Preservationists’ progress

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Military History Museum of Dresden, Germany, addition by Daniel Libeskind. (Common/Edge)

It is no coincidence that Hugh Cavanagh’s blog from Ireland, “Scrawling from the Wreckage,” lands on this blog just as Steven Semes, dean of historic preservation at Notre Dame’s school of architecture, has updated progress toward common sense in preservationist circles. Both writers use common sense to deconstruct the subversive but widespread alliance between modern architecture and historic preservation.

Semes has published “What Do International Standards Say About New Architecture in Historic Places?” on Common/Edge, a website whose effort to give both sides space in architecture’s style wars continues to confound my skepticism of its supposed evenhandedness.

As modernists gained control of architectural establishments around the world in the 1940s and ’50s, they instituted rule-making for architecture and preservation to overturn conventional practices. Those practices were based on centuries of experience and tradition, so their principles were handed down generation by generation, even if treatises such as that of Vitruvius went back 2,000 years. Modern architecture rejects tradition, history and experience, however, so documents like the Venice Charter of 1964 and the U.S. Interior Department’s rehabilitation standards of 1977 were needed to let people know that the practices of the past were no longer appropriate.

The results since then have fostered such architectural crimes as Daniel Libeskind’s addition to the Military History Museum in Dresden (see above), and many, many others. Readers can probably name several, at least, in their own cities and towns. Observers present locally when such assaults take place are not necessarily aware of the degree to which each has generated, over at least five decades, a growing pressure against rules that treat preservation, restoration, conservation and rehabilitation (synonyms for saving historic structures) as strategies to ruin our most beloved places.

Only such pressure can explain the slow and mostly silent shift described by Semes in how these guidelines are interpreted. Why do we want to save historic structures? Most probably think the idea is to enable people living in, working in and visiting old places to experience the artistic sensibility of the original designer. Modernists disagree. They do not want to save historic structures but to destroy them, and if they cannot be demolished outright, add carbuncles to them while framing the idea of preservation as an excuse to undermine the appeal of lovable places. The very existence of such places serves to model a better future, and to place the ugliness and stupidity of modern architecture in stark relief – so their beauty must be suppressed.

Why? No modernist architect will say so today, but they realize that modern architecture can’t really survive in competition with traditional architecture, just as socialism in one country cannot compete with free markets. Systems that disagree, that won’t toe the line, must be eliminated.

It’s really just about as simple as that. There is no place for preservation in architecture today, except to preserve midcentury modernist buildings that are reaching the end of their useful life as carbuncles. Of course most people want them to vanish, so preservation must be reconceptualized as a curator’s exercise where buildings mainly serve as examples of how each style reflects its era. That preservation might help teach us how to conserve methods of creating future places worth living in is the farthest thing from the minds of most modernists – and many preservationists.

Yet despite modernist resistance, common sense is making its way back into the rules for historic preservation and their interpretation. The guidance material for the Interior Department’s 1977 standards (administered by the U.S. Park Service) was changed in 2010 to replace illustrations of contrasting additions with illustrations of more harmonious additions. In 2011, sections of the Venice Charter that promoted contrast were amended by the Valletta Principles to deprioritize “interruptions in the continuity of the urban fabric and space.” And that’s not all. Errors in translation into English that helped sustain modernist interpretations of the rules – in the Venice Charter, for example – are being tracked down and corrected.

Semes sums it up with consummate delicacy:

[M]any in the preservation field remain stuck on the conventional misinterpretation of the earlier document. This is why we must look at the entire series of Charters and declarations where, despite some dissenting examples, we can trace an emerging consensus: Historic preservation should neither require nor prohibit any style of new construction, but should support continuities of character, scale, materials, and craft that can bring harmony to the dialogue between old and new.

The professor is much too diplomatic to say so, but it is evident that there is no role for modernist styles of architecture in preservation. Modernists could design buildings that fit the new into the old, but most have zero interest in that. Therefore, traditional styles are the only ones that can be relied upon, in practice, to protect harmony in the dialogue between old and new.

Common sense may not yet have enough momentum to get preservation – and more broadly, architecture – back to its roots, but we can hope. Semes’s book The Future of the Past, published in 2009, should be read by all who are interested in preservation. Semes’s new post as director of the preservation program at Notre Dame enables him to expand the envelope of common sense in the world of architecture. His work, and the optimism expressed in his Common/Edge essay, give every reason for hope.

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 Preservationists’ progress

  1. LEON KRIER says:

    Its a bore but I think that it is important claim back wherever we can the term “modern”. Modernity and Modernism are two distinct phenomena. As regarding conservation, modernist conservation is a rapist perversion of conservation. Now that sexual violence has become a prime subject of public debate I wonder what takes psychoanalysts so long to alarm citizenries around the world of the dangers to the public realm and education caused by this traumatic and extremely damaging mental derangement. My guess is that there is no cure.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Scrawling from the wreckage says:

    Hi David, for anyone interested on my own musing on what we call conservation on this side of the Atlantic, the direct links are below.
    Thanks again for your support. Steven’s piece is spot-on!


  3. Steven Semes says:

    David, thank you very much for your support and kind comments. One slight clarification, despite your use of a lower-case “d”, I want to point out that I am not a dean but Director of our program. The Dean’s job is much harder and, in our case, is ably handled by our incumbent!


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