Steven Semes is head of the new master’s program in historic preservation in the School of Architecture at Notre Dame, about which I wrote last year in “Preservation at Notre Dame.” Semes writes in the latest issue of Traditional Building that “teaching preservation at Notre Dame is a natural extension of its curriculum,” which emphasizes how to design contemporary classical architecture. In his article, Semes adds that:
learning how to design new traditional environments is relevant to the care of existing historic buildings, districts, and landscapes. While all of us have grown up in the age of Modern Architecture, few preservation professionals are experts on the design of pre-Modern buildings. … The best conservation practice requires the architect to identify, draw, analyze and restore the multitude of elements, both utilitarian and aesthetic, that make up our architectural heritage and, when called upon, to add to the heritage in ways that promote harmony and continuity of character rather than contrast and difference for its own sake.
All true. At Notre Dame, preservation is a logical extension of its classical studies. However, looking at the whole situation of the built environment in the world today, it could with equal validity be asserted that Notre Dame’s classical curriculum is a logical extension of its preservation curriculum.
The design and construction of new traditional buildings come before their preservation, of course. Every building starts out new. But it also comes afterward. If preservation of old buildings is worth the effort – as it certainly is – then so is preserving the setting of old buildings, which can require the construction of new buildings that fit into the setting alongside the old and preserved building or buildings.
The historic preservation program’s first master’s graduate, Eric Stalheim, a native of Iowa, spent time in Rome, as all UND architecture students do. His master’s thesis explored the benefits and limitations of the reconstruction of ancient ruins, a topic that has animated this blog in recent weeks. His thesis is a vital part of the broader goal of reconstructing large parts of today’s world that are in ruins – not ancient ruins but modern ruins.
Parts of Rome are sites of ancient ruins treated as historical parks and largely sequestered from the public. It is Stalheim’s contention that some of these could be reconstructed and integrated into the everyday life of the city. Likewise, modern ruins – that is, city districts where modern architecture dominates, degrading beauty and utility – could be transformed over time and reintegrated into city life with a program of new traditional architecture. Even places without much to build on by way of historic buildings or districts could benefit from such a program. The result, by razing modern ruins and building civilized communities on their sites, would preserve a methodology of urbanism that has been under deadly attack for decades, and forgotten in almost every school of architecture.
The preservationists at Notre Dame’s newest architecture program – its deans, faculty, staff and students – may not all want to take civic regeneration quite this far, but at least in South Bend (and Rome) the idea is not beyond the pale of scholarly consideration. That’s progress.