Preservation's Big Unspoken Choice

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rear face of Destrehan Plantation house in Louisiana

garden side of Destrehan Plantation in Louisiana, where I'm working this week as an instructor at the Culture of Building Summer Program, sponsored by the Prince's Foundation for Building Community

   Preservation's current identity crisis is a result of the fact that we have not yet figured out what it is that we're preserving. This crisis began with some preservationists' infatuation with Brutalism. This is monumentally ironic, because it was the destruction of lovable historic buildings in the Brutalist era that gave birth to the modern-day preservation movement. Now, we're advocating for the preservation of precisely the sorts of things that disgusted us so badly that we banded together in the beginning!* Is our mission to preserve lovable buildings, or simply to preserve everything from the lovable to the detestable so long as they are iconic examples of their breeds? Put another way, are we as preservationists trying to be curators of style, from the resonant to the ridiculous, or are we instead more interested in making our cities and towns better places to live?

cottage on the grounds of Destrehan Plantation in Louisiana

   As for Brutalism in particular, that the style was aptly named. The brutality of its forms and its surfaces is unparalleled in the history of human construction. Don't we have too much brutality around us already? Why preserve more of it? I'd rather live in a place populated with civil buildings, not brutal buildings, wouldn't you?

   These questions, however, gloss over the deeper underlying question that nobody seems to be considering: Which is best, to preserve the artifacts created by a tradition, or to preserve the tradition itself? I just had breakfast with John Anderson, who put it this way: "If I want to preserve this dish, I've got to encase it in amber or something, and then it's not good eatin'. But if I preserve the culinary tradition that created this dish, then that tradition may produce a nearly endless supply of dishes like this."

   We know how to preserve artifacts, and have gotten pretty good at it. It can be time-consuming and expensive, to be sure, but it's not impossible. And if the tradition that produced that artifact is now dead, then we're unlikely to get any "more where that came from." So if we love that artifact, then our only choice is to preserve it.

cistern at Destrehan Plantation house in Louisiana

   But what about preserving a tradition? If it is a living tradition, then we have two choices: We can either preserve it in its current state, or we can preserve its life. To preserve a living thing in its current state, you have to kill it. If you would have wanted to preserve me as I was at seven years old, for example, you would have had to kill me and then embalm me because I have now transformed into someone quite different from the person I was at seven.

   You kill a living tradition by formalizing it into a style, writing up the rules of the style as of today, publishing a pattern book for that style, and then enforcing conformance to the pattern book. Forevermore, if you build in that style, you follow those rules. So a building built by those rules today and one built by those rules a century from now might look indistinguishable from each other.

   Preserving the life of the tradition is a very different thing. Living things evolve throughout their lives, from infancy to puberty to adulthood to old age. And it's not clear quite what sort of adult an infant might grow into. We are learning how to help traditions live again, I believe. I'll blog soon about how we're doing this in the Bahamas.

man sweeping the yard behind Destrehan Plantation’s detached kitchen

   Historic districts preserve traditions in their current state by killing them. As a matter of fact, historic districts should be thought of as "architectural formaldehyde". If the traditions that created the buildings in that district have died, then that's the best we can do today. But that's not the highest standard, which would be to foster a new living tradition that picks up where the dead traditions left off. New living traditions, therefore, should be the highest goal of the preservation movement, and it's high time for this aspiration to enter the preservation discourse.

   ~Steve Mouzon

PS: The next part of this story will address the Venice Charter and the Secretary of the Interior's standards, but if you want to get a head-start on that discussion, check out Steve Semes' work, which is the most clear-headed discussion I'm aware of on these issues.

* I was only a toddler when the modern-day preservation movement began in the US; I am therefore speaking broadly of preservationists of all generations from then until now.

Legacy Comments

Steve Mouzon · Board Member at Sky Institute for the Future

Preservation's current identity crisis is defined by this choice: do we preserve buildings because they're lovable, like at the beginning of the preservation movement, or just because they're old? But the big unspoken choice is this: is it better to preserve artifacts or the traditions that created them?

Aug 24, 2012 8:44am

James Anderson Crouch

Mr. Anderson's culinary comparison is a false equivalency and I strongly disagree with your description of historic districts as "architectural formaldehyde." While some historic district commissions like the Vieux Carre Commission and those in Charleston may seem draconian, their main purpose has been to stem ill-considered development and wholesale demolition; if not for the VCC, the French Quarter would be a series of parking lots servicing Bourbon St, with a few "preserved" blocks of facades camouflaging uniform hotel blocks. There is great value in the tout ensemble, which is why the historic districts in New Orleans, Charleston and Savannah are so valued/loved.
Yes, we need to preserve/recover the traditions that built cities like New Orleans and Charleston (and Boston and Richmond). It's not an either/or proposition. I look forward to your essay on SOI Standards - I suspect we share many of the same views.

Aug 24, 2012 12:43pm

Ann Daigle · Works at CityBuilding Exchange

Obviously we need both. We must save the lovable to prove that the building traditions themselves are worthy. The artifacts of traditions are just as dear because they were made with love (or they would have never become traditions). To throw a beautiful building away is tantamount to thumbing one's nose at the person who made it; to ignore a beautiful and humanely constructed district is to snub thousands of ancestors who toiled to give society a complete model - a "pattern book"- of most-loved traditions. We should save building traditions for the same reason we save districts. What Steve is asking is whether we should save buildings that are unlovable. If the old building is not loved, and if worse it deters from more lovable buildings around it like a bad apple in a basket, (this test of two) there is reason to replace it.

Aug 25, 2012 3:56am

Tony Garcia

I think the best argument for preservation is that it provides a living example of tradition. To evolve traditional architecture - to adapt it to our current context - we need to use what exists as a starting point. If we have no starting point, then what results is disconnected and only a hint of what it should be. You nailed it here: "which would be to foster a new living tradition that picks up where the dead traditions left off. New living traditions, therefore, should be the highest goal of the preservation movement, and it's high time for this aspiration to enter the preservation discourse."

Aug 25, 2012 7:09am


Really interesting post! But how exactly do you start a new living tradition (and keep it alive and evolving)? I would argue that preservation emerged precisely *because* we subconsciously realized that we no longer knew how to create, nourish, and evolve new living traditions for the built environment. Thus the desperate rush to save the products of dead traditions in the hope that maybe they'd spur us to establish new traditions. But, as you noted, it hasn't really worked...
As for the preservation movement's foray into preserving the boondoggles of the postwar era, well, I think that's partly a symptom of bureaucratization and institutionalization. If your professional livelihood depends on saving buildings, well then you have to find a continuous stream of them to save every year! And once you run out of the prewar stuff, you have no choice but to move on to the postwar junk.
Immediately after the demo of Penn Station, preservation was very much an informal bottom-up movement led by a very focused desire to save what was almost universally regarded as beautiful or historically significant. Fast forward several decades and preservation has bloated into a highly-formal institution - complete with inane paperwork and questionable procedures - preoccupied with the curatorization of the built environment: Treating neighborhoods like time-stamped museum exhibits in which you have to save a little bit of something from every era so you can create a static catalog of history. It's also forbidden to play off/evolve/develop/enhance the motifs of previous eras if you want to do some infill in a historic area because that's supposedly an affront to the "honesty" of the museum exhibit and to "the spirit of our time." (Whatever happened to the more important "spirit of our place?" But I digress. 
;-) While there might be some merit in the curatorial approach in limited scenarios, to me preservation no longer has the focused-but-restrained 'save Beauty' approach of the immediate post-Penn Station era.
It should also be mentioned that much of the push to preserve postwar buildings is being led by academics, artists, and other intellectuals who might be totally detached from the deficiencies of a Brutalist bunker because they don't have to deal with it on a daily basis:
If all you have to do is appreciate these ghastly Brutalist buildings as starkly-elegant sculptural objects in photos and movies, then you may have a hard time understanding why the public hates them!
While there was some involvement of architects, academics, and artists in the earliest preservation movements, it seems to me that over the decades the upper layers of the movement have been influenced by the abstract dogmas of academia (another symptom of institutionalization). Thus today you see two layers of preservation at work: You get the bottom-up people in a small town that want to save the 1880s bank on their Main Street, and you also get the academic figures that want to save the physical ideological stunts that support their 1960s worldviews (as the above link reveals). Note how they often argue that the public has to be "conditioned" and "educated" to save something that's widely considered to be ugly. Did this "conditioning" have to be done to save Grand Central? Or countless other richly-textured, richly-patterned prewar buildings? Nope, people responded emotionally to those buildings/places and palpably *loved* them (which gets to your points on lovability); they didn't have to be "educated" to appreciate some stark slab that would repel them emotionally. The 'lovability' factor might even be neurological:
Finally, I have to question this bit:
"You kill a living tradition by formalizing it into a style, writing up the rules of the style as of today, publishing a pattern book for that style, and then enforcing conformance to the pattern book."
There have been pattern books and pattern collections for centuries, and they didn't seem to hamper the evolution of building traditions at all. There also continue to be pattern collections for other professions (like computer science) online, and that hasn't killed any traditions in those professions (rather, they sustain them). I would argue it's the way contemporary architects and urbanists are *using* pattern books that's at fault, rather than the pattern books themselves. (Of course, those architects of the 'starchitecture' variety are not even interested in maintaining traditions or patterns (apropos to your recent post on the space program vs. architectural fashion), so you can't maintain and develop a tradition if your worldview is predicated on the notion that existing traditions have to be constantly spurned and destroyed; i.e. perpetual revolution.)
I think from roughly WWI-WWII we lost true 'design' (the enhancement/refinement of tradition) in many of the professions responsible for our built environment because we converted those professions into hyperspecialized technocratic bureaucracies. People learned to copy solutions out of abstract technical manuals. The civic arts and urban design professions, for example, were transformed into a new 'urban planning' profession obsessed with abstract statistical models. Reductive traffic engineering rose to supplant integral City Beautiful street design. Whether it was the AASHTO Green Book, the IBC, or Architectural Graphic Standards, the postwar message to the (former) designer was clear: don't design, just copy the template out of the book and you can't go wrong. Then you'll breeze through the convoluted, technocratic permitting process. I think we're still stuck in the same approach when we use pattern books: just copy the template out of the book, make tweaks only if you have to conform to a need that varies from the situation in the book, and build it. Thus you get... the McMansion!
Contrast this with the way we used to use pattern books like Samuel Sloan's Model Architect. While there was lots of technical information in these books too, they read more like graphic novels than technical manuals. So because of the way they were presented and illustrated, you could tell that the authors intended the books to serve as loose idea generators rather than strict copy-and-paste manuals. And that's exactly what we used to do: Although some copying and pasting occurred (increasingly driven by the Industrial Revolution's demand for vast worker housing tracts), a lot of the time the books were only used as basic inspiration generators to create new buildings that were vastly different from the buildings in the pattern books. In fact, some books (or large portions of them) didn't even feature complete ready-to-build buildings: they illustrated sets of nested patterns which you were expected to modify, combine, and develop to create your own unique buildings:
This, IMO, is one thing that kept building traditions alive and evolving. There were no one-size-fits-all solutions (which are unfortunately present even in a lot of contemporary NU pattern books), rather there were a lot of fractal, incomplete building patterns which you worked with to create an infinite variety of new patterns. I'm not sure we're even capable of *seeing* this way anymore thanks to the 20th century's lingering "copy the template from the manual" approach.
Sorry for rambling. 

Aug 26, 2012 1:22pm


I forgot to add that I'm not sure I share Steve's optimism that "we are learning how to help traditions live again, I believe." Take LEED, for example: rather than fostering the kind of integral thinking that was common before the "Thermostat Age," it only seems to have induced an arbitrary checklist mentality. LEED's just another rote, abstract technical manual, in other words, rather than a true "best practice" transmitted through tradition. Thus we get isolated office parks with bike racks (which no one will ever use), "green" parking garages built with reused materials, solar panels and green roofs atop big box stores, and so on. 
Because these fiascoes rely on a bunch of disparate, checklisted, manual-extracted "green" criteria, they're not really green in any integral way. Rather than fostering a true tradition of sustainability, the professions responsible for the built environment merely continue slathering on layers of rote codes. Some of this is probably due to the smoke-blowing PR nature of contemporary business, but much of it is probably due to the lingering 20th century notion that you have to follow quantification-based templates to get something "good."

Aug 26, 2012 1:54pm

Steven Semes

Steve, Thanks for the mention. I look forward to reading your next post on this topic. I like to think that the ideal historic district would be like a natural preserve where we protect an ecosystem--say a wetland, a rainforest, or a garden--by keeping it alive so that it can continue to change and grow in ways that do not destory it. That's why I think the word "conservation" is better--it's about keeping something alive. And the "something" is not just a collection of buildings, its the "capacity to build" that brought about that environment. True conservation preserves not buildings but building cultures. You are all over this with your "living tradition" writings and books. This is the new wave in preservation thinking, so keep going in this direction and we'll get where we want to be.

Aug 30, 2012 4:20pm


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