Steve Mouzon, who with his wife, Wanda, runs an architecture shop in South Beach, near Miami, has come up with an interesting new calculus for making decisions on what to preserve in cities and towns. In 2010, Mouzon wrote an influential book called The Original Green: Unlocking the Mystery of True Sustainability, and he has popularized the crucial idea that love is the chief ingredient in architectural sustainability. A building, he argues, needs love to generate desire for its survival; it requires the funds for the maintenance and repair needed to last not decades but centuries. And beauty, he insists, is the chief factor generating love for architecture. Genuine sustainability is baked into building traditions that evolved for centuries until the Thermostat Age replaced a more natural sensibility with a machine sensibility. Its inherent unsustainability has led to fake “gizmo green” and bogus LEED tinkering to address the industry’s wastefulness with an impressive fecklessness.
Makes a lot of sense, all of it. So does Mouzon’s prescription for historic preservation, outlined on his Original Green blog in “A New Proposal for Preservation.” He begins with another deep but overlooked truth about architecture’s descent, over the past century, into dystopia:
[The] problem was the fact that a new building replacing an older building increasingly became a downward trade as the twin abilities to build lovably and durably faded from both design and construction. … It was not always so. For most of human history, the new building was reliably better than the one it replaced, mirroring the rise of urbanism from shantytowns to great cities over time.
The phenomenon of downward trade led to historic preservation’s shift in a very few years from a hobby of the wealthy to a mass movement. But historic preservation has been fighting a takeover by modernists for decades – nay, it had largely succumbed decades ago. The field still does very important work in its original task of saving old buildings and neighborhoods, but instead of local lovability, age (generally 50 years) is the more prevalent determining factor. The result has been that saving unloved modernist buildings is now the primary interest of preservationists. It is time for preservation to retool.
Mouzon’s proposal would move away from the 50-year criterion. It would sharpen and diversify the current blunt vocabulary for buildings in historic districts as “contributing” or “non-contributing.” His new categories are: “historically contributing,” “architecturally contributing,” “urbanistically contributing,” “urban fabric,” and “regrettable.” While the latter category has been criticized (not by me; I like it), and “cool factor district” might not necessarily be the best substitute for “historic district,” Mouzon’s proposal offers an excellent starting point for a necessary discussion.