horizontal line

The Next American City

National Trust For Historical Preservation
October 27th, 2010

Good afternoon. I am delighted to follow Stephanie Meeks, who has brought such remarkable energy and excitement to the Trust in these few weeks, so much so that it is hard to imagine that she has not been part of this great organization for a long time; and also Laura Bush, who has just shown us that she is not only a great supporter of preservation in general, but by focusing on the magnificent county courthouses in Texas reminds us how essential it is for preservation to be not just national, but local.

In any event it is wonderful to be here in Austin, a city that has always had the remarkable ability to be at once the most Texan of cities, and the city in Texas that people who don’t like Texas are most drawn to. It is something of a paradox, really, the way Austin is the ultimate Texas place, and yet if you ask a Chicagoan or a San Franciscan or a New Yorker what city in Texas they most enjoy visiting, my utterly unscientific data reports that they will in all likelihood say Austin.

I think there are several reasons for that, and happily for us, a number of them connect to the reason we are here. Austin is a city that embraces the new, as does so much of Texas, but it connects comfortably and even proudly to the old, as not all of Texas is willing to do. I remember when I was a young critic and writer at The New York Times in the nineteen-seventies, and Houston was all the rage—those were the years when New York was said to be going down the tubes, to be finished, and the future was all in the sunbelt, and Houston seemed like the nexus, the hottest place, the place that told us where cities were going. Houston, as most of you probably know, is the city that has always prided itself on having no zoning laws. While there are some historic buildings of distinction there, I think it’s fair to say that preservation has rarely been at the top of the agenda in Houston. Indeed, my favorite story about land use in Houston is the tale of the young urban planning student who was taken to visit one of the top city planners in Houston, and was invited to an office high up on a skyscraper. The older man took the young man to the window and they looked out at the landscape of sprawl, of freeways and towers and shopping malls. “You see that?” he said. “Well, my job is to let it happen.”

The story may be apocryphal, I truly don’t know, but one could imagine it having happened in Houston, where there was often such pride in the new that the only significance of the old was that it was the thing you had to get rid of before you could build something else—that is, if you were foolish enough to want to build where someone else had built before, rather than going farther out and spreading the city’s footprint onto new turf. The old, in other words, was what was in the way. Now, I think that Houston, like places all over the United States, has learned a lot in the last generation, and I doubt that you’ll find this attitude as widespread as it once was. But still, to get back to where I began, Austin is different. Austin always has been different. Some of that is the presence of the University of Texas, since university towns have always been places that have had qualities that transcend their immediate surroundings: Madison isn’t quite like the rest of Wisconsin, Ann Arbor not quite like the rest of Michigan, Berkeley not quite like so much of California, and so forth. And universities provide both a conceptual link to the idea of history—to not respect history is in some fundamental way to not respect the idea of the university, since the university is a repository of knowledge as much as it is anything else—but beyond the way that the university’s presence creates a kind of sympathetic condition for history, it also quite often contains a number of buildings that are significant landmarks, and whose preservation is beyond question. The tower on the university campus, for example, while not quite the Alamo, is the kind of anchor to the past that not many Texas cities have.

And of course Austin is also the state capital, and has given the remarkable Capitol building pride of place, which in some ways confers an even more potent sense of history than the university campus. The powerful historical presence of the Capitol combined with the university campus, which in turn brings the youthful energy of a large student population, makes this city a place whose very essence is the notion of an unusual mix, both connected to history and energetically forward-looking. And I have not even mentioned the extent to which Austin has a real and meaningful downtown, not as large as that of Houston or Dallas, but somehow more significant in proportion to the whole, and with a notable number of restored older buildings beyond even the justly admired Driskill Hotel, and Congress Avenue, and 6th Street. Yes, it’s true that Austin spreads out, but less in proportion to its size than many Texas cities. My point is that it seems to be a place in which traditional urbanity is not a dirty word, and a place in which preservation of single buildings and entire neighborhoods is not an alien concept.

Given how much of Austin’s economy comes from the presence of two corporations whose businesses are very much of this moment, Dell Computer and the headquarters of Whole Foods—how much of the economy other than the state government and the university, that is—Austin seems like a good place in which to talk about the New American City. It is not Detroit or St. Louis, which sadly, tragically, are the Old American City, for all their wonders and magnificent history and extraordinary inventory of great architecture; and it is not one of those medium-sized cities whose economy is being kept alive by the presence of large hospitals and universities—health care and education, or meds and eds, as one architect I know likes to call them, being the only things left to keep afloat the post-industrial, post-corporate economy of so many troubled urban centers. And Austin is also not the new, pseudo-urban landscape of Tyson’s Corner outside of Washington, or the Buckhead section of Atlanta, or the Galleria area of Houston, new places that aspire to urbanity but don’t posses it, and which show us that a certain amount of density and tall buildings alone do not a city make. Here, as I said, we can see old neighborhoods and a reasonably coherent downtown, all held together by both the presence of several key landmarks and by the economic power of businesses that could not have been created in another era, businesses that relate to the concerns and the needs of this culture at this moment.

Now we’re here to talk about preservation, of course, not about economics. But as everyone in this room knows, the two cannot often be separated. Often enough, money and prosperity don’t help the cause of preservation as much as they should, since they also so often bring with them a sense of urgency about building new, building big, building different, and building right now. Sometimes the absence of money is actually helpful to preservation, because it preserves the status quo. I’ve often said that poverty is the great friend of preservation. Preservationists are the only people I know—other than bankruptcy lawyers, I suppose—who aren’t totally unhappy in a recession. They know that, if nothing else, a downturn buys time to make stronger arguments and to build a bigger constituency for preservation. But this fact makes Austin all the more impressive, and all the more appropriate as a model for what we are calling the Next American City, because there has been prosperity here, and a reasonably solid economy, and it has not led to a complete indifference to preservation, and a desire to go running as far as you can from the old downtown, or to do pre-emptive demolition and turn the sites of historic buildings into parking lots—truly the most anti-urban, anti-architectural gesture possible. If Austin is lucky in the coming years, it will be able to show that if poverty is a friend to preservation, prosperity does not have to be its enemy.

Not that there have not been issues; there have been many, and I know that the city’s admirable interest in strengthening the density of downtown, and trying to direct more large-scale building toward the center rather than the outskirts, is going to create more preservation conflicts going forward. That’s inevitable. But if Austin proceeds with the presumption that preservation is a critical part of its growth and development, and with the burden of proof being on those who would tear something historic down rather than on those who would save it, the city will be doing well. In other words, it should be presumed that a historic building or streetscape provides lasting and significant value to the community; you should not have to make that argument all the time, although I know that of course you do. It’s the other side that should have to make the argument, that should have to prove that its alternative is better for the community—not just because it is putting some more short-term dollars into the economy, but because it will improve the quality of life.

That, after all, is why we preserve—not to wallow in the past, not to bury ourselves in a world that is not our own, but to enrich our own world right now. We preserve not to escape from the present but to make a better present, a richer, more diverse, more resonant present. Lewis Mumford once said that “In a city, time becomes visible,” and I have increasingly come to think that of all the things said about preservation and cities, this simple phrase—“in a city, time becomes visible”—may be the most profound, because it gets us to the essence of what makes the physical form of the city so pleasurable, so vital, so meaningful for us. Not long ago I was in San Francisco, and spent some time in the city’s developing Mission Bay district, south of Market Street, where so much has been built in recent years, and almost all of it exactly as planners and urban designers would want it to be: even cornice lines, buildings built out to the street line, no awful flat reflective glass facades, lots of architectural detail, light rail going down the middle of the road, the enormous AT&T Park, the Giants’ ballpark, beautifully integrated into the streetscape. Everything was right, but the place still felt somewhat flat and one-dimensional, a little bit like some perfect rendering that you might see in an architectural textbook. And then I realized why: it was because even if you do everything right, if you don’t have the presence of time, the visibility of layers of time, it doesn’t ring true. A place needs a patina, it needs to show some age in at least some of its elements; without it, we do not find it comforting, but almost disconcerting.

Let me go back for a moment to Austin, because there is another key thing about Austin and the theme of this conference, which as you know is not just “The Next American City” – it is “The Next American City, The Next American Landscape.” The single most important thing we can do for the next American landscape is to make sure it stays landscape, by which I mean not building where we do not have to. Austin, with its policies of encouraging downtown growth and discouraging sprawl, is doing this. The Next American City and the Next American Landscape go together, because if we build the Next American City well—that is to say, if we build it as a real city, as a dense, tight, walkable city—we will by virtue of doing this not be using up as much land outside the city, and we will be preserving and strengthening the American landscape. It may be that the most important thing to say about the Next American Landscape is that it is not sprawl. It is about preservation of the landscape, and strengthening the city.

It’s not, then, a zero sum game between the Next American City and the Next American Landscape. It isn’t the case that the more of the city we have, the less of the landscape we have. If anything, it’s the opposite: that the more of the city we have, the stronger and denser the city is, the more we protect the landscape. And while, as I said before, an emphasis on tight, dense urban fabric can also put some pressure on historic structures, I don’t see this as an unresolvable contradiction. As the virtues of the city, as the values of the city, become more and more appreciated, the essential role that historic buildings play within them will become more and more understood as well. Indeed, that is what has been happening; we’ve seen it over the last generation. And we will understand, I think, that a downtown that consists entirely of brand-new skyscrapers, with time no longer visible within it, will be no more pleasing as a city than an old, struggling downtown full of vacant lots and parking lots. We know that the successful city is nuanced, with a mix of new and old, the presence of each enriching the other.

There is another way in which the idea of the Next American City and the Next American Landscape go together, and that is in the notion of the public realm. Maybe that, in the end, is what ultimately ties together the two halves of this conference theme, the fact that both the Next American City and the Next American Landscape are places in which the idea of the public realm is respected, even celebrated.

That was not the case for a long time. While we have a great legacy of shared public open space in our cities, relatively little of it has been produced in the last couple of generations. It is no secret that we allowed the private realm to take precedence. Hotel atriums, office-building lobbies, private through-block arcades, vast multiplex lobbies, not to mention the ultimate symbol of privatization of our urban life, the shopping mall, have all taken over the functions that we once reserved for the street, and for the public square, for places like the great squares in front of the wonderful Texas courthouses that Laura Bush described so well earlier this afternoon. We have devalued the street, and by doing so, we have implicitly devalued the whole idea of urban life, because we have given up on the notion that cities, whatever else we can say about them, are utterly, wholly, and absolutely public. But by transferring so many of our urban functions, so many of our urban activities, to private spaces, we have tried to get away from the public nature of the street, and hence we have compromised the public nature of the city.

This is not the time or place to get into this idea in depth, and of course the notion of the privatization of the public realm is hardly a new idea. Many people, myself included, have been worrying about it for more than a decade. We live in an age in which so many of us travel to work in little enclosed metal boxes on wheels, then sit alone in cubicles, where we communicate primarily by means of electronic devices, and then we go home again to more electronic devices, and then we repeat the process all over again. Indeed, if you live in the suburbs, you are accustomed to the notion that private space is elevated over public space in the value system: the streets are really there for movement of cars, not people, and the sidewalks mainly a leftover appendage of another age. And if you are in a gated community, then the notion of private space is taken to a whole other level, because everything, even the streets that are nominally public in a conventional suburb become private, too.

Too many of us have relatively few communal experiences, and almost no experience with public space. You may shop online as much, if not more, than in a real store; you may order all kinds of things online, and many of your social encounters will take place online. I say this not to deny the extraordinary things that technology has brought us, and I admit that I am as busy with my iPod and iPad and blackberry as anyone in this room. I am no Luddite. My point is more to say that there is no free lunch—we pay a price for being so connected. The price we pay for being so connected is that we are also more disconnected, we are farther from the idea of common ground, we are farther from the notion of real connection to real people in real time and real space. Technology brings us together in one way, but it fragments us in another way, it breaks us apart into little modules and separate groups and different kinds of communities that are not based on physical proximity. Technology is a wonderful substitute for connection if you have no alternative, if you have no option of real physical connection. For the person in a cabin in the woods in Maine, or on a desert island, it is a Godsend. But for those of us who live in real villages and real towns and real cities, it is an expensive gift, since even as it is giving us something, it is taking something else away from us.

What relevance does all of this have to the idea of the public realm, and to the larger questions of historic preservation that bring all of us here to Austin this week? Plenty, I think. The public realm is about the idea of common space, and shared public space, and the way in which it constitutes, symbolically but also quite literally, common ground. I don’t believe that the old model of the city, the old model of the dense web of buildings arranged on streets, is obsolete. We have already learned how much more satisfying it is than the kind of community produced by the automobile, how much better a village street is than a mall, and how frustrating are places in which it is impossible to walk. Lately, we have begun to learn that this is more than just an aesthetic choice, or a lifestyle choice. It also has real and serious implications for human health, and for the obesity epidemic that afflicts this country. Richard Jackson, a gifted doctor in the field of public health who also has a great interest in urban planning, has shown the extent to which sprawl is a public health issue as well as a land conservation and planning issue. His researches have shown the direct impact between certain kinds of sprawl development and public health problems. The life lived entirely amid the consequences of sprawl—with endless commutes on interstate highways, with trips to the mall malls if all you need is a quart of milk, with little connection to your neighbors—literally can make us sick, he has argued.

Preservation is not, in and of itself, the answer to this. But it is a big part of the answer. Over the last decade or more, the National Trust has argued that preventing sprawl is as much within its purview as saving Cliveden or Lyndhurst, and that as a consequence, the goals of the environmental movement and the goals of the Trust are entirely consistent with one another. Historic preservation is, in part, preservation of community—of the physical reality of town and village and common ground, and the critical ideas behind these things—as much as it is the preservation of special and unique artifacts of our architectural history. And if historic preservation is preservation of community, then it is also preservation of land, and preservation of our natural heritage. I say this not to impinge on the turf of the Nature Conservancy and the Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council and all of the other great organizations doing such important work in this area, only to make the point that the National Trust as an organization, and all of us as individual preservationists, are their natural partners. The work we do, and the work they do, all goes together. And we need them, as they need us. In each case, we are working to keep the public realm strong, in an age in which private needs are often elevated above the public good.

Let me underscore this by talking a bit more about the idea of the public realm today, and how we express it. We are, as I’ve said, more attuned to the value of cities, towns and villages than we were a generation ago, and the preservation movement in general, and the Trust in particular, deserves no small amount of credit for this. The Main Street program of the Trust, which helps to strengthen the cores of small towns that have been so decimated by the massive engine of sprawl, is a key example of the Trust’s wide-ranging influence here, and of its ongoing commitment. I think the Main Street program has probably done as much if not more than most National Trust Historic Sites to improve the quality of life in this country. After all, a visit to Drayton Hall, say, wonderful as it is, is for most people a special occasion, a one-time event. But if you live in a community in which a Main Street has been brought back to health, preservation has made your life better every day.

But the idea of the connection between the New American City and the New American Landscape that our theme suggests means more than strengthening the alliance between historic preservationists and environmentalists in our ongoing effort to prevent sprawl, urgent thought that is—and I should say here that this is yet another reason that the National Trust is lucky to have Stephanie Meeks, since her background with the Nature Conservancy means she understands how important it is for preservation to be allied with the environmental movement. But I raise this to make a broader point, which is about the nature of the public realm, and the way we are interpreting it today, which is inevitably different from the way we did in the past. Central Park remains the greatest single example in the United States of an urban landscape created as a public realm, and one of the most brilliant works of American design, period. And thanks to an extraordinary act of historic preservation by the Central Park Conservancy, it is now in superb shape, ready for another century of ongoing and intense public use. But our love and admiration for Central Park does not mean that every new example of the public realm that we make needs to be an imitation of it. We are continuing to invent, as such great places as Millennium Park in Chicago, the ongoing Brooklyn Bridge Park in Brooklyn, and the High Line in Manhattan show. Each of these three places is based on a high level of engagement with nature, but in a different way than the one Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux gave us in Central Park. These new public realms are not rolling, picturesque landscapes, but more active, more intense in a way, with some elements that resemble piazzas, as in Millennium Park, or promenades as in the High Line, the mile long park constructed atop an abandoned elevated freight line, which is surely the most inventive, not to say exhilarating, new public space New York has seen in a very long time.

We have a new kind of public realm now, a public realm for the twenty-first century, based less on the idea of escape from the city as celebration of it. There is no less commitment to the natural environment for this: the level of plantings in the High Line, or in the Katherine Gustafson-designed garden area in Millennium Park, or at Brooklyn Bridge Park, is as sophisticated as anywhere, and as precisely wrought. But each of these places presumes a degree of active engagement along with the rest, the visual variety, and the joy that a connection with nature brings, and each is a place in which, as in a great urban piazza, we expect to see other people and we find that our experience is not diminished by this, but enhanced. As much of the pleasure of Trafalgar Square or the Tuileries or the Piazza San Marco comes from the crowds that share the experience of being there with you, so too is it at the High Line, or in Millennium Park. That, I would argue, is where the Next American City meets the Next American Landscape—in these public landscapes of engagement, these new public places in which the idea of the active, vibrant city with nature as a critical part of it, is so fully, and so powerfully, expressed. We no longer think that the primary reason for being of the public park is to be an antidote to the city, for the same reason that we do not see the city solely as a necessary evil that we must put up with, as a place to tolerate rather than to love.

By this I don’t mean to diminish the distinction between city and landscape, or to suggest that great public landscapes do not provide a glorious and essential counterpoint to the rest of urban life. And I also know that one of Frederick Law Olmsted’s chief motivations in the design of Central Park was to celebrate the democratic idea, and create a place in which the various classes of society, who lived such separate lives most of the time, might cross paths comfortably amid bucolic surroundings. In that sense Olmsted, genius that he was, created in Central Park not only the model for the idea of the park as rustic escape, but also set the tone for the new American landscape we are talking about today, the public realm of engagement.

I asked a moment ago what all of this has to do with preservation, and with the things that have brought us here to Austin this week. Celebrating the public realm in both the new and inviting American city and the new and engaging American landscape is, I think, getting to the essence of why we are preservationists in the first place. We save things in part out of a sheer love of them as objects, out of a recognition that as their beauty moves us, it will move others, and that we owe it to those who will come after us to give them a chance to have the same experience that we have had, to be excited and moved by wonderful and special things, and to learn from them. And we save buildings also because we know we have a duty to history to conserve important pieces of our culture—to many people, letting a building by Frank Lloyd Wright be torn down is no different from letting a painting by Cezanne be tossed into the trash heap. So we save buildings to be culturally responsible, just as we also preserve to be environmentally responsible.

All of these are noble reasons, and I share them. But we are preservationists also, I think, for more selfish reasons, and I use that word not to be critical but to say the opposite—we preserve not only to save for the future, and not only out of the duty to save cultural artifacts, but also because we know these places we have saved will make our lives better, right here and right now. So when I speak of one of the reasons for preservation as being selfish, what I really mean is to take it away from the dutiful, and acknowledge that we preserve what we love and admire because it makes our lives, and the communities in which we live our lives, better today. Maybe selfish really isn’t the right word. Maybe I should just refer to this reason for preservation as honest.

To believe that we preserve because it makes life better now is not, I should point out, a justification for escaping into the past, for using the past as a way of rejecting the present. To me, that has always been the least convincing reason for preservation. I have no interest in preservation as a vehicle for pretending that we live in another era. Save pretend games for Disneyland. There is a huge difference between using preservation to deny the present, and using it to enrich the present.
We preserve because we know that preservation is almost always going to enrich the present, because, to return again to that wonderful line of Lewis Mumford’s, in a city “time becomes visible,” and preservation is one of the key ways in which we assure that time continues to be visible. A place that is all new, no matter how well designed it is, has none of the resonance that only the breadth and depth of time can bring. Preservation gives our communities resonance. It reminds us that these places were here before us, and that they will remain after us. It allows our cities to contain what Vincent Scully has memorably called a conversation between the generations, across time—a conversation that architecture conducts in public, in front of us every day, as no other art can.

The final reason we are preservationists, I would hope, is closely related to this, and we might think of it as being because we want to make sure that the conversation across the generations doesn’t stop. I believe in preservation, in part, because I believe that it is one of the most important ways to inspire the new, and to assure that we continue to create architecture that is beautiful and meaningful and serves the needs of communities. It may seem paradoxical, that holding onto the old helps to create the new, but it does, by reminding all of us, architects and non-architects alike, that everything we build is part of a larger conversation, and that we have a responsibility to contribute to that conversation. Preservation is not about the past. It has never been only about the past. If we are thinking of it at its best, at its highest potential, preservation is about the present and, even more, about the future.

horizontal line