How Buildings Learn: Preservationists Are Soooo Cool!

There are so many interesting things in the chapter “Preservation: A Quiet, Populist, Conservative, Victorious Revolution” (wow–count me in!) in How Buildings Learn that I believe I’m going to have to break it into two days. Today, we’ll concentrate on the beginning of the chapter, in which Brand gives his perspective on the history and importance of the preservation movement. Honestly, I’ve become somewhat discouraged about the state of preservation in the land lately (see “The Return of Modernism“), so it has been refreshing to read such glowing praise of preservationists and their conservative revolution.

I was surprised to see “conservative” in the description of preservation. Although I am what you might call conservative in many ways, as are many of the people I work with in preservation around our fairly conservative state, I have found in my dealings of late that so-called conservative politicians tend to cast preservation in a very liberal, almost radical light. That leaves me to wonder–has preservation become radically liberal, or have conservative politicians become non-conservative? Either way, in my opinion, preservationists should fight very hard against the notion that preserving history is something only one party does–that will be the death knell of the movement if it is allowed to take hold as it will place us on the roller coaster of political fortunes over which we have no control.

It’s interesting to me to re-read today’s Brand’s analysis of the preservation movement in 1994, given that it was written at what I think, in hindsight, was a high point in preservation history, when the philosophy seemed to have taken the day and vanquished its foes. As often happens though (and we should have known this, being historians), it turns out that philosophies and movements tend to go in cycles, with ups and downs and sudden reversals and just-as-sudden ascendancies. Today, we’re often forced into the role of obstructionists, or at least are perceived as playing that role. Maybe I’m being overly dramatic–although Clem Labine (who is quoted throughout this chapter) also sees preservation as a weakened force, as you recall (see his post at The Preservationist). Does anyone out there have a different view on where preservation is today, at least in Mississippi?

Here’s the opening bit from Brand’s chapter on preservation:

America’s foremost architectural historian, Vincent Scully of Yale, called it ‘the only mass popular movement to affect critically the course of architecture in our century.’ He was speaking of the historic preservation movement, which swept seemingly out of nowhere in the 1970s and 1980s to reverse everything that had been done to the built environment in the 1950s and 1960s. Modernist architecture, urban renewal, go-go real estate–all were suddenly treated as the enemies of civilization and beaten back. People liked old buildings, and professionals who couldn’t get along with that could go find another line of work.

How did such a profound change come about? Why wasn’t it noticed in the media? How has it changed the way buildings are treated?

Preservation was one of the swiftest, most complete cultural revolutions ever, yet because it happened everywhere at once, without controversy or charismatic leadership, it never got the headlines of its sibling, the environmental movement. Also, its reward cycle was much quicker, and therefore quieter, than environmentalists could count on. Retro worked; preservation paid off, and the movement could demand ever more, based on proven success. James Marston Fitch, who founded the first historic preservation training program at Columbia University in 1964, could assert in 1990, ‘Preservation is now seen as being in the forefront of urban regeneration, often accomplishing what the urban-renewal programs of twenty and thirty years ago so dismally failed to do. It has grown from the activity of a few upper-class antiquarians . . . to a broad mass movement engaged in battles to preserve ‘Main Street,’ urban districts, and indeed whole towns.’

. . . .

When I began research for this book I was drawn immediately to the preservationists, because they are the only building professionals with a pragmatic interest in the long-term effects of time on buildings. [awww, we love you too, Stewart Brand!] They work creatively with the economics and changing uses of buildings, and they promote expertise in the crafts of longevity. Architectural historians, on the other hand [ouch, I think I know what’s coming . . .], had almost nothing for me. As a subset of art historians, they are interested only in the history of intention and influence of buildings, never in their use. Like architects, they are pained by what happens later to buildings. Building historians are the opposite. They are ingenious detectives who deduce how specific buildings have changed through the years, but still there is no design or operational payoff unless they hook up with preservationists.

Preservationists have a philosophy of time and responsibility that includes the future. They are passionately interested in the questions, ‘What makes some buildings come to be loved?’ and they act on what they learn. The result is a coherent, still-evolving ethical and aesthetic body of ideas. One architect has observed, ‘Preservation has become the best carrier of that moral force architecture needs if it is to have value beyond shelter. Preservation is capable of projecting a vision of new possibilities, of hope for our own future, which functionalists modern once claimed for itself and which has now fled from that style.’

Ok, even though I’ve admitted to not being a Real Architectural Historian, I have to stick up for architectural historians, many of whom are also preservationists. Yes, there are some snobs out there–there are snobby preservationists too, hate to admit it–but even those who are coming from an art history perspective often research the changes of a building or building type over time with great subtlety and insight. And truth be told, in my experience, it has often been architectural historians who have put the brakes on preservationists’ plans to “restore” a historic building by ripping away most of its history.

Other than that minor quibble, though, don’t you really love Brand’s description of preservation and why it’s an important force in our society? It really gets us back to the basics and helps us remember when preservation was about more than tax credits and economic development and all those other things that are good things but aren’t really the foundational meanings of who we are. I’m getting choked up now, so I’ll pick this back up tomorrow.

This post is the 3rd part of a week-long series. Want to read the rest?

1. Book Quotes: How Buildings Learn

2. How Buildings Learn: From High Road to Unreal Estate

4. How Buildings Learn: Preservation, Part 2

5. How Buildings Learn: Defining Vernacular

6. How Buildings Learn: Some Closing Thoughts

Categories: Books, Historic Preservation

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