Posted: Sat Jun 11, 2011 7:06 am
Death by Nostalgia
By SARAH WILLIAMS GOLDHAGEN
Published: June 10, 2011
THE modern historic preservation movement started in New York City in the early 1960s, when a band of locals pushed the issue into popular awareness with their unsuccessful effort to block the destruction of the old Pennsylvania Station.
Now, nearly a half-century later, New York is home to the most high-profile attack on the movement yet: in a recent exhibition at the New Museum, the architect Rem Koolhaas accused preservationists of aimlessly cherry-picking the past; of destroying people’s complex sense of urban evolution; and, most damningly, of bedding down with private developers to create gentrified urban theme parks.
Some of Mr. Koolhaas’s criticisms are on target — but his analysis is wildly off-base. It’s not preservation that’s at fault, but rather the weakness, and often absence, of other, complementary tools to manage urban development, like urban planning offices and professional, institutionalized design review boards, which advise planners on decisions about preservation and development.
It’s that lack, and the outsize power of private developers, that has turned preservation into the unwieldy behemoth that it is today.
Some historical context is in order. As American cities expanded rapidly between 1890 and 1930, urban dwellers and municipal governments realized that developers, who were building ever-larger and ever-taller buildings, would never reliably serve the public interest.
So cities tried to strike back: Manhattan’s hulking Equitable Building, which blocks street-level sunlight practically all day, helped provoke New York’s 1916 zoning resolution that required significant setbacks for tall buildings.
Then, in 1926, the Supreme Court ruled that municipalities could regulate the use of private property based on the broader public interest. Professional city planning was born, but systems to vet building and urban design quality at the federal, state and local levels — common in countries and cities across Europe — were never institutionalized.
By midcentury, professional urban planners were developing and sometimes designing large-scale, long-term regional and urban plans and helping write land-use and other laws to govern urban development’s shape and future.
But without design-review mechanisms, their output of low-quality public housing and ill-conceived megablocks soon turned the public against them. By the late 1960s, an emergent populist, antigovernment sentiment among voters began to shift power back into private hands.
City governments, suffering the economic downturns of the 1970s and ’80s, gave ever more leeway to real estate developers, and ever more voice and political power to hyperlocal community boards; both groups typically focused on their own narrow and usually short-term interests rather than the broader, long-term public good.
As a result, historic preservation laws, which by the late 1970s were increasingly popular in a country bored by modernism and excited by nostalgia, became, de facto, one of city governments’ most powerful instruments for influencing private development.
Tax-starved cities, inspired by earlier preservation projects like Ghirardelli Square in San Francisco and Faneuil Hall in Boston, began to use preservation to create so-called target destinations; New York’s first foray was the initially successful South Street Seaport.
Savvy developers soon began collaborating with cities and preservationists, co-opting the movement for their own interests while capitalizing on the public’s nostalgia for yesteryear. Developers became experts at including just enough of the old — a facade here, a foyer there — to ease the approval process and even win sizable tax breaks on their projects.
In other words, preservation morphed into a four-headed monster: a planning tool, a design review tool, a development tool and a tool to preserve genuinely valuable old neighborhoods and buildings. Today decisions about managing urban development are frequently framed as decisions about what and what not to preserve, with little sense of how those decisions affect the surrounding neighborhood.
Worse, these decisions are mostly left to the whims of overly empowered preservation boards, staffed by amateurs casting their nets too widely and indiscriminately. And too many buildings are preserved not because of their historic value or aesthetic significance, but because of political or economic deal-making.
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.
That’s the way things work in Europe, where vibrant contemporary cities like London, Berlin, Paris and almost any city in the Netherlands blend old and new without effacing their normal evolutionary processes.
As these cities demonstrate, preservation should be one of several instruments necessary for creating livable, attractive and vibrant urban spaces and architecture. Otherwise, in the hands of weak local governments, powerful real-estate interests and untrained panels, it is indeed an impediment to the healthy modernization of our cities: a recipe for aesthetic insipidity and urban incoherence.
Sarah Williams Goldhagen is the architecture critic for The New Republic.