, urbanists and design theorists. This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. My freelance writing and editing on that topic and others addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a fellow of the Royal Society of the Arts, and a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to invest your prose with even more style and clarity, please email me at my consultancy, dbrussat@gmail.com, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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7 Responses to Why preserve? PPS speaks

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  3. Nikos Salingaros says:

    David,

    Seen from the scientific approach (closest to my heart), preservation is a normal process of evolution. A design discovery that creates a healing environment needs to be preserved, when its DNA is saved from destruction from random forces. It’s in our collective interest to repair certain older buildings from inevitable material decay so as not to lose their encoded design DNA. Those tectonic configurations help humankind move “forward” in leading our lives with as much positive environmental feedback as we can imagine. At the same time, design discoveries that we find are unhealthy (i.e. that immediately repel the vast majority of common people), and which we might determine to actually make people sick in the long term, should be demolished and reconstructed. Wrong evolutionary steps need to be selected against. Nature does that. But when selection is based on a twisted sort of political ideology, we reverse human evolution: not our body’s evolution, but the evolution of human artifacts and the created built environment. The fervent desire of an elite group to preserve repulsive buildings or unhealthy urban configurations is part of this latter phenomenon. Their flawed education has sadly attached nonsensical “links” between the worthless object and desirable though abstract human ideals.

    Best wishes,
    Nikos

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    • This is a very thoughtful and even provocative statement of your viewpoint, and I hope you will let me reprint it as a separate blog post, along with Steve’s entire comment.

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    • realfinishes says:

      The traditional technology, what I would call your analogy of DNA, I would suggest is not encoded in a static building anymore than the DNA of a scallop is encoded in a shell on the beach. Only so much can be gleaned from the crafted object. Rather, it’s dynamically encoded in human beings: makers and designers who practise this traditional, sustainable art of building know how. Traditional building in not a science, it’s an ecology of experience that is dying from asphyxiation.

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  4. Steven Semes says:

    Max Page has many good points to offer and your hesitation is also understandable. Saving old buildings is the easiest and most effective path to sustainability. The solution to gentrification is to build new neighborhoods people want to live in (it’s simply a matter of limited supply and great demand). Issues of justice (environmental as well as social and political) must be in the forefront of preservation as they should be in every other aspect of public life. Where I think the preservation community needs to look beyond “saving places” is that we must have a sense of what we are saving them FOR. Do we save everything old just because it’s there and someone thinks it is “part of our history”? Or do we have some criteria for judging what is worthy of preservation and what needs to go? (Consider the difference between the words “historic” and “historical”.) Do we preserve examples of environmental disaster (suburban sprawl, for example) simply to preserve “history”? Preservation must have an aim, and it must be to help build cities that are beautiful, sustainable, and just. In that way, Max Page is right. That does not in any way preclude saving specific buildings and places as a means to that end, but, I believe, that is not an end in itself.

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