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Preservation: Where Do We Go From Here?

Indiana State Preservation Conference
April 8th, 2010

Good evening. I am delighted to be here, in this extraordinary town of New Harmony, a place that in this age of places looking like other places has steadfastly refused to look like any other place at all. For that reason alone we should treasure it. But New Harmony offers a lot of other lessons, too, that are relevant to historic preservation, and before moving on to more general observations it might make sense to think about them for a moment, since not all of them are obvious.

By that I mean that the simple fact that a lot of old buildings have been preserved isn’t, to me, the most interesting thing about New Harmony. It’s wonderful, and we are all in the debt of the preservationists who made this possible, but the greatest lessons New Harmony offers aren’t the conventional ones of saving old things, and using them to create an aura of a time long past. What makes New Harmony compelling, to me, is that it hasn’t been preserved solely as a relic. It is no longer a utopian community, obviously. It hasn’t been that for close to two centuries now. But neither is it a pure relic, or a place intended only to focus on the past.

It is particularly suitable that we are here in the Atheneum today—one of the two significant contemporary works in New Harmony—Philip Johnson’s Roofless Church is of course the other. I should say here that I’m sorry that I missed today’s panel on modernism in New Harmony this afternoon. I would like to have been there, because I think the issues of modern buildings in a historic context bear serious discussion. These buildings underscore a commitment to looking at history in a way that is both broad and subtle. Neither of these works of architecture resembles the old buildings of New Harmony—obvious, but it still needs to be said—because it shows immediately that this is a very different kind of preserved old village from the usual of that genre. The standard, as you know, is to do all you can to create the illusion of another era, including building new buildings that resemble those of the past and might even be mistaken for them.

In New Harmony, that past is not seen as a simple concept, or as relating to a particular, single time. Main Street is all post-utopia, so to speak, and it is wonderful. “The ever-continuing past,” that wonderful phrase that reminds us that the past is not a moment but a continuum, is nowhere more appropriate than here. And so when the time came to build the key public building, the visitors’ center, the Atheneum, the decision was to make the new building as clearly and absolutely a part of the late twentieth century as the remnants of early New Harmony had been a part of the early nineteenth century. Here, preservation was not dependent on illusion. The expectation was that people who were drawn to New Harmony were also drawn to thinking, and to ideas, and that they would be comfortable thinking about time, and its architectural manifestations, in a different kind of a way from those who come only to wallow in the past.

It is hard to underestimate the importance of this. Now, there is a certain irony to the realism here, if we can even call this attitude realist; after all, New Harmony’s utopian history was not truly realistic, since utopianism is not, of course, a realistic pursuit. Usually, historic communities, or re-creations of them, involve the application of contemporary illusion on top of remnants of historical reality. We give a gloss of sweetness to old things, fooling ourselves into believing that they are nothing but quaint, gentle remnants of quaint, gentle times. But in New Harmony, it’s the other way around. The illusion, or at least the innocence, belongs more to history, to the utopian origins of this unusual community, whose members tried so passionately, if naively, to make an ideal society. The realism comes today, as we recognize New Harmony’s failings, but treasure it nevertheless for the noble aspirations that it represented. To construct an imitation nineteenth century building here would have turned all of New Harmony’s serious ideas into a joke. One of the reasons I so admire Richard Meier’s Atheneum is that it indulges in no such trivial gestures. It takes the earnestness of the original New Harmony seriously, showing it respect by contributing a serious, and equally earnest, work of architecture of our own time.

There’s a further irony here, which is that European modernist architecture of the nineteen-twenties, which forms the origin of Meier’s aesthetic, was itself utopian, and full of social ideals. So here in New Harmony we have one kind of utopian architecture commenting, in effect, on another, or, if you prefer to look at it this way, two very different generations of utopian architecture working together, entering into a dialogue with each other that defines this very special place.

That notion, the idea of dialogue between the architectural generations, is key to preservation, and key to preservation’s ongoing meaning. I don’t think that was very widely recognized in the early years of the preservation movement, when historic preservation seemed to be mainly a matter of house museums, those places where bored schoolchildren are shepherded through and emerge with a sense that the past must have been really dull to have made places like that. I don’t mean to disrespect house museums—I know you have some lovely ones here in Indiana in Veraestau and the Huddleston farmhouse, among others, and we certainly have our share back East. But in the house museum, preservation usually kept to its place – safe, unthreatening, not particularly connected to the larger questions of the life and the future of a community. It was easier to justify saving a building as a stand-alone artifact, considered worthy more for what might have happened in it than for anything about its architecture, or any symbolic value it might have had in a community. That’s why, when you moved away from the safe realm of house museums, preservation was not such a sure thing in those days, maybe thirty-five or forty years ago. It was a widely accepted view that preservation interfered with progress. It was the enemy of economic development. Back then it was generally believed that historic preservation was motivated mainly by sentimentality, which is why it was okay to save an old house here and there, so long as it didn’t get in the way of anything important, because people knew that progress depended on bigger things than that.

Well, a lot has happened since then. The preservation movement has grown up, and no one dismisses it as mere sentimentality to care about saving key parts of the built landscape we have inherited. Let me go to my home city of New York for a moment. Forty-seven years ago we tore down Pennsylvania Station, perhaps the greatest single act of urban vandalism in New York’s history. Five years ago – forty-two years after that event, in other words – we celebrated the fortieth anniversary of the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission, which in its first forty years declared 1,120 buildings as individual landmarks, 104 important public spaces as interior landmarks, 9 parks as scenic landmarks, and 83 groupings, some of them extending over many blocks, as historic districts, protecting roughly 23,000 buildings all over the city.

Pennsylvania Station’s counterpart, Grand Central, has not only been saved, it has been meticulously restored, and today looks better than it ever has. I happened to walk through it not once but twice yesterday—not because I was taking a train, but because it now functions almost like a town square, and I was passing through. I saw an amazing mix of tourists, New Yorkers, and people taking trains—a vestibule to the city and a piazza, at once, all integrated into the daily life of the city.

And as everyone in this room knows, this broadening and deepening of the preservation movement is nationwide. Here in Indiana, I know that the Historic Landmarks Foundation has become a national leader in going beyond preservation’s limited beginnings, and connecting it to downtown neighborhood revitalization. Almost no one any more questions the value of historic preservation, or its underlying premises. In New York, even the real-estate industry long ago gave up the fight against it, and that is saying something, since the real estate industry in New York rarely gives up anything. Today they may challenge the landmarks commission on specific issues, but they are no longer challenging its right to exist. I suspect that there is a similar kind of general air of acceptance of the preservation movement here in Indiana.

But that very acceptance, 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 in a world in which historic preservation was natural, and who feel, unlike most of us in this room, not that preservation 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 let itself be seen 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. Keeping is conserving, and so in one sense of the word, conserving is conservative. 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.

In the early years of preservation – let’s say the Pennsylvania Station years, from the 1960’s and into the 1970’s – preservationists were willing to go against established business interests, and often did, which meant that no one saw them as conservative, since the business community pretty much owned that adjective. If you opposed business interests, then you were presumably radical, which is just what preservationists were often thought to be – that is, when they weren’t being denounced as communist and socialist and against the all-American value of undiminished property rights. And we all know this happened even though, as we’ve said, preservationists were really conservative in the best sense of that word, since they were trying to bring what we might call the true values of conservatism to the forefront – not the creation of short-term profits, but the maintenance of long-term value for the society as a whole by recognizing the benefits of preserving certain precious resources for all to share.

A moment ago, I was saying that preservation has begun to be part of the establishment: it is increasingly operating not outside the corridors of power but within them, and while that is in one sense a triumph worth celebrating, it is not without risks of its own. In every silver lining there is a cloud, you might say, and today preservation faces the challenge of maintaining the passion and the energy and even the sense of radicalism that so completely defined it in the early years.

The National Trust now has several hundred thousand members, and owns or manages 21 key historic properties, but I have to say that is not the most important thing to say about it. What really matters about the Trust isn’t the membership total, although that certainly underscores the success of the preservation movement in general that I’ve been talking about. More significant, in my view, is the way in which the National Trust has worked to redefine preservation, and keep it at the cutting edge, insisting that preservation also means community preservation, in the saving of Main Streets and old downtowns. The Trust was one of the first and most important responders after Hurricane Katrina, since the Trust recognized that, once the urgent necessities of human life were accounted for, the physical form of communities came second, and that the Trust could play a critical role in preserving them.

This is as important an evidence of preservation’s evolution as any – the recognition that it is part of the deep fabric of human community, that preservation is not simply a matter of the luxury of saving individual artifacts, valued, even beloved, as these artifacts may often be. You all know this, because you have done the same thing here in Indiana. It is impossible to underestimate the importance of the evolution of historic preservation from a process of protecting and restoring single artifacts to a process of community preservation. It is absolutely essential, and it is the real story of preservation in our time: how it has gone beyond the single building, admired but disconnected from the larger community fabric, to the community fabric itself.

If you save a historic building and let the community fabric around it deteriorate – well, then you have a historic artifact sitting in the midst of decay, which can actually have the effect, paradoxically, of diminishing rather than enhancing the importance of preservation, since it can suggest that preservation is totally disconnected from contemporary life, completely unrelated to the things that matter. If the life of the community is all out on the new, wide street at the edge of town, where the strip malls and the Wal-Mart and the K-Mart and the drive-in places are, and the one distinguished mid-nineteenth-century mansion left in the center of town has been preserved but everything else around Main Street has been allowed to go into decay, this sends the message that preservation is connected entirely to an obsolete past, that it has little to do with the life we live now. Of course it’s better to have preserved this lovely house than not, but we shouldn’t fool ourselves into thinking that saving it is going to have much real impact on the community unless other things are done. The point is that we need to remind ourselves over and over again that you have to address more than the special artifact. You have to look at the whole.

And that may often mean looking at wholes in which none of the parts are all that important on their own. If I have learned anything in thirty-five years of studying cities and writing about them, it is that the street means more than the building, and that you can make a great street out of so-so buildings if they are put together well and relate to each other well and make a tight urban fabric, and if you have enough great streets you have one of the most important ingredients of a great city. Conversely, if you have a few great buildings that are utterly disconnected from each other and from the street, you have – well, you have a few great buildings. Period. You do not have a street, and you do not have a city. My point is not to argue against architecture – obviously, if I wanted to do that, I should be in another line of work. It is to keep in mind that architecture alone can’t make a city, and that preservation of single, individual and discrete works of architecture alone can’t maintain the cities and the communities we cherish. We need to do more, we need to look at the ensembles of B+ buildings and remember that a whole lot of B and even C buildings can often mean more to a community than one or two A buildings.

The great architecture critic Lewis Mumford once said, “In a city, time becomes visible,” and that says it all. In the city, we see the layers of time through the generations of building, and their visibility, their presence together, is one of the things that gives the city its meaning.

For if historic preservation is to achieve its greatest potential, it really needs to be seen not as a vehicle to bring us back to another time, but as one that enriches the experience of our own time. Perhaps the most important thing to say about preservation when it is really working as it should 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 link arms with 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. Once it was all there was to preservation – looking back because, well, we found the past comforting, and old buildings helped to bring us there. I do not like the notion of using preservation to escape the present, as I said, but it is important to remember how much that may have motivated preservationists once.
Another thing that motivated them – and often may still motivate them in many circumstances – isn’t love for the old so much as fear of the new. That is the deep, hidden secret of preservation, its dark underside we might say, the extent to which people have often fought to save old buildings not so much because they loved them as because they hated what was proposed to replace them. Now, often enough one would have to agree with this reasoning, given how many awful strip malls and shopping centers and banal office towers and apartment blocks went up in the last half century in this country on sites where wonderful old buildings had been. Once again, Pennsylvania Station is the supreme example: we not only lost this great building, we got in exchange a horrendous box of an office tower, and a stupid drum of an arena, no great trade at all.

How different that was from the way things were, say, a hundred or a hundred and fifty years ago. There was a sense, certainly in the nineteenth century and for much of the twentieth, that if something valued were lost from the cityscape, something equally valued, perhaps even better, would replace it. If you will allow me to come back to New York one more time, for example, at Thirty-fourth Street and Fifth Avenue there was once a magnificent hotel, designed by Henry Hardenbergh, architect of the Plaza Hotel. It was the original Waldorf-Astoria, and it was torn down – but for the Empire State Building. At 62nd Street and Central Park West, the Century Theater, a distinguished Beaux-Arts building by Carrere and Hastings, architects of the New York Public Library, stood through the nineteen-twenties, and then was torn down – but it was replaced by the Century Apartments, now one of the city’s art deco treasures. On upper Fifth Avenue, the Lenox Library was torn down, but what came in its stead was Henry Clay Frick’s mansion, now the Frick Collection. I think you get the point – that change did not necessarily mean decline, and that loss of familiar older buildings often brought with it the tradeoff of much better new ones.

And that is exactly what we lost in the last fifty years or so, as postwar modern architecture wreaked apart our cities and so often forced us to exchange beloved older buildings for disliked, intrusive and enormous new ones. No wonder people lost faith in the ability of architecture to improve cities, and no wonder the preservation movement grew up – we lost our belief that things were getting better, which meant we had to hang on to what we had, if only because hanging onto it became another way to stop contemporary development.

I think we have moved beyond that view now, or at least I hope we have. Architecture is certainly more sophisticated, and I would like to hope that we as a culture are less fearful of what will come. We have learned to do more than huge, anti-urban, blank concrete walls and banal glass boxes. I would like to hope that when we preserve now, we do it for a more positive reason than merely to prevent a feared new development – that we do it because of the genuine value in what we are seeking to preserve, and because we are committed to having old and new work together, not in opposition to one another.
That, I suppose, is as good a segue as any to the second point I want to make about the redefinition of preservation. Beyond the issue of the urgency of saving urban fabric and community fabric, I think the battles of preservation, increasingly, are going to be fought on the grounds of modern landmarks – those buildings that were constructed in some cases in the nineteen-twenties and thirties, but more often in the very years I have just been talking about, the years after World War II, when architecture was not always, as we have been saying, such a positive force. Could it possibly be that a skyscraper put up in the nineteen-sixties replacing a much-lamented block of brownstones be itself worth saving? Not necessarily, but the answer to my question isn’t a simple“no” either.

Modernism is now history. That’s the real point. The great early houses of Le Corbusier are seventy-five-plus years old; the United Nations in New York is just about sixty. The Seagram Building will be fifty-two this year, and Lever House in New York will be fifty-eight this year. When Pennsylvania Station was demolished in 1963, it had stood for only fifty-two years – it was younger than either the United Nations or Lever House, two of New York’s iconic modern buildings, are today. Modernism is history, and has to be appreciated as such. Here, too, you have been leaders in Indiana—I know that the Indiana Modern initiative is a key program of Historic Landmarks, and I can only hope that it continues to grow. On the national level, we certainly see this in the recent additions to the National Trust’s roster of historic sites. In 1986 the Trust acquired by bequest Philip Johnson’s celebrated Glass House in New Canaan, Connecticut, built in 1949, which as you may know is not only one iconic building, but an extraordinary compound of more than a dozen buildings and structures that represent all of Philip Johnson’s various and changing architectural interests over the years, beginning with the International Style and moving on to decorative classicism, and various kinds of sculptural modernism, a kind of autobiography in architecture.

The National Trust also owns what we might call the other great International Style house, a precursor of Johnson’s Glass House although it was actually finished a couple of years later: Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House, in Plano, Illinois, outside of Chicago. In some ways this is actually an even more beautiful, sublime structure than the Glass House, though it is a single building, not a compound, and not something an architect built for his own use.
I mention these because of the commitment they represent to preservation of the modern. The National Trust was given the Glass House, but the Farnsworth House had to be bought, and it was a daring and bold commitment that made it happen. Some of you may know the story: the house was put up for auction at Sotheby’s by its previous owner, and several potential bidders, including the one who was most serious, wanted to dismantle it and move it to another piece of private property. The Trust stayed in the bidding and spent quite a few million dollars to acquire the house, saving it and now re-opening it as a public museum.

That is what I mean when I talk about preservation again being daring and radical. It took vision to know that this building is as important as any 18th-century colonial house or 19th-century Victorian house, and a willingness to bet the farm, so to speak, on the premise that it could be a viable National Trust site, and then to pay a great deal of money to acquire it. I suspect that preservationists in the future will look at the acquisition of the Farnsworth House as similar to the rescue of Grand Central Terminal in New York, as an absolutely key moment in the evolution of preservation. In the case of Grand Central it was the Supreme Court validating preservation law and turning back the challenges that tried to prove that preservation amounted to an unfair taking of property; in the case of Farnsworth, it was the willingness to commit precious and limited resources to the important goal of twentieth-century modernist preservation, even when the legacy of modern architecture still remains questionable.

Of course as I was saying a moment ago, the real challenge isn’t going to be in saving great modernist landmarks like Farnsworth, though finding the money to purchase and restore them is indeed going to be a challenge. But the deeper and more troubling challenge is our altogether legitimate 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.. When we talk about urban fabric, as I’ve been doing, what are we to do when that urban fabric is actually rather banal?

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’m certainly not trying 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.

As I said earlier, once, when we allowed good buildings to go, it was because we felt there was a better than even chance of getting equal or better new ones. We ceased to feel that for much of the nineteen-fifties, sixties, seventies, and maybe even the eighties – understandably, as I have said. But if we lose sight of the new, and of the value it brings, we have lost the very point of historic preservation. We do not preserve to bring ourselves back into the past – we preserve to make use of the past to build a better present. Anything else would be creating a false city. And cities, towns and villages, whatever else they are have always been places of the real. We live in the city, after all, not because we crave the easy comforts of the false, but because we value the greater challenge of the authentic.

Making time visible means making the present visible as well as a series of layers of past times. And it means using the values of the past to inspire the present, and to encourage us to find new ways of expression that speak comfortably to the old. This brings me back again, of course, to the Atheneum, and to the wonderful way that this modern building plays off against the historic fabric of New Harmony, creating a sense of resonance, a sense that things have been there for a long time and will be there for some time to come, but at the same time to always assuring us that we are in a place that is alive, not dead. If we are truly successful as preservationists, we will know it not only by what we have saved, but also by what new architecture we have inspired. Much of the job of saving the greatest landmarks of previous generations is done – not all of it by any means, but a lot of it. The challenge now is to take care of what we have saved, and to protect it and nurture it – and also, to assure that we never forget the need to create the landmarks of tomorrow.

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