Comments on my PPS post

The Still Room.png

Photo similar to that shown by Max Page on Friday. (The Still Room)

Because many readers do not read the comments section of a blog, I am publishing two comments from eminent theorists who have read my blog post “Why preserve? PPS speaks.” They are from Steven Semes, a Notre Dame professor of architecture and the author of The Future of the Past, and Nikos Salingaros, a mathematician and author, with Michael Mehaffy, of Design for a Living Planet. (If I receive any comments from readers who disagree with my assessment of the direction of preservation, my thoughts about PPS, or of the opinions of Max Page, I will run them as separate posts also.) Below are their comments in the order they were received:

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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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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, and its DNA saved from destruction by 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 might 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.

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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