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On Historic Preservation

National Trust for Historic Preservation
May 29th, 2003

Good evening. I am delighted to be here, especially in the Knickerbocker Club, which I have always considered to be one of Delano & Aldrich’s masterpieces. This building was conceived as a piece of somewhat nostalgic Federal revival architecture, but now, by virtue of both the passage of time and its sheer quality, we have come, I think, to view it not so much as sentimental or backward-looking as just a thing unto itself, as a glorious building that reminds us, as much as any building can, that great architecture is not a matter of style so much as it is a matter of sureness of self-expression, strength of proportion, elegance of detail, and inventiveness within a language. Once, we tended to praise older buildings by observing how evocative they were of a different time, by saying how clearly they brought us back to another era. I don’t think we are inclined to look at preservation in such terms anymore. I didn’t come here tonight intending to talk primarily about the Knickerbocker Club, and I don’t intend to, but I do want to dwell on it for just another moment, because we could not ask for a better indication of how our whole view of preservation has evolved. I think the great strength of the Knickerbocker Club isn’t that it brings us back to 1915, when it was completed, but how much it belongs to the New York of 2003. If you want to wander through these rooms and think happy thoughts of New York in the nineteen-twenties you can certainly do that, and more power to you. But bringing us back is not the prime thing that this building does for us, or for the city. It is in its ability to enrich and deepen the experience of life here right now, how well it belongs in the life of today, an altogether different life from that lived in the nineteen-twenties or the thirties, or even, for that matter, in the nineteen-eighties. In a way, what I am saying is that this building does not so much bring us back to its time as transcend its time, and in so doing become a part of our time. Yes, it bears the mark of its period, as all great buildings absolutely do. But the greatest gift it gives us is to expand beyond that time to bring greater resonance to our own.

That, increasingly, is the goal of historic preservation – not to bring us back to another time but to enrich the experience of our own time. Perhaps the most important thing to say about this building is that it uses the past not to make us nostalgic, but to make us feel that we live in a better present, a present that has a broad reach and a great, sweeping arc, and that is not narrowly defined, but broadly defined by its connections to other eras, and its ability to embrace them in a larger, cumulative whole. Successful preservation makes time a continuum, not a series of disjointed, disconnected eras. Preservation whose only reason for being is to look back wistfully has a nasty way of playing the present off against the past, at least implicitly. However much you may believe that the past was truly better – and I do not believe that it was, even though it often produced better architecture – I don’t think that looking backward is a useful premise on which to live your life.

Another way to say all of this, of course, is to say that we value buildings as living presences and not as museums. Of course great buildings of the past are artifacts – but their role as artifacts is only a small fraction of their meaning, and in some ways it is the least interesting part of it.

All of that said, let me add a word of welcome to New York, the city that teaches you everything you need to know about historic preservation. I mean that not to sound like some kind of a civic booster – in fact, quite the opposite, since much of what New York has to teach about historic preservation is not as good as the Knickerbocker Club, and is in fact fairly awful. We are, after all, the city that tore down Pennsylvania Station, one of the greatest acts of cultural vandalism of the last century. We are the city that has always been known for its relentless determination to build, which has caused us to ride roughshod over many of our more civilized neighborhoods and modestly scaled, inviting streetscapes for more than a hundred years. I think the most important thing we can say about New York’s role in the historic preservation movement is that we are the city that made it necessary.

Once we made it necessary, of course, we then proceeded to engage in preservation with as much determination as we engage in everything else here. We created the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission, the model for all municipal legislation, and we fought the battle to assure that landmark preservation is constitutional all the way to the Supreme Court in the critical Grand Central Terminal case. You know all of this history, and I am not going to use the short time we have to repeat it, but let me say a word about where we are now, nearly forty years after the creation of the Landmarks Preservation Commission, and a generation after the victory in the Grand Central case. No one questions the value of historic preservation, or its underlying premises. Even the real-estate industry long ago gave up the fight against it. But that, in a strange way, is part of the problem. Preservation is now part of the established order of things, which means that it is part of the establishment, and that, in turn, means that it comes under question not from the forces of power, but from the opposite end – from the young, from the avant-garde, from those who grew up thinking that preservation was natural, and who feel, unlike most of us in this room, not that this is a great battle that they are proud of winning, but that it is a force of stasis – even, in some ways, a conservative force. The great challenge right now, strangely enough, is in figuring out how to keep preservation closer to the cutting edge, and to help those who grew up entirely in the age of preservation – those who were born after the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission was formed in 1965, or even after the Grand Central case was won in the nineteen-seventies – to understand that the last thing this movement ought to be thought of as is conservative.

I recognize that there is a kind of paradox in what I am saying, because obviously the very point of historic preservation is to conserve, so it has to be conservative in one sense. Of course this is true. But preservation, in the early years, was also daring, and radical, and willing to go against the grain, knowing that it represented long-term benefits for our cities and towns that people who thought only in the short term didn’t understand.

I think the battles, increasingly, are going to be fought on the grounds of modern landmarks – those buildings that were constructed in the years after the preservation movement rose to become a major force, those buildings that many of us, myself included, grew up disliking – even believing were the enemy, since some of them were the things that got built when the things we were trying to save didn’t get saved. Could it possibly be that a skyscraper put up in the nineteen-sixties on the site of a block of brownstones be itself worth saving? Not necessarily, and I don’t mean to say the answer to my question is a simple "yes." But it isn’t a simple "no" either. There is a fair amount to say on this subject. And it is also true that our views of what matters here have changed significantly in the twenty months since September 11, 2001.

When the World Trade Center was destroyed, we saw a modern building become more deeply connected to the psyche of our city, and our nation, than any building ever has in our lifetimes. A modern building is now, in a sense, the ultimate landmark. I do not know that we have ever in this country had what we could call an architectural martyr, a skyscraper martyr, but of course that is exactly what we have now. When you see sidewalk vendors in midtown selling pictures of the World Trade Center the way they used to sell pictures of JFK or Malcolm X, when you see pictures of this building in shop windows alongside the American flag – and we still do see these things, more than a year and a half after September 11th – that tells us something about what this building has come to mean in our culture. But by extension, it affects what modern buildings mean in general, or can mean. And while of course the trade center’s enormous symbolic role -is due to mainly to the way it stands, as it must, for the thousands of lives lost on September 11th, it means some other things, too, and I think these other things connect more closely than we might at first think to the issues that we have come together to discuss tonight.

It is not an accident that the World Trade Center, both for the terrorists who attacked it and for the people who mourn it, symbolized modernity. The reason that the terrorists did not go after the Empire State Building, I am convinced, is not only because they did not see the Empire State Building as representing the same kind of financial might, but also because it did not seem modern. The trade center, whatever we as architectural historians and critics might have thought of it, advertised the promise of modernity to the world. The fact that some of us might have thought there could be a better advertisement is beside the point. Many of us in this room might have considered the trade center tired, unimaginative, banal, and past its time, but this hardly matters. To most of the world, these towers represented the modernist idea, in its most perfect, most fully realized form. And since to the attackers, modernity was an evil that has to be abolished, the towers, as the ultimate symbol of modernity, were the ultimate target.

Now, they are mourned, and they are beloved – most of all, as I said, because of the loss of life and the horrific events with which they will forever be associated; like human martyrs, the World Trade Center looms larger in death than it did in life. But the new associations people have with these buildings have to change the way in which we think of modernity. It is now, more than ever before, American. It has now come to stand for the life that we want to protect, as much as the Capitol and the Pentagon and the Lincoln Memorial. Modern architecture has never been intimately tied into the identity of this country, but it is now. The terrorists have managed to do what no architect, no architecture critic, no preservationists have yet been able to do, which is to make this country, this culture, cherish a piece of modern architecture and think of it as representing the national ideals. I think Maya Lin may have come about the closest to doing that in the Vietnam Memorial, but even that was compromised by the addition, against her wishes, of a figurative sculpture because the opponents of her design insisted that no abstraction could possibly succeed in representing the deep emotions and high ideals of a memorial. Now, our most emotionally-laden symbol is what is, in many ways, our most abstract building – these stark, plain, simple nineteen-sixties boxes of Minoru Yamasaki.

This hardly means that people will run around embracing modern buildings, and feeling protective of them. Things don’t work that simply. There is no automatic extension of the trade center’s iconic status to other modern buildings. But I do think, as I said, that the context is now different. I think we are going to view modern buildings, or at least the valued ones that deserve landmarks protection, more in connection with broader cultural forces, and less as odd intrusions.

If the events of September 11th show us the landscape changing in a sudden, wrenching, cataclysmic way – and nothing in our lifetimes can more appropriately be described as cataclysmic than what happened on that day – there are other ways in which time acts on our perceptions of modern buildings, and I want to talk about that for just a moment. The first is the way time acts on our perceptions of all buildings, of course – we come to accept them. That was certainly the case with the World Trade Center. Long before September 11th, the trade center had begun to seem more palatable. Some of that is simply a matter of the way architecture always works: Buildings are present in a way that no other form of art is, and that requires us to adapt ourselves to them. We can walk on another block to keep some buildings out of our field of vision, but that technique was of little help with the World Trade Center, since it was visible from almost everywhere. You saw it not just in lower Manhattan but at the end of a vista down avenues from midtown; you saw it from the train tracks and the highways in New Jersey; you saw it from the river and you saw it from Brooklyn and you saw it all the time from the air. It became, for many people, an orienting device, the campanile of the huge city, and thus its enormity served, curiously, to make New York feel smaller, for when you saw the trade center towers and because of them you knew where you were, then the city was more manageable. It is one of the paradoxes of the trade center that its vastness could in this way confer intimacy, but so it was, and that made acceptance easier, less grudging.

The whole process of adaptation has come into play with all kinds of buildings. Modernism is now history. It’s worth observing that the McGraw-Hill building is now almost seventy years old; the original wing of the Museum of Modern Art is more than sixty; Lever House is fifty, and the TWA Building at Kennedy Airport is forty. Forty is older than Rockefeller Center was when the Landmarks Commission was established in 1965. In 1965, the Empire State Building was only forty-four years old. When Pennsylvania Station was demolished in 1963, it had stood for only fifty-two years – it was younger than the United Nations is now, and essentially the age Lever House is now.

I say this to offer a bit of historical perspective – modernism is history, and has to be appreciated as such. Even apart from the trade center and the emotional impact of September 11th, I sense that today, there is a pretty broad willingness to admit that. My sense is that the great buildings of modern architecture in New York, the Ford Foundations and TWAs and Seagrams and Levers, and their equivalents elsewhere, are not the issue. There is no disputing their quality, and their importance. You at the National Trust have already accepted this in your important acquisition, some years ago, of Philip Johnson’s Glass House in New Canaan, which I expect will be one of the Trust’s most popular sites some day – although I hesitate to predict when, since as you know, Philip, approaching his 97th birthday, still remains in residence.

The problem isn’t these great landmarks, but the next layer down, and our discomfort with a lot of what was built in the nineteen-fifties and sixties. The reality is that modernism did not create a decent vernacular – that was, in fact, its problem. It could more easily create great individual works than an urban fabric, so there was no modern equivalent of the brownstone, or the exquisite Colonial houses of our landscape, or of any other style whose average buildings everyone could jointly admire and feel comfortable about preserving. And here in New York I am still not entirely sure what to do about this, since the towers of Third Avenue and Sixth Avenue or the white-brick apartment buildings of Second Avenue are not great buildings, however important they are to the historical context of the city, and neither do most of them have the powerful iconic status that the World Trade Center had, even before its loss. Yet neither do we want to see all of them disappear.

The passage of time is critical to architecture, but it should not be allowed to mellow our sensibilities so much that we lose all critical faculties. How to balance the natural human tendency to be kind to that which has the patina of time, with the essential ability to make judgments between good and bad, is a challenge we will have to face as the preservation movement goes forward into the next generation. We are not the first to face it, however. To one generation the excesses of Victorian architecture that we now so treasure were the height of vulgarity. To another generation, the zestful lines of Art Deco and Art Moderne were mere commercial expedience, not real architecture. Now we value both, and struggle to preserve them. I do not mean to say that the architecture of the nineteen-sixties is the same as these periods and will benefit from the same kind of delayed appreciation – but I think it is too soon to say that it is certain to be different, either.

Let me conclude by coming back to Ground Zero for a moment, to say how pleased I am that what I would consider the highest and best values of preservation seem to be playing a role in the ongoing planning process there. In some cases we see this literally, in the meticulous reconstruction of Ralph Walker’s great New York Telephone Building at the corner of Vesey and West Streets just north of the World Trade Center, which was badly damaged. And it looks as though Cass Gilbert’s splendid 90 West Street, a building just south of the World Trade Center that was also quite badly damaged on September 11th, will be restored rather than demolished, although plans there are not yet final. And everyone knows of the critical role played by St. Paul’s Chapel as a sanctuary for the rescue effort and therefore a symbol of the outpouring of emotion from the entire country – we could not imagine a clearer, more direct example of a historic building transcending its role as an artifact and coming alive in a new and meaningful way in our time.

But preservation has played another kind of role, too. I am pleased that no one, or almost no one, took seriously the ludicrous plans to reconstruct the World Trade Center as it was, which would not have been consistent with the authentic values of preservation at all, but more with the make-believe values of the theme park. The failure of that idea to gain traction, as it were, underscores, I think, how much we have come not only to understand what preservation is – but also what it isn’t.

And then of course we come to Daniel Libeskind’s master plan for the site, which is based in part on a form of preservation, the retention of the slurry wall, the concrete foundation that served as a retaining wall to keep the World Trade Center’s underpinnings from the waters of the Hudson River. Libeskind observed that the wall survived September 11th, and he saw in it a powerful metaphor for survival, and continuity. This is preservation as artifact, but it is a different kind of artifact, since it is an artifact that contains an almost overpowering emotional component. By basing his plan around this wall, and maintaining the emptiness of the "footprints" of the twin towers as a further gesture of remembrance, he was underscoring preservation’s importance.

Libeskind’s design is not the memorial per se, but rather a master plan for the site, and a setting for a memorial, the design of which will be found by an international competition that is now underway. We will know at the end of the summer what that design will be. But the rest of Libeskind’s master plan is important, because it is almost entirely new – boldly shaped new buildings that look forward, as I believe they must, along with a spire that reaches high into the sky, higher even than the original World Trade Center towers did. Libeskind was conscious of preservation of the skyline, and of the elements that make it work, which is critical, I think, but he was also conscious of the need for the new, and of the importance of the whole idea of renewal and regeneration here as part of the healing process. We cannot only look back, and we cannot only make new. We have to do both. Libeskind has managed, like Janus, to look both backwards and forwards, and to use preservation for the highest of aims, which is to create the foundation for a better and richer present.

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