Owlish points to this thought-provoking op-ed in the New York Times from a few days back by the architecture critic for The New Republic, Sarah Williams Goldhagen, responding to architect Rem Koolhaas’ recent accusations that preservationists “cherry-pick the past”, “destroy people’s complex sense of the urban environment” and all too often are caught snogging with developers.
Here’s a blurb from Koolhaas’ exhibit description on the New Exhibitions Museum website…
Koolhaas seeks to find what the future of our memory will look like, and how our obsession with heritage is creating an artificial re-engineered version of our memory. Lacking a set of coherent strategies or policies and generally not engaged by architects and designers, preservation is an under-examined topic, but increasingly relevant as we enter an age of “Cronocaos,” in which the boundaries between preservation, construction, and demolition collapse, forever changing the course of linear evolution of time.
Hmm…I wonder what Koolhaas would say a natural, non-“re-engineered” memory looks like.
Williams argues that while there’s some truth to Koolhaas’ critiques – and I would perhaps add a dash of “Hello Pot, my name is Kettle!” – preservation is not actually the cause these problems. Instead, it’s a stop-gap measure acting as a very blunt tool in lieu of more comprehensive city planning departments, which should be considering preservation and development in the same breath.
She goes on to give an insightful and concise history of the preservation movement – including when things came to a head in the mid-1960s when the public decided it had had enough with urban renewal projects blindly tearing down their physical history (see NYC’s Penn Station above) – up to the present day when in many cities around the country “decisions about managing urban development are frequently framed as decisions about what or what not to preserve, with little sense of how those decisions affect the surrounding neighborhood.”
Instead of bashing preservation, we should restrict it to its proper domain. Design review boards, staffed by professionals trained in aesthetics and urban issues and able to influence planning and preservation decisions, should become an integral part of the urban development process. At the same time, city planning offices must be returned to their former, powerful role in urban policy.
We can argue all day about the “proper” role of government in urban planning, but it’s hard to argue that preservation ordinances all too often step in to fill a larger policy void in the present day. Decatur has had its fair share of examples of historic districts spurred on mainly to impose height of size limits – from Old Decatur’s historic status stemming from the never-built condos on Hillyer to the Oakhurst kerfuffle over whether it should become a historic district due to the number of tear downs and larger new construction.
The 2010 Strategic Plan task 3a aims at tackling some of what’s lacking in our current planning, by adopting “new transitional design standards to integrate commercial, mixed-use, and residential districts.”, while Goal 4 looks to “encourage the preservation of neighborhoods and appropriate
reuse of historic structures.” It will be interesting to see how an if these policies combined will create an even more precise and acceptable preservation policy going forward.