Philip Johnson, perhaps best known as the architect of the transparently elegant Glass House in New Canaan, Connecticut, once called preservation a “phony movement” and insisted that it should be based on “architectural quality” and aesthetics rather than on history or emotional attachments to place. In his book Buildings, Landscapes, and Memory: Case Studies in Historic Preservation, Daniel Bluestone examines 10 case studies, in part to counter that absolutist view.
One of the problems with aesthetics-driven preservation is evident in post-World War II Chicago, where “the center of gravity in preservation shifted from sites valued for historical association to aesthetically notable buildings, especially those connected with the rise of what historians were increasingly describing as a Chicago School of Architecture,” Bluestone writes. So preservation “came to encompass only a handful of sites with buildings by Louis Sullivan, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Burnham & Root, while abandoning huge swaths of the 19th-century city.
Two early examples of local governments zeroing in on preservation are Charleston, South Carolina, and Santa Fe. In 1931, Charleston created an architectural review board in response to concerns that historical homes were being compromised by a proliferation of gas stations in certain neighborhoods. Twenty-six years later, the City of Santa Fe passed its Historic Styles Ordinance, with rules for new homes (and remodels of old homes) in the central historical district enforced by the Historic Design Review Board.
In 1961, the Historic Santa Fe Foundation was established following the destruction of the century-old Simon Nusbaum House. The national historical-preservation movement got another impetus two years later after New York City’s Pennsylvania Station was demolished. Among the cases covered in Buildings, Landscapes, and Memory — which won the Antoinette Forrester Downing Award from the Society of Architectural Historians in April — are the campaign to save Chicago’s famous 1892 vintage Mecca Flat Apartments, the disappearance of Dutch homesteads in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn, and the demolition of 37 blocks on the Mississippi riverfront to construct the St. Louis Gateway Arch.
Bluestone directs the historic preservation program at the University of Virginia, designed by President Thomas Jefferson. The university, a World Heritage Site, has been at the center of preservation controversies. Famed architect Louis Kahn was hired, and then let go, in an early-1960s initiative to design a new chemistry building at UVA. The university’s motives — to heighten the chem department’s national reputation and help retain brilliant, younger faculty members — were understandable, but it might have been naive to expect that Khan would design a building that did not clash with all that vintage context. After all, he was working at the same time on the amazing Bangladesh National Parliament House.
Architect James Polshek, who designed the 1998 Santa Fe Opera theater, was retained and then dismissed as the designer of a mid-2000s expansion project at UVA. The situation, which echoed what had happened with Kahn, provoked a letter from UVA School of Architecture faculty members, who suggested that interested individuals, after surveying the campus, should wonder why Jefferson’s spirit of design innovation had “been allowed to degenerate into a rigid set of stylistic prescriptions.
In response, local neotraditionalists warned that the university community should not defer to what it labeled “the Modernist architectural establishment.” The architecture faculty, including W.G. Clark and William Sherman, responded in part by designing two additions to the school’s Campbell Hall “that reflected a deeper understanding of Jefferson and of architectural excellence than anything produced by the neotraditionalists,” Bluestone writes.
“No one ever accused my colleague, W.G. Clark, of being a preservationist, but that’s a building that’s more profoundly Jeffersonian than any other of the bad buildings that have been added to that campus in the last 180 years,” Bluestone said in a telephone interview from Washington, D.C., where he is a fellow in the Garden and Landscape Studies Program at Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection. “That’s the elevation that most people approaching the building [Campbell Hall] encounter first, and what they encounter, through these wide-open concrete spans, is the life of the school. Jefferson was committed to using architecture to build community in interesting ways by connecting buildings and landscapes, and that’s exactly what this incredibly modern addition to Campbell Hall does.”
This type of debate is familiar in Santa Fe’s architectural circles. “I know that Santa Fe has had a very strict design code,” Bluestone said. “My feeling is that in many situations you end up trivializing the historic buildings by being mute or politely background and suggesting that history ended back then.
“I care deeply about historic buildings, and I engage in preservation advocacy left, right, and center. It’s part of my DNA, and I think there are all kinds of great reasons why historic preservation should be viewed as the keystone of sustainability, but I also worry that there are times when those feelings about historic preservation end up trivializing the production of the built environment, and often treating places as if they’re theme parks.
“If you’re consistently committed to having nothing but compatibility and harmony, or imitations of the historic resource you value, if you’re committed to what I call tiptoe contextualism, acting as if the 20th and 21st centuries haven’t happened, you actually make it more difficult for people to understand that the past leads right up to them. I think we should do everything we can to help people understand that preservation is not only about preserving the past but about helping people engage the past in the context of the present — and in a way that lets them think critically about what they’re doing today and where we’re headed in the future.”
Some of the best things about Santa Fe are the old, uneven buildings and old, uneven brick sidewalks, such as along the Arias de Quiros site on East Palace Avenue, and the Old World-evoking narrow and winding streets on the Eastside, where wealthy newer owners have erected uninterrupted expanses of 6-foot faux-adobe privacy walls that yield a “tunnel look” similar to what was there with the old, real adobes of yore, which had defense-oriented, mostly blank walls built right at the street. And finally there are the smells that enliven the architectural history: chiles roasting in the fall, piñon burning in winter fireplaces, and tamales being made at La Casa Sena or The Shed, both also in that old Arias de Quiros stretch.
So much of what’s happening with modern architecture in the city — including the proliferation of pseudoadobes — is determined with tourism in mind. “The tourists are not the problem,” Bluestone said. “It is the idiots who think they know what tourists want and desire and think and need. It is the people that set out to coddle and swaddle tourists at every turn, not realizing that they really want some connection to authenticity. I will take your smells and unevenness every day of the week over the faux landscapes being manufactured by people who simply don’t know much about anything.”
Bluestone had nothing but praise for Santa Fe’s recent adaptive-reuse projects, including the transformation of the old Sears warehouse into the first of the Railyard Galleries buildings and the ongoing work converting the old St. Vincent Hospital to a Drury Hotel. But in the interview, he took special exception to the blanket proscription against contemporary design in the downtown, here and elsewhere.
“The rules that have guided many architectural review boards and design-control districts actually have said up front that they wanted to have contemporary style, they want the new to look new and the old to look old, but then they turn on a dime and say they want material and height and setback compatibility: we want it to blend in harmoniously.”
A bottom line is that there is no easy formula on this issue. These will always be matters for debate. “Yes, and that’s probably the best thing — to be able to sit around with people who care deeply about a place and to have designers have input and adapt to what they hear from local residents. The real problem is this: many of the design guidelines in a place like Santa Fe aim at the lowest common denominator. They just want to prevent bad architects or bad design from screwing up a place that they value. But it’s almost impossible to write a design code that insists on good architecture. We tend to end up with an almost formulaic approach, and I think that leads to banality. It’s focused much more on doing no harm rather than figuring out how to encourage excellence.
“We ought to say, let’s end up with a building that makes this a more interesting place rather than a less interesting place.” ◀
“Buildings, Landscapes, and Memory: Case Studies in Historic Preservation” by Daniel Bluestone is published by W.W. Norton & Company.