Now and Then

March 3, 2006 Interpretation, Vision and Style Comments Off on Now and Then 1113

Preservation is a fundamentally conservative notion, that places more faith in the past than the future, or so it seems. So many historic preservation battles pit a glorious past against a cheapened, money-grubbing future or celebrate the accomplishments of long-dead forbears, implicitly denying the ability of current persons to reach such heights.

This thought came to me last week reading Thomas Friedman’s history of the 21st century “The World Is Flat.” He said we need a positive view to succeed in the future. I wondered – does that make all preservation a demi-nihilistic “things were better before and can never get better than they were” sort of enterprise?

My answer is no. Friedman’s “flat world” means the Internet has destroyed those old geographic determinants that made a mediocre American more likely to prosper than a brilliant Indian. He claims that in the future you need to be special, specialized, anchored or adaptable. He was talking about people but I was thinking about buildings.

I don’t think preservation is about returning to the past or stopping time. Some buildings – like Carson Pirie Scott or the Taj Mahal – are saved because they are special. Some are saved because they are anchored – landmarks that define a place like the Arc de Triomphe or Kremlin. But the vast majority of buildings are preserved because they are adaptable. Like people, they can be retrained for a new economic reality.

At SAIC we call preservation a creative act. It is forward-looking and optimistic because it imagines the re-use of cultural and geographic capital and requires you to build a modern building not from scratch – that is a simple task often fulfilled by simple minds – but from existing fabric, whether that fabric is walls, windows, streets or arbors.

With one or two exceptions, all preservation projects – even house museums – are re-use projects and almost every one involves modernizing. Unity Temple is about to get a geothermal heating and cooling system. Every Federal and Greek Revival townhouse in Greenwich Village or Brooklyn Heights has electricity. Most antebellum plantation mansions have plumbing, telephones, cable and internet. Bed and breakfasts vie with one another in both categories: more authenticity and charm: more wifi and technomenities.

Preservation does go back in time one way – it retains fabric from the days before the world was flat and before every place could act and look like every other place. It keeps not what is old but what is particular; not bygone glory but place identity.

Image: Steps of Stift Gottweig near Krems, overlooking the Danube. By Felicity Rich.