Building Tomorrow’s Heritage: What Historic Structures Can Teach Us About Making a Better Future

By Special Contributor posted 02-26-2019 17:32


By Michael W. Mehaffy and Nikos A. Salingaros

This is the first post in a series about recent lessons from the sciences for historic preservation and compatible new development. The authors—a physicist and mathematician and an urban researcher and philosopher—explore emerging scientific findings about historic structures and discuss lessons for generating more sustainable and resilient human environments.

For almost a century now, the mantra of architecture and urban development has been, “Out with the old, in with the exciting and new!” But it wasn’t always so: although all periods have certainly seen radical innovations, many of the 20th century’s breathtaking transformations in the human environment came from particular—and historically unique—ideas about change. Those ideas were grounded in, by today’s standards, obsolete scientific and cultural theories of the era—notably a relatively rigid mechanical conception of nature, including human nature, and a blind faith in technology. This faith would be charmingly naïve if not for its disastrous and wide-ranging impact. While the sciences and humanities have since moved on, the consequences of these primitive ideas are still very much with us today. We would do well to assess what reforms in architecture and urban development are still necessary, and older historic structures provide us with a very instructive evidence base against which to perform that assessment.

In 1939, a generation of Americans was entranced by "Futurama," the General Motors exhibit at the World's Fair. It  showed a vision of a mechanized urban future—with large swaths of existing areas demolished—based on Le Corbusier's radical ideas. | Credit: General Motors Archive

Perhaps no document better expresses early-20th-century thinking than the highly influential 1933 “Charter of Athens,” later written up and published by architect Le Corbusier. It famously argued for the destruction of huge swaths of historic districts and buildings for the sake of a more sanitary, more modern city. A few rare specimens were to be preserved in amber, as it were. Article 66 of the charter states that “only the portion that constitutes a memorial or a real asset can be separated from the rest”—and “the rest” were to be unceremoniously demolished.

It wasn’t just the buildings themselves, but all the aesthetic, stylistic, and tectonic characteristics of previous eras, or what we might now call their “form languages,” that were also to be banished never to return, per Article 70:

The practice of using styles of the past on aesthetic pretexts for new structures erected in historic areas has harmful consequences. Neither the continuation of such practices nor the introduction of such initiatives will be tolerated in any form. Such methods are contrary to the great lesson of history. Never has a return to the past been recorded, never has man retraced his own steps.

These are remarkable statements. What are these “harmful consequences”? And then, “Never has a return to the past been recorded”? Does that mean the Renaissance never happened? No Thomas Jefferson returning to Andrea Palladio; no Palladio returning to Vitruvius? No Arts and Crafts movement reviving centuries of beautiful European vernacular? No Inigo Jones drawing on an older Italy, shaping London’s much-loved Georgian squares?

It bears noting that, on the evidence, these and many other forms of “revival” architecture, are clearly adaptable and sustainable. Indeed, they represent some of the most enduring, successful, well-loved places in human history. And yet, according to the charter’s peculiar idea, we must never, ever build anything like them again? 

To many of our architectural historian colleagues, the ideology behind Le Corbusier’s prohibition is as absurdly ignorant as it is fanatically intolerant. The history of the human environment is—or had been, until then—a fugue of forms and patterns, going and coming back again, recapitulating and recombining. It showed the hallmarks of a powerful evolution: building on the “genetic” information of previous generations, becoming richer and more complex as it borrowed and synthesized. 

This view of change over time is familiar to any biologist. For a biological system, sweeping away the past and starting anew, without the benefit of the past’s genetic evolution, would constitute a catastrophic and destructive event—the genetic equivalent of starting life over with single-celled bacteria. Evolution is not about doing away with the old, save for a few relics, and starting with a radical newness. Instead, building blocks of the past are recombined to achieve ever more adaptive complexity and resilience. The process is not static, but neither is it only about change: it is rather about preserving and building on the tested and proven accomplishments of the past. 

But the disruptive ideas behind the Athens Charter have had an enormous and profound influence on the last century of the human environment—an influence that is still with us and manifests in numerous ways. For example, many people today still accept without question the assumption that new buildings must be “of their time” and not “copy” the past—even though many of the most successful, most loved buildings and places of history did precisely that. 

Cities as Complex Adaptive Systems

In the early 20th century, we were only beginning to understand biological complexity and the evolutionary features of complex adaptive systems. Only decades later would we begin to see that human structures also exhibit some of the same features. Later-20th-century writers like Jane Jacobs applied these new lessons to human environments with seminal observations about “organized complexity.” Jacobs in particular made a direct comparison to the biological sciences, in which she found architecture and urban planning deficient. In “The Death and Life of Great American Cities,” she wrote that cities “happen to be problems in organized complexity, like the life sciences ... the variables are many, but they are not helter-skelter; they are ‘interrelated into an organic whole.’” Unfortunately, she concluded, “the theorists of conventional modern city planning have consistently mistaken cities as problems of simplicity and of disorganized complexity.” 

Since then, the sciences have revealed other previously overlooked but desirable qualities of historic buildings. One of the most astonishing comes from the fields of medicine, environmental psychology, and neuroscience: the impact of the environment on human health and well-being. For example, we can study how comfortable people are around certain kinds of structures—or even how prone they are to stress and to illness because of the surrounding environment, including buildings. Not surprisingly, emotional and psychological comfort comes from legibility, coherence, symmetry, enveloping spaces, detailed and ornamented surfaces, colors, and details—that is, the very characteristics that were abundant in human environments before the 20th century. 

Gothic cathedrals, like Salisbury Cathedral (left) in Salisbury, England, are generally quite simple vault forms enriched by enormously complex decorative structures. The art illuminates, but does not supplant, the natural structure. By contrast, the Church of Saint Paul the Apostle (right) in Foligno, Italy, imposes its art in a large-scale sculptural form. Its severe rectilinear geometry also violates right-angle symmetries and defies, instead of embellishing, natural gravitational forces. | Credits: Left: Photo by Diliff is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0; right: Maurizio Marcato

The healing effects of historic buildings, which are felt viscerally, emerged from the adaptive processes that shaped people’s habitats in highly local and differentiated contexts. These processes relied on patterns that had previously shown their adaptive value, and that people then added to, combined, and enriched to produce something that reflected universal qualities, but was nonetheless uniquely adapted to a particular time and place. For example, the Moorish architecture of the Alhambra in Grenada both enriched Spanish architecture and later mixed with indigenous patterns to influence a distinctive and well adapted regional architecture in the Hispanic settlements of the New World. 

When new technologies like glass windows or electric lights came along, they did not override the natural requirements of placemaking or merely become gimmicks to create gigantic or bizarre new artistic forms. Instead, people integrated them into the natural structures of place and culture that possessed legibility and psychological coherence. Their art served to illuminate life, not to displace it. 

Seen in this light, many so-called “modern” structures begin to look quite peculiar. These are buildings that lack essential healing qualities—and do so intentionally. They are clearly making an attention-getting statement, a declaration of separation from nature and from time, and a claim to a kind of eternal present. Such structures may indeed be interesting, even visually fascinating, and they may or may not be good-quality giant sculptural art. They are certainly profitable, like a good advertisement shouting, “New! Improved!” But whether they actually address human needs and contribute to long-term human well-being—that is, whether they are human-responsive architecture—is another question. 

The complex tissue of Boston's West End (left), evolved over decades, was demolished in the 1950s—much of it replaced by the radically new buildings of the Government Center (right). | Credit: Left: West End Museum, Boston; right: Photo by NewtonCourt is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 

The Knowledge Inside Historic Buildings

These insights are beginning to transform our understanding of the contemporary value of heritage. We can now see that historic buildings are not mere relics of an obsolete past, but a kind of immense library of knowledge about how to build durable and humanly satisfying buildings, how to achieve healing environments, and how to live well together in cities—which is, after all, an age-old problem. The patterns and processes embedded in these places offer us important resources for building better in the future, particularly in an age of looming urban challenges. We might say that our heritage resides in both the “hardware”—the physical buildings that comprise so many beautiful and enduring parts of cities—and the “software”—the encoded information about how to make such beautiful and durable structures. 

Of course, putting this valuable knowledge to work can be difficult: challenges include costs and diseconomies, lost skills and forgotten practices, regulatory barriers and other disincentives. But these are the usual barriers to any good placemaking project. The most formidable barrier is paradoxically the most nonsensical one: the pervasive but irrational belief that new buildings must not be “a return to the past.” It should now be clear that this prohibition, which pretends to be modern, is itself the outdated relic of a truly obsolete past. 

Michael W. Mehaffy is an urban researcher and philosopher with a Ph.D. in architecture from Delft University of Technology; he teaches and/or performs research at seven universities in six countries. Nikos A. Salingaros is an internationally known urbanist, architectural theorist, author, and professor of mathematics at the University of Texas at San Antonio.