The Problem With Your Eyes
Art school attunes you to the power of visual arts – our wonderful Visual and Critical Studies program uses that power with other liberal arts. The importance of the visual in historic preservation is obvious – we are talking about landmarks, and we are trying to keep them – or bring them back – to the way they looked historically. Historic preservation practice is heavily defined by architectural appearance.
This project can be problematic, because the visual is so powerful it has a tendency to overrun our other critical faculties. People look at Chicago’s World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 or the city’s Burnham Plan of 1909 and see the epitome of City Beautiful style. Arguably the first event was about technological progress and the second was really about sewers, transportation and business efficiency. But all you remember are the pictures. Louis Sullivan recalled the 1893 Fair as setting back architectural evolution with its reliance on Beaux-Arts style, his memory likely overrun by the visuals.
When someone wants to build a new skyscraper they throw out a fabulous drawing. New skyscrapers have never been built because someone needs condos or offices or whatever. They are built because a pretty picture creates demand. Same with automobiles, none of which are sold with images of their tedious and enervating bumper-to-bumper reality.
Restoring a building is similar – you find original images or drawings and prepare renderings of what the restored building will look like. Here the visual job is to take us behind and beyond the current reality to a possible future. The Village of Oak Park is currently swooning at images of its downtown Colt Building as it was first built in 1932. The building has not looked like that since 1952, and indeed the powerful visuals are the architect’s renderings of 1932, not the actual building. But the impact is undeniable.
The problem is that it makes it hard to save buildings of historic importance if they are ugly. The house that Walt Disney was born in and the house that Carl Sandburg wrote his Chicago Poems in are both altered, ordinary buildings, uglified with the siding of the 1960s. The Disney House lost Chicago Landmark status partly for this reason.
There was a time when preservationists decried overhead wires that blocked our view of architectural landmarks, even though those wires interrupted the view of the building throughout history. We tend to look at history with a perfected eye, extracting the unpleasant and distasteful. The problem with taste, of course, is that it is temporal, but it is also very powerful. The Kemper House in Indianapolis was restored some years ago and the restorers did a careful paint analysis to find the original wall colors. They were horrified at the color they found, so they substituted another. Taste beat history.
In the restoration of historic homes there is a tendency to restore buildings to a more elevated past. Simple Victorian cottages, built and dwelt in by the working classes are restored to a higher style appropriate to the middle classes. It is hard for politicians and others to see that simple and plain is correct when ornate and beautiful seems more…tasteful. It is hard for a homeowner to spend good money fixing up a house – and not have it look better.
Not that I am a purist. I went to the opening of the restored Crown Hall at IIT by Mies van der Rohe this summer and loved it. The building looked incredible and Gunny Harboe and Doug Gilbert from McClier (Austin Aecom) had done a great job. The purists were dismayed however, because new window stops had been devised to hold the new, thicker glass and those stops were NOT SQUARE. They had a bevel that rose a quarter inch. I looked real close. I took macro pictures. Man, the things were painted black and I could barely see it with my fingers. Can’t get much closer to invisible.
So maybe the power of ideas – the departure from the rectilinear in the restoration of Heilige Mies’ Hagia Sophia – can beat out the power of the visual. At least for the purists.