Monday, January 04, 2010

Book Review: The Future of the Past

The Future of the Past: A Conservation Ethic for Architecture, Urbanism, and Historic Preservation by Steven W. Semes
W. W. Norton, 2009
Hardcover, 272 pages

The apparently irreconcilable gulf between Modernists and Classicists, progressives and traditionalists, comes to the fore when architectural proposals contrast with old, appreciated buildings. Think Hearst Tower, Soldier Field, Morgan Library, all recent examples of modern glass and metal buildings atop or next to old stone structures. Basically following "party lines," each intervention has been embraced by modernists and derided by classicists. (Soldier Field's expansion by Wood + Zapata resulted in an unprecedented loss of preservation status (PDF link) for the landmark.)
Alternative approaches to the above examples and their like are the subject of University of Notre Dame (the only US architecture school that "emphasizes traditional and classical design") associate professor Steven W. Semes' new book on building in cities' historical districts. His argument for contextual responses for new architecture inserted into areas like Manhattan's Greenwich Village, Boston's Back Bay, and Chicago's Gold Coast is well considered and clear, calling for continuity and respect without promoting the mummification of historic districts. The author's call for preservation to acknowledge the broader social and cultural effects of continuity in these areas is common sense but at odds with policies that reward contrast in new buildings and discourage ones that create a "false sense of history" because they resemble the urban fabric in which they reside. Semes contends that preservation should "recontextualize the remnants of the past and ensure their future as living parts of our world" (his emphasis), not just "ensure the survival of artifacts in isolation." In this sense preservation is an urban and social act before it is an architectural one, embracing evolution and change while arguing for continuity and respect.
As someone who appreciates contrast in urban settings -- I see the diversity of styles and ages of buildings as a result of the ongoing interaction of landowners and bureaucracies with the public at large -- examples like Hearst Tower and Soldier Field cross the line between acceptable modern interventions and the almost total destruction of historical buildings, with "facadism" resulting. Issues of scale and function come to the fore, with these two projects showing how the former is not respected and the latter disappears. But when a building departs stylistically from its neighboring predecessor -- Matthew Baird's Town House on the edge of the Greenwich Village Historic District (PDF link) in Manhattan is a good reference here -- the ignobility of such a gesture is harder to accept. If individual modernist structures in scale with their neighbors do as much harm as Semes and other purport is arguable.
After reading his book I would agree (sort of) that alternatives should be embraced. But instead of designs carrying on the traditions of their predecessors in the same idiom, why can't new buildings attempt a synthesis, utilizing modern vocabulary and construction, yet addressing the levels of scale and other qualities of the older buildings? To contrast brick and stone with expanses of glass and/or steel is oftentimes unimaginative, especially when a more carefully considered design can use the same materials (and more) to create something respectful yet unique and expressive. Semes' argument may call for more traditional results, but it could also lead to contemporary architects' finding more creative and subtle ways of creating difference.