Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Something for Us Preservationists to Chew On

This challenging thesis pops up in an article from the NY Times on the rebuilding of New Orleans:

For decades now, the architectural mainstream has accepted the premise that cities can exist in a fixed point in historical time. What results is a fairy tale version of history, and the consequences could be particularly harsh for New Orleans, which was well on its way to becoming a picture-postcard vision of the past before the hurricane struck. (Read the whole thing.)
To what extent is that also true of designated historic areas in cities all over the U.S. and Europe? And for my own neighborhood?

Is it possible that preservationists like me, in pursuit of preserving the authentic architecture of the past, might actually be creating an inauthentic present?

And if that's the case, what's the best way for us to proceed if we think that old architecture has an important contribution to make to modern life?

Udate: David Boyd sends another view from the WSJ's Opinion Journal. The National Trust for Historic Preservation's Richard Moe says Hold Back Those Bulldozers.


jimcaserta said...

I couldn't follow the NYT article. Preservation is good, but the costs can't be ignored. Faux preservation, creating new developments made to appear like historic neighborhoods is not necessarily good. The NYT article does a poor job of differentiating the two. Check out my post related to yours.

Anonymous said...

The one thing that bothers me about historic neighborhoods is the fear of the eclectic. Preserve existing structures. But when infilling on open lots, don't require faux historic. The counterpoint of a well designed new building next to a historic structure complements the historic building and emphasizes its historic nature. However, by all means, require that new structures are in other ways appropriate to the neighborhood (proper footprint, in a neighborhood like Aycock no attached garages). We can preserve our past without becoming bogged down in trying to recreate it.

David Wharton said...

Good points from both of you.

Jim, I too wrestled with the NYT article and coulnd't get a handle on the writer's point of view.

He seemed hostile to the new urbanism (dismissing it as a "a sentimental and historicist vision of how cities work."

Huh. Well, I've seen some new urbanist neighborhoods that were working very well right now. And what's wrong with a little sentimentality? But there's nothing inherent in new urbanism that's sentimental -- as I understand it, it's simply drawing on the things that have worked in cities for millennia.

Anonymous, you might be surprised to know that G'boro's Historic District Design Guidelines don't require new infill buildings to look historic. A good example of one such house that doesn't look at all old-fashioned is Carl Myatt's house in Fisher Park. Or the new house across the street from me, for that matter.

But the guidelines do require certain design elements, as you say, that helps to harmonize them with the neighborhood.

Anonymous said...

Agreed that if (in a high-demand area) you freeze appearance then other aspects of the neighborhood will change instead - e.g. an "inauthentic present" of the older and more affluent, pushing younger people and families out. I doubt that there's a way around this, short of creating more such areas.

> a sentimental and historicist vision of how cities work

How is "sentimental" different from "evokes feelings of comfort and appreciation"? this *does* make a city work, or at least it helps.

Also, worth "thinking in tree time", to consider what will work in future - after peak oil, new urbanists are more likely to thrive than exurbians.