Building Tomorrow’s Heritage: Making Places For All, By All

By Special Contributor posted 05-20-2020 14:54


By: Michael W. Mehaffy and Nikos A. Salingaros

Editor’s note: This is the fourth and final essay in a series about recent lessons from the sciences for historic preservation and compatible new development. The authors—an urban researcher and philosopher, and a mathematician/physicist— explore emerging scientific findings about historic structures, and discuss lessons for generating more sustainable and resilient human environments. 


LEFT: The historic context of a new Nobel Museum in Stockholm, where a modernist design (shown below) was recently denied approval after widespread public protests. RIGHT: The existing Nobel Museum in its traditional historic setting. | Photos: Google Maps, Bahnfrend via Wikimedia Commons.

 The challenge of new construction in historic settings is surely one of the most difficult for proponents of historic preservation. Often these projects prove highly divisive, pitting long-time allies against one another—for example, neighborhood activists and historic preservationists against architects and housing affordability advocates. Nor are such controversial projects exceptional, since historic settings usually include large areas of city centers, which are already struggling to balance many other competing and contentious issues. 

Unfortunately, existing guidelines don’t help the parties to “get to yes.” For example, Article 9 of the 1964 Venice Charter states that new work in historic districts “must bear a contemporary stamp.” Many architects and review boards interpret this passage as mandating one particular style “of our time”—minimalist modernism. The results do not go well with local residents. 

A case in point is in Stockholm, where proposals were recently advanced for a new Nobel Museum building (top photo, and photos below). Citizens there protested strongly that the proposals were out of place in the beautiful historic site, out of scale, and downright ugly. In the end, the Swedish Land and Environment Court sided with the citizens and rejected the winning proposal, finding that it “would affect the readability of Stockholm’s historical development as a port, shipping and trading city.” 

The irony is that the Venice Charter doesn’t actually impose a modernist style, or any other. In fact, there are many ways that a project can “bear a contemporary stamp,” including changes in materials or colors, or even a literal date stamp, like in the building below.


This building in the Alphabet Historic District of Portland, Oregon bears a literal “contemporary stamp” giving the date of its construction as 1992. No one can confuse this building with its historic neighbors!

A goal we can agree with is that viewers who are trying to understand the chronology of historic environments should be able to interpret them legibly. Conservators have no need, and no business, requiring that any particular style should be enforced today. 

On the other hand, the often overlooked Article 6 of the Venice Charter is very clear about the importance of remaining compatible with context

The conservation of a monument implies preserving a setting which is not out of scale. Wherever the traditional setting exists, it must be kept. No new construction, demolition or modification which would alter the relations of mass and color must be allowed. 

But there is a deeper issue here. A building is not only a historic monument, nor a piece of architectural art; it is a place of complex human activities and interactions, affecting human health and well-being. We must therefore balance our prerogatives as conservators, or as architects, with the needs and desires of users, informed by the science as well as the judgments of citizens who are democratic participants in the planning process.


Four of the proposed designs for the new Nobel Museum in Stockholm. The design on the far right was the one selected by the museum management, but ultimately rejected by the Swedish Land and Environment Court following massive public protest. | Photos: Nobelhuis AB.

In that spirit, if we want to “get to yes”—particularly in the context of planning review in a democracy—it’s important to respect the broadest public consensus, and not impose our own professional prerogatives and natural biases.

This issue can be particularly challenging for those of us who work in the architecture field—Research shows that the preference of architects for building designs often diverges remarkably from the preferences of most other citizens. This is a rather embarrassing research finding, but it is backed by hard data. The evidence points to a number of factors for this divergence, including architects’ training, professional ideology, and the natural bias and “psychological distance” that occurs within any profession. This is not a challenge only for architects.

As built environment professionals of any kind, we must ask ourselves the question, “for whom (and with whom) do we build?” Do we have a broader professional and civic responsibility to create works that most users will consider satisfying or even beautiful? This matters particularly when we consider that universally well-liked buildings are most likely to endure and sustain—as the heritage we admire today has done. The research also points to other, deeper connections to sustainability.

There is surely an important place for the art of architecture in the built environment, beyond mere comfort or entertainment. There is a place for the beauty of functionality, sustainability and equity. But as the urbanist Jane Jacobs famously pointed out in The Death and Life of Great American Cities, the art of a living city has a specific kind of job to do, to “illuminate the relationship between the life that each of us embodies and the life outside us.” However, this role of art in city-making is fundamentally different from the art of a gallery or private home: it must serve to enrich the daily life around us. This art is closer to H. D. Thoreau’s definition, that “the greatest art is to shape the quality of the day.”

When we confuse this relationship, Jacobs pointed out, we make the mistake of “attempting to substitute art for life.” The result of that profound confusion, she said, is “a life-killing (and art-killing) misuse of art” whose results “impoverish life instead of enriching it.” This is bad for cities… and bad for art too.

So how did this “abstract-art-led approach” come to dominate the professions of environmental design and development? As we have described extensively elsewhere, this system has its origins in the historic environmental industrialization of the early 20th Century. Architectural theorists, beginning with Adolf Loos and continuing with Walter Gropius, Sigfried Giedion, and others, argued that architecture as an art had to henceforth engage the relatively crude industrial forms of that day, using them to compose alluring abstract expressions for the restless industrial spirit of that age. This was considered the only “authentic” architecture.

Whether or not that was true, we have certainly lost the exuberance of that early modernist era, replaced by a more circumspect and tentative post-modern understanding. Yet curiously, its minimalist, “abstract-art-led approach” is still very much with us. And it is long overdue for deeper reforms.

Few people seem willing to defend the general quality of buildings today, compared against the best of our heritage. It is not only the “perfume-bottle” buildings of “star” architects, but the ugly strip malls, forgettable cookie-cutter housing, sprawling big-box parking lots, and endless warehouses, that seem to desecrate the landscape. Most people, including architects, blame others for the current mess: it’s the greed of developers, or the crazy thicket of regulations, or the unsophisticated tastes of consumers, or the selfishness of citizens, or the dictates of capital, or…


A new “perfume bottle” building in Stockholm, an example of “star” architecture as abstract art. It does make some sort of artistic impact from a distance. But does it create a beautiful, comfortable, healthy human habitat for the surrounding citizens? Is it a worthy example of “tomorrow’s heritage?” | Photo: the authors.

All these factors are real, but they are symptoms of a deeper problem, the idea that industrial technology, and the abstract art that commodifies it, must override and marginalize essential human needs and biological sensibilities. The professional retreat behind abstract art translates into the minimalist visual systems that we build into our world, in both the work of “starchitects” as well as the stripped-down, paper-thin veneer imitations that constitute the vast bulk of today’s built environment.

By comparison, people admire historic buildings and neighborhoods, finding in them something beautiful, commodious, enduring, and yes, sustainable, since these buildings have endured and sustained for generations. It is understandable to ask, why can’t we have more of the ordinary beneficial qualities of those older buildings, instead of gigantic sculptures with questionable human traits? Why can’t we have an artistic expression of power, and also instinctive beauty, comfort, and delight? 

Many of these people also feel, without knowing exactly why, that more is at stake than mere taste—that our built environment today somehow degrades their civic heritage, their quality of life, and even their health and well-being. New research increasingly reveals that they are right

The answer lies in part in shifting from an artistic (short-term fashion) to a medical (long-term healing) evaluation of design, drawing lessons from the demonstrable benefits of heritage environments. There is no shortage of emerging scientific research evidence about the design criteria that will draw healthy, instinctive reactions from users. Environmental psychology, health science, mathematics, and neuroscience (among other scientific disciplines) are producing many useful new tools and methods, including biophilia, fractals, neuroarchitecture, pattern languages, form languages, and generative processes. All these things are connected to our health and well-being, including our social and ecological well-being. 

So, what can responsible professionals and concerned citizens do? We conclude with six recommendations. 

  1. Challenge society to critically re-examine the “abstract-art-led approach” and its evident failures. Focus instead on the well-being of users, as defined by science and not wishful design thinking, while integrating the art harmoniously into that larger human responsibility.
  2. Oppose projects that are overly reliant on discordant, large-scale abstract sculptural forms; press instead for adaptive art in the details, enriching the ordinary daily life around it.
  3. Press for reform of outmoded 20th Century guideline documents or their interpretation, such as the Venice Charter’s Article 9.
  4. Question the orthodoxy of “that was then, but this is now” thinking—that we must never again build by applying the treasures of centuries of accumulated beauty and human success. It is long past time to abandon that dogmatic ban.
  5. Avoid arguments over “style,” and focus instead on the geometries that have been shown most likely, by the evidence of history, to promote human and ecological well-being. These include fractal scaling, networks, patterning, grouping, ornamental detailing, and the proven form languages that can reliably generate these more sustainable, resilient, life-enhancing structures.
  6. Work toward “win-win” partnerships that bring stakeholders and professionals together to forge a common vision based on our common humanity. Partner to develop streamlined, affordable, ecological, fast-tracked projects—an approach we may call QUIMBY, or “Quality In My Back Yard.” 

The coronavirus pandemic has exposed many of the profound weaknesses in our modern systems: the inequities, the fragmentation, and the consequences of particular building patterns. For example, we will have to re-examine our habit of over-crowding people in the “choke points” of elevators and lobbies within mega-structures. We can also re-examine some good solutions from the past for “sociable distancing” within public space, like the humble but effective front porch. 

Above all we have surely learned that the built environment has a profound impact on our health and well-being. To deal with our challenges, it will take more than metaphorical art and bolt-on gadgets. While art and aesthetics have a vital role to play, above all we need a more joined-up, evidence-based approach, more rooted in the science. With that approach, we have the opportunity to achieve a more enriching and more sustainable architecture, and one more worthy of tomorrow’s heritage.

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. The authors shared the 2018 Clem Labine Traditional Building Award, and Salingaros won the 2019 Stockholm Cultural Award for Architecture.


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