Fluidity in Architecture

Tonight’s plenary talk was by respected architectural historian Dell Upton, Chair of the Dept. of Art History at UCLA and author of numerous books and articles, most recently Another City: Urban Life and Urban Spaces in the New American Republic (Yale University Press, 2008). Upton’s thesis was the fluidity in architecture over time, the constant changing and re-changing of places of significance throughout history. He used the ruins at Baalbek in Lebanon as his central example, citing the many and varied interpretations of that site by architectural historians through the last several centuries and postulating that there is no “pure” Baalbek–that the site has many layers of usage and significance and that tearing away those layers would create yet another new space that had never actually existed in history. 

In his view, the concept of “integrity” is a modern one that is tied to the desire of architects, specifically Modernist architects, to view their work as an art object that stands alone apart from any meaning brought to the building by its users–in other words, this view makes the designers and builders the most important part of the story of a building and treats the actual users of the place as secondary. I have shared this discomfort with tearing away historic accretions from a building, but never had thought of the issue in these terms, so I found the talk very interesting and helpful in formulating my thoughts on the subject.

As for what meaning this conception of integrity has on the National Register or on the Secretary of Interior’s Standards for Rehabilitation, I really believe both those programs already have a nuanced view of integrity that includes the history of buildings over time. But perhaps we preservationists have not accepted or understood that nuanced view or haven’t communicated it to our public because still, time and again, I encounter the belief amongst the public that “preservation” means ripping out things and “returning” a building to its “original” condition. Sometimes, I admit, this approach is worthwhile, but more often than not, it denies the whole history of a building and treats it as something apart from history rather than a significant place within the context of history. This may be the easy way, but I don’t think it tells the true story of architecture and it inculcates the belief amongst the public that preservation is something out of their reach, that it’s only something for museums, and that view hurts us in the long run.



Categories: Architectural Research, Historic Preservation

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