Should Preservationists Require That New Buildings Look New?

prestribeca-thumb-620x578-76240Should preservationists require new buildings in historic districts to appear new, rather than mimicking the design vocabulary of the older surrounding buildings? Ronald Lee Fleming argues in “Preserve and Protect” that it’s time to re-think this approach, and “Long march of the preservationists” vividly shows some of the strangely out of context buildings preservationists have required as infill in local districts.

Categories: Preservation Law/Local Commissions

9 replies

  1. somehow magritte and whimsically awful both come to mind.


  2. New buildings will always look new.  I think the question should be to what level do new buildings look new.  Should they be as aggressive and attention grabbing as the example?  Or faithful replicas down to the hand tool markings?  I think there’s a great deal of middle ground where we can have buildings that excite but are harmonious and unobtrusive to what’s come before. 

    I’ve seen infill where an attempt at classical architecture was made and without an understanding (or attempt at understanding, or even worst thinking they have understanding) of traditional architectural language the building ends up looking worse than a  contemporary design might have been.  

    I’m glad this is being talked about.


    • Yes, bad classical is worse than good Modernism in my book, and there’s lot of new bad classical out there nowdays. I guess it’s not fair to even call it classical since most of it is so badly proportioned and detailed that its clearly not a serious attempt to understand classicism.


      • I think Malvaney’s book on things that are worse than good Modernism is a rather weighty tome :). Architecture is so much like language. If you just know a few words and don’t know what they mean or what order to put them in you’re just babbling. Maybe its a whole style that we were unaware was being created: Pseudo Classical


  3. I applaud the thrust of the two linked articles.

    For too long preservationists have promoted the unquestioned dogma that the only new construction allowed in historic districts is “modern” construction.

    This in part is based upon two contradictory mindsets: (1) a supercessionist mentality that sees the present as always being a triumph over a benighted past that needs to be rejected and (2) an attitude that recognizes that the past represents the compilation of all human experience—the collection of all that we have known and know now.

    Second, the dogma implies a dichotomy between historic architecture and modern architecture and thereby at least implies a supercessionistic attitude. By this I mean that historically architecture has unselfconsciously built upon traditional models while more recently what is called modern architecture has rejected traditional models. I see no reason that preservationists should privilege a rejection of traditional models. Furthermore, today we find architecture increasingly returning to the use of traditional models. In light of this trend we can argue that traditional architectural forms used as infill in historic neighborhoods are modern.

    Regarding the problem of whether or not we respect the integrity of historic architecture by building in a manner that assures that new construction isn’t mistaken for old. This seems like a nonexistent problem. Why would anyone think that these buildings are compromised by building something adjacent in a similar style? One could argue, perhaps more effectively, that their integrity is more compromised by building something adjacent that is incongruous and thereby disruptive to the context.

    The bottom line is that preservation should not be about protecting integrity in historic buildings as though they are sacrosanct. Instead the purpose of preserving historic buildings ultimately has to be based on contributing to the good of the community in terms of their use and viability and in terms of embodying a sense of continuity and coherence and an aesthetically pleasing ambiance.



    • I’ve always been puzzled by this idea that no one would be able to tell a new “traditional” (i.e. classical, Queen Anne, Craftsman, etc) house or building from an old one. No architectural historian worth his or her salt would mistake a twentieth century Colonial Revival with a “real” Colonial–maybe on a quick first glance, but even a brief look at the details would tell the story. This part of the Secretary of Interior’s Standards has always seemed a bit off from the otherwise common-sense guidelines and as you say is contradictory with basic preservationist ideas.


  4. Your supercessionmist “Rube Goldberg” architectural example is what Czech architect Jan Kruml likens to “flashing a gold tooth.”


  5. the question posed and the links supporting it are very interesting; but i don’t think there is a blanket answer for this kind of thing. sometimes people want a juxtaposition as evidence of a modern mark on a place (louvre pyramid). each case is unique. however i can say that generally the 20th century replacements of 19th century buildings on st charles avenue in new orleans have detracted from the harmony and ambiance of the district. in practical terms we are really talking about burger joints and gas stations more than pei pyramids.


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