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A "Cacophonous Milieu" Threatens the Preservation Movement`s Core 

12-09-2015 17:35

Activities as varied as restoration, rehabilitation, facadism, and reconstruction are currently accepted by some as valid preservation efforts. Such pluralism is unsettling and has caused antagonism in the preservation community. If preservation`s purpose is to retain significant portions of our built environment in order to exemplify our ancestors` aesthetic aspirations (as well as the way they lived), then we must question whether all of those activities are conducive to achieving that purpose.

Can remnants of a building give a complete picture of the past ways of life? Is a facade the total expression of an architect`s efforts and intentions? How does one decide if the exterior of a building can be segregated from its interior? Which buildings can be changed; which cannot? The fact that there is no consistent response to these queries illustrates the dissonance architects must confront when engaging historic structures.

...As the preservation movement evolved over the years, it grew in many directions giving rise to diverse groups.

For example, we have the fanatics who (like sport fans) blindly support their cause. This is the result of focusing so narrowly on an ideal that the overall perspective is lost.

Then, there are the nostalgics who, yearning for a relationship with the past, will utilize nearly any vehicle available--be it historic structure or replica clothing--to achieve their need for historical bonding.

There are the aesthetics who seek a visual harmony and balance and are willing to forego authenticity to achieve it.

There are the compromisers who seek to achieve progress through any means.

And there are the purists who strive for authenticity and seek acceptability of the existing cultural property with minimal intervention.

All architects are not preservationists....It is quite clear that the architectural community is in need of guidance. But who should provide this guidance?

...Because of the sheer size of its membership, the National Trust has not taken a leadership position on the analysis of what constitutes good and bad preservation or even which course preservation should follow. Furthermore, it is representative of the generalized preservation confusion in that it accepts all of the divergent modalities currently in practice and reports all preservation efforts as valid.

The 1979 Secretary of the Interior`s Standards for Historic Preservation are too lenient and opened the door to potentially serious damage to the architectural patrimony. The 1983 additions [to the standards] have not changed the situation. Even the National Register is suspect, in that all the objects have equal standing save the 1800 properties listed as National Historic Landmarks.

...An additional source of consternation to the preservationists is the indifference with which the interiors of historic structures are treated....There are far fewer extant interiors than significant building shells.

...If all these extreme positions are to be softened into a national consensus towards the significant portions of our architectural environment, a widely accepted preservation policy must be formulated and understood by all those professionals who intervene in these buildings. Policy, of course, must be the offspring of philosophy. Cesare Brandi, an Italian preservationist, has stated that rational preservation philosophy must be based on a thorough understanding of the nature of cultural resources and the purpose of preservation activities.

...The crucial first step [in constructing that policy] lies in gaining the understanding of how artifacts transcend their ordinary nature to become cultural resources. Contrary to the desires of the fanatics, one must begin by accepting that not everything that is old merits retention.

...Once an object achieves sufficient recognition to be called a cultural resource, it is important for the preservationist to identify and isolate those characteristics that have made it valuable to society, since the preservationists will be responsible for the conservation of precisely those characteristics that define the object`s monumental nature. For the architect, the most discernible characteristic in a monumental building or district is the aesthetic one.

Araoz and Schmuecker call the current situation for preservationists a "cacophonous milieu" and decry the "grim conditions": a federal preservation agency with incoherent policy and philosophically adrift; specialists in architectural preservation excluded from the decision-making process; an architectural profession untrained in dealing with monumental buildings and sites, and intervening in them with few and misguided principles; local preservation agencies whose shallow understanding of our architectural patrimony often abets its damage; and a population whose perception of architectural preservation is obfuscated by the wide variety of "historic" projects it is presented with.

Araoz and Schmuecker call upon AIA and its historic resources committee to play a leadership role in establishing a nationally accepted preservation philosophy that addresses:

  • How to correctly assess the aesthetics and historic value of a building.
  • How to link values to the physical fabric in a building.
  • How to assess the relative overall cultural value of a resource within the wider context of similar resources.
  • How to formulate architectural and urban treatments that will protect and conserve the significant values inherent in the resource.

Mr. Araoz and Mr. Schmuecker direct the preservation department of Mariani and Associates, a Washington, D.C., architecture firm that specializes in historic preservation and planning.

Publication Date: Spring 1990


Author(s):Gustavo F. Araoz