Should historic preservation be a quest for beauty or a quest for knowledge?
That was the question at issue on Saturday in Charleston., S.C. Both are valid goals but I argued that beauty should be top priority. The panel, “Unfolding Perspectives in Preservation,” was sponsored by the College of Charleston’s Historic Preservation and Community Planning program along with the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art. I was invited to join the fun by my old friend Nathaniel Walker, a Brown doctoral graduate now assistant professor at the college and moderator of the panel, which he organized along with his colleague Grant Gilmore. Walker’s essay “Architecture and Food” will be fondly recalled by readers of this blog.
Impaneled with three academics at odds with my priorities, I gave it my best on behalf of beauty. My interlocutors argued for saving buildings on behalf of narratives that trace the aesthetic, historical, technological and moral roles of architecture as the primary rationale for preserving buildings and other cultural artifacts, and that beauty is in the eye of the beholder anyway.
Here is a summary of my argument that I sent to help Nathan introduce me to the audience, though he didn’t actually read it aloud:
David believes that modern architecture is unattractive, uncivil, unprincipled, unsound, unsustainable and hence unsupported by the large majority of the public. This deep skepticism shapes his view of historic preservation, which has lost its way. Preservation organizations need to get back to basics or risk losing relevance – and membership. They must refocus more on the threat to civic beauty that half a century ago changed preservation from a hobby to a mass movement. In cities and towns where most historic buildings have already been preserved, preservationists must concentrate on saving their settings by opposing unsympathetic interventions in historic districts and promoting new architecture that strengthens the beauty of those districts and serves as a model for the rest of the city.
Preservation is not so much about the past as about how we move into the future.
The give and take among the panel was polite, as you might expect of an event in the Holy City (a longstanding nickname). I got a lot of gentle ribbing about fluctuating perceptions of beauty from Robin B. Williams, of the Savannah College of Art and Design (the RISD of the South). He is the nation’s leading expert on historic pavements and their preservation, upon which subject I found much more common ground than on the subject of the nature of beauty. Yes, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but the beholder’s perception of beauty is a construct of many less subjective factors, including much recent scientific research on how neurobiology pushes the human brain to prefer traditional over modern architecture – that is, beauty over what I call, for lack of a better term, ugliness. (I have written about that often in this blog.)
Whitney Powers is a local architect of the modernist persuasion, involved with local design authorities and community boards. She is president of Studio A Architecture. According to the event description, she “specializ[es] in the adaptation of both old buildings and new design philosophies to serve contemporary Charleston.” However little of the former may be evident in her work, so far as I could tell, she gave, in this discussion, as good as she got, arguing that local community needs outweigh beauty in such service.
Ray Huff, the star of the panel, is head of the Clemson Architecture Center in Charleston and an internationally celebrated modernist at Huff+Goodin Architects. He was my chief antagonist, arguing that the classical detailing and ornament that I view as beautiful reminds blacks around the nation (and elsewhere) of slavery. He said he recalls reading on my blog that I oppose the proposed modernist design of the slavery museum to be built in Charleston. Reluctant to be “shamed,” I reasserted my opposition to the design. I argued that minority populations do not associate classical motifs with slavery. They certainly do associate the plantation houses of slave owners with slavery, but it cannot be that the evil that happened in a particular building typology may be logically blamed on the broader classical style of architecture. Yet that is the argument made with considerable wit, eloquence and a wry smile by Ray Huff, but also many others with less reason than he has to take offense at new classical and traditional buildings.
Are minorities actually reminded of slavery by dentil moldings, roof cornices, rows of columns with Corinthian capitals and that sort of thing? Some are, but most? I kinda doubt it, really. Huff and many others make this argument, and it is not without a degree of plausibility. But I believe that they see the connection more vividly than most people because they study the language of buildings, such as it may be. When the monument to Martin Luther King Jr. was built, however, many blacks applauded but others asked why Lincoln and Jefferson deserved temples but not King. This debate will continue long after Ray, Whitney, Robin and I stepped off the stage at Randolph Hall.
The panel coincided with an art exhibit, “Ahead of the Wrecking Ball,” also at Randolph Hall, by the Halsey Institute of the work of Ronald Ramsey, a native Charlestonian and artistic savant – “a one-man preservation army” – who over decades has meticulously drawn old houses slated for demolition in Charleston. One of these, shown atop this post, is the so-called Four-Mile House, built in 1783 and razed in 1969. “Better Known as Murder & Trap House” is inscribed by Ramsey under the title of his illustration. In about 1812, the tavern’s owner and his wife allegedly killed several travelers who, at different times, had stayed there and then disappeared. They were convicted on one charge of murder and executed.
“Did the Four-Mile House kill those people?” I asked the audience. “No! Other people killed those people.” Ditto slavery. Houses do not own slaves. People do. Maybe that is a simple-minded argument, but that does not make it illogical. Slavery may taint specific buildings that existed before, during and after slavery (including Jim Crow), but that does not mean traditional architecture as a class is therefore tainted. Go down that road and you can argue against erecting a new building of any style, including modernism.
An effort was made to suggest that Ramsey, in his work, valued the old buildings fated to be torn down no more highly than the modernist ones arising in their place. Not likely. Ramsey had no schooling in design, so his natural instinct for beauty was not bowdlerized by the blue-noses of higher architectural education like that of so many proponents of modernism.
I suppose my favorite moment on the panel came as the discussion addressed what to do with midcentury modern buildings, such as those known, for some curious reason, as “Brutalist.” The event literature referred to this as “the awkward topic of modernist structures that have failed to earn public affection.” We were discussing an old bank drive-thru. I pulled out my Nikon camera, held it up and declared that photography was a neat solution to the question of whether to save buildings that have few admirers. They can be razed and replaced by (one hopes) nicer buildings, yet survive as illustrations in books, available to future generations as long as libraries (and the Web) exist. The crowd laughed, but I can’t say I believe many agreed. The feeling, as one audience member said, was that it would not be the same. Still, we cannot preserve everything that is fifty years old – the current requirement. Priorities must be set and beauty, it seems to me, is first, at least, among equals – for the sake of a public already largely turned off by its built environment.
Preservationists ask why we preserve because many preservationists, and especially those with jobs in preservation, have forgotten why we preserve. But it is not rocket science. We preserve because we love and respect beauty above all. Preservation was a hobby before 1950, dedicated to saving actual historic structures (“George Washington slept here”) over decades and even centuries when people tended to believe that a demolished building would naturally be replaced by a better building. When people started to believe, increasingly, after 1950 that a demolished building might well be replaced by something worse, preservation was swiftly transformed from a hobby into a mass movement. That’s the essential truth about preservation. And it is not difficult to understand why we preserve if we understand that truth.
Whether that truth is what emerged at the College of Charleston on Saturday afternoon, I have no idea. Either way, the four of us had a helluva good time, and I happily join my fellow panelists in thanking our hosts for inviting us to discuss an issue that is so close to the heart of Charlestonians.