Chicken, egg, preservation

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Illustration of ruins as restored to original appearance. (Eric Stalheim master’s thesis)

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.

About David Brussat

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. History Press asked me to write and in August 2017 published my first book, "Lost Providence." I am now writing my second book. My freelance writing on architecture and other topics addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am 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 employ my writing and editing to improve your work, please email me at my consultancy,, 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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4 Responses to Chicken, egg, preservation

  1. Steven Semes says:

    Thank you, David, as always for your support of our efforts at Notre Dame. You and your readers might like to know that the proposition you touch on–the reconstruction along more humane lines of modernist outskirts of cities–is also a central part of the design curriculum, if not a focus of the preservation courses. Most of our students, both on campus and in Rome, undertake projects that envision the “re-urbanization” of an area either ruined or left behind by postwar development. Within the preservation curriculum, there is a semester course in Urban Conservation that takes on the issues of infill and how to add to historic urban neighborhoods in ways that respect and continue their character. You are right that the proper relation of design and preservation is a “chicken/egg” situation: Good new design and the care for successful historic environments must go hand in hand. That is the fundamental logic underlying what we are trying to do in all our teaching.


    • Thank you, Steve. There ought to be a law that your program, and the rest of the curricula of the ND school of architecture, must be replicated at every school of architecture in the country. Nay, the world!


  2. GAIL WIESNER says:

    One of your many excellent articles! I view preservation as a philosophy pertaining to every aspect of life. It is the foundation of many wise activites, such as recycling of all materials and objects, using food prudently to prevent waste, mending clothing instead of discarding, conserving power,etc. Reuse of some historic structures, even if requiring some alteration and “filling in” missing pieces, makes good sense. Producing quality items, including buildings, which can have an extended life is the essence of a wise circular economy, instead of a wasteful linear economy. It certainly does not hurt if they are also beautiful.


    • Thank you, Gail. It really surpasses belief that the conventional wisdom in architecture, preservation and urbanism is the worst possible solution in every case. One can only shake one’s head. I like to say a third grader could see through the clap-trap because my son is in third grade. It’s just that obviously fallacious. Go figure!


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