In Part I, I sketched out the key concerns of preservation. Beyond simply saving bricks and mortar it is a call to roots, to first principles, to the understanding that, although we are individuals, we are part of larger communities within society, nature, history, and the Transcendent Mystery that we call God. Preservation is a call to broader horizons of understanding and moral concern. It is the recovery of a direction—however poorly understood–that contrasts with the dominant direction of the modern world toward fragmentation and specialization. It is a call to wonder and wisdom.
IV. Three Contradictions
I note a tension between the implied goals of historic preservation and the direction of the modern world. This tension highlights both the potential and the problems within preservation which I’ll summarize as three contradictions:
A. Historic preservation asserts the value of history while the modern trend has been to reject the past in favor of an all important present.
Beginning with the Enlightenment and afterward, the West has often demonized the past as a place of darkness—something to be repudiated, rather than recognized as the source of human experience and insight. The call for “building new by destroying the past” echoes through modern history from Urban Renewal to Le Corbusier to the Chinese Cultural Revolution, all marching toward garish utopias dominated by stark, nightmarish forms.
B. Historic preservation implicitly asserts a non-positivistic interpretation of history while modern education and disciplines are dominated by positivistic methods.
Modern movements assert that the only legitimate knowledge is based on science. We call this positivism or scientism. The question of significance comprehends and transcends positivism because scientific methods say nothing about the meaning of history and place.
C. While historic preservation implicitly asserts the significance of history, it is supported by institutions based on a poor understanding of this concern which in practice tend to subvert it. This is because its professionals and regulations are heavily influenced by the dominant positivism. Questions that transcend positivistic methods are incomprehensible and consequently irrelevant. The focus shifts to that which can be comprehended, namely surveying, and recording and maintaining, and promoting, and funding. Foundational concerns — if anyone has the audacity to raise them—are regarded as a potential embarrassment and even a threat, as I have discovered.
I once attempted to recall basic principles in an introduction to our state’s comprehensive preservation plan. I assumed that minimally it might generate constructive dialogue. The reception however was less than positive. I was told that we were only required to follow the regs; we were not required to think about them. In other words, preservationists are “not paid to think.” This implies that the ideal is to act uncritically–and therefore irresponsibly.
With this prohibition against thinking, the task of recovering the symbolic depths of experience on which preservation is based was deemed irrelevant. I suspect that such a view is far too common. If so, the public outreach of preservation does little toward raising levels of understanding. As Jacques Barzun has observed, although there is “more and more cultural stuff to house, classify, docket, consult, and teach… culture…is declining. It is doing so virtually in proportion as the various cultural endeavors—all this collecting and exhibiting and performing and encouraging—grow and spread with well-meant public and private support.”
Historically the preservation and dissemination of culture have been concerned with wisdom — raising the horizons of understanding and moral concern. However, today these goals are hardly acknowledged or comprehended as the result of modern society’s fixation on empirical methods and specialized knowledge for the sake of producing information and commodities. It seems almost obvious that preservation with its implicit focus on matters of meaning and its recognition of the value of the past should find its ultimate potential in recalling those first principles of life that are so often marginalized if not forgotten.
This potential can only be realized through maintaining a constant dialogue with and critical appropriation of insights from the past. Preservationists should be able to awaken pietas, an awareness of our relationship to history, place, and community and their formative role in our lives and understanding. The landscape and its relic features should not be perceived as merely matter but as a source of beauty and wonder. We must learn, following Niels Bohr, that “the walls and ramparts [can] speak a different language” that can reveal “human depths”: in particular they point to the foundational questions of preservation: who are we, where did we come from, and where are we going?
(I would like to acknowledge the assistance of Stephen Slimp, University of West Alabama, who read the draft of this essay and made thoughtful suggestions.)
Categories: Historic Preservation