Sunday, March 27, 2011

Historic Preservation and the Modern: Not Just Age--But Also Significance--Before Beauty (with some new debate)

The piece on modernist architecture and preservation that I mentioned back in January finally appeared at the Public Humanist last month, and I'll link to it now both because it bears on many issues regularly discussed here and because it marks something of a departure.

I was asked to join the bloggers there because of my work on the history of books, media, and literary life, and I was delighted to do so. (Indeed, and ironically, in attempting to address other topics here, I have struggled to find time for my own book blog, which I'm in the process of revitalizing.)  More specifically:  The Public Humanist, as the masthead explains, is a blog project of the Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities, and the Foundation is one of the sponsors of the Massachusetts Center for the Book, on whose Board I sit.

But many of us who blog there have multiple interests, and so, as we were deliberating on what topics to cover in the new year, I said that I would be interested in writing about historic preservation, which also falls under the rubric of public humanities.

The endlessly energetic editor and Senior Program Officer Hayley Wood likes to pair pieces on the same general topic. They don't have to be more directly related than that. And so, confronting a blank page (now: screen), the author faces the eternal question: what to write about?  I had various topics in mind, and none quite satisfied me. That is part of the challenge of this arrangement in this medium:  The editor needs to be able to plan, and so she solicits pieces from us well in advance, generally on a quarterly basis. On the other hand, one of the prime characteristics of the blogosphere (like the classic periodical) is immediacy. There are any number of things that I could write about at any given moment, and not necessarily time-sensitive topics, at that. That said, currency and serendipity are important, and sometimes things just come come together at a given moment.  One often does not know until one starts to write. 

When I read the other post on historic preservation, I decided that it provided me with the entrée that I had been looking for. Mine is not a response or a riposte, and rather, a sort of complement or extension of the conversation.

Anyway, here's the piece (or the beginning, at any rate):
In his January 10 post, Patrick Vitalone asked: why do we save historic resources? and which? Citing two cases involving modernist architecture, with whose outcome he disagreed, he furthermore asked whether preservation is “to be an unwavering commitment to any and all history, even if the ugliness of the past prevents the beautiful construction of something new?”
Honestly, I know of no properly trained preservationist who thinks that we can (or should even try) “to preserve everything and anything,” much less, condemn our communities to aesthetic oblivion for the sake of abstract ideals. I suppose I can understand the frustration, though. Here in Amherst, a grassroots coalition called Preserve UMass (PUMA) temporarily halted construction of a new campus recreation center, which threatened the century-old Stucco Cow Barn that embodied the University’s pioneering role in scientific agriculture. Our Historical Commission (which I chair) has come in for criticism for imposing demolition delays on an industrial barn and a historic fence, and for attempting to provide protection for resources through creation of a local historic district. The public is commendably devoted to history and historic sites but not necessarily well informed about preservation principles and practices. (read the rest)

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