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AT ISSUE: Past is prologue

As the National Historic Preservation Act turns 50, ArchitectureBoston delves into the questions
percolating through the movement today.

Architecture's stepchild?

The notion of a “preservation architect” has often been treated as an oxymoron, subversive of architecture’s fundamental professional identity as the creator of new buildings. And yet about 70 percent of architects’ billable hours are devoted to existing buildings. The view of the architects doing preservation work as unimaginative, marginal figures is now completely anachronistic; but it still hangs about as a cloying vestige of the mindlessly wasteful go-go days of post–World War II urban renewal and sprawling development practices.

During that period, as schools of architecture embraced modern form and pedagogy, preservation seemed irrelevant and an “obstructionist” threat to architecture. Walter Gropius, as an architecture professor at Harvard, expressed impatience with the “tendency to stand wailing at the grave of the 19th century . . . dissipat[ing] our strength by fighting battles for . . . monuments to a particularly insignificant period . . . which, still unsure of its own mission, threw the Roman toga around its limbs to appease its nagging doubts.” Gropius simply dismissed the 1963 loss of Pennsylvania Station, which preservationists view as foundational in inspiring the emergence of the modern preser­vation movement.

ABOVE: And soon you too shall part, 2014. Linoleum flooring, molding, archival pigment print. 26.75 × 45.5 × 1.25 inches.

Today, 50 years after Gropius’ pronouncements and despite the rise of new urbanism, Postmodernism, and an ethic of sustainability, preservation architecture is still often treated with condescension and hostility. Rem Koolhaas has complained about the “relentless” escalation of the scale of preservation work and the imagined effort to freeze place and identity, which, in his mind, frustrates the natural (and quite lucrative) evolution of architecture, cities, and landscapes. This position is increasingly untenable. Given architecture’s interest in climate change, resource depletion, and LEED Platinum ratings, we can no longer avoid the basic reality that we do not build enough new buildings in a year, a decade, or a generation to make a significant dent in energy consumption, resource depletion, or environmental pollution. We need to preserve our way out of environmental crisis. We need to imaginatively make maximum use of what we already have and build new only what we absolutely require. Historic preser­vation and adaptive reuse, not green building, should properly be conceived of as the keystone of sustainability. Creative and elegant recycling of buildings and cities, not an obsession with shallow fads and passing styles, needs to stand at the forefront of architectural pedagogy and practice.

Currently the National Architectural Accrediting Board does not require historic preservation training in schools of architecture. There is a requirement for education that helps students understand their responsibility for stewardship of the environment and natural resources, but no requirement for drawing the logical conclusion and teaching students how to approach existing buildings and places. Some schools pride themselves on their design-build operations, but we look far and wide to find similar studio or field-based work that starts with an existing building and dives in — not as mere context but as the stuff of architecture itself. Why should student designers have to leave architecture schools and find their way to Boston’s North Bennett Street School or Canada’s Willowbank to find the design challenges of existing buildings treated seriously and professionally?

Viewing preservation architecture as central to the profession, as cutting-edge work, would dovetail nicely with the social and environmental ethics, and community and cultural responsibility that architects cite as essential components of practice. So, advice for continuing education for today’s architects and architects-to-be: Be edgy —  be a preservation architect. ■

Is gentrification inevitable?

The formal preservation movement in the United States started inauspiciously in 1931, when South Carolina authorities moved working-class African-Americans into New Deal–funded housing and away from Charleston’s “Old and Historic District.” Preservation is no longer used as an excuse for such blatant removal of lower-income families; however, some argue that it still has the pernicious effect of eliminating economic diversity. In his 2010 City magazine article, “Preservation Follies,” Harvard economist Ed Glaeser reports that housing costs rose disproportionately in Manhattan zip codes with historically protected neighborhoods, as the percentage of well-to-do, white, college-educated families likewise increased. In my home city of Cambridge, Massachusetts, approximately 3,100 buildings have historical protection via conservation districts, landmarking, or historic easements. This makes up one-quarter of the city’s buildings, and it’s hard to imagine this doesn’t have an impact on housing costs.

Yet research on the question is inconclusive. Jacob Vigdor’s study of Boston’s South End observed that demographic change started sometime in the 1960s, while the neighborhood didn’t become a landmark district until 1983. The study lists many potential causes of gentrification: increases in income disparity, an improved labor market, better public services, and property tax decreases. Preservation is not one of them.

In fact, the inverse of the original question appears to be true: Gentrification may lead to preservation, used as a tool for establishing urban stasis. A typical local example is the Cambridge Historical Commission’s attempt to landmark part of East Cambridge in the 1970s. The idea was defeated in the working-class community because of citizens’ concerns about being told how to maintain their houses. In contrast, the first conservation district in the city was established only after Mid-Cambridge — the city’s third-wealthiest and most educated neighborhood —  requested the designation in 1983. Residents were less apprehensive about increased maintenance costs and more concerned about retaining value in the midst of the construction of Modernist mid-rises.

So how do we maintain diversity in gentrified cities with far-reaching historic preservation statutes? Many cities dedicate funds to support the development of affordable housing. The trick is finding properties or lots in historic neighborhoods that can be used for such development. In May 2014, the National Trust for Historic Preservation released a study titled “Older, Smaller, Better,” which found that blocks with a greater range of building ages had greater population density (and, in San Francisco, a greater mix of income levels) than streets with large new buildings. Dense infill development provides a good opportunity to create a diversity of building stock for a diversity of people while maintaining neighborhood quality.

The National Trust also backed recent initiatives, notably in Los Angeles, to lower regulatory barriers and facilitate the conversion of older commercial buildings for residential use, increasing housing stock in historic districts. In addition, cities should allow for supply elsewhere to take pressure off older neighborhoods. Economists often cite Chicago’s lakefront or Miami’s Brickell district as high-rise areas that have effectively reduced demand for housing in historic and working-class neighborhoods close to the city center.

Ultimately, historic preservation should be about diversity that offers a range of options for a variety of families and lifestyles. How we achieve a diversity of residents as well as buildings remains a challenge, but we would not want to live in a city without both. ■

Does restoration trump risk?

ABOVE: Stuffing (245 Varet Street), 2011. Ceiling tiles, metal and wood framing, cardboard fabric spools, wood column, drywall, paint. Dimensions variable.

It’s been 10 years this fall since Hurricane Katrina slammed New Orleans — the worst storm in its history, if you count the ensuing flood. Plus it ignited a conflagration afterward, with planners center stage, debating how and especially where to rebuild. The waters have long receded, but the fires still smolder.

When Katrina arrived, most New Orleanians lived below sea level. Soon after the levees and pumps that kept them dry failed catastrophically, planners descended on a city in crisis, declaring the folly of rebuilding flood-prone neighborhoods. Prematurely, lines were drawn on maps.

The flood devastated the Lower Ninth Ward, a low-income African-American neighborhood abutting the Industrial Canal. It became the focal point of a rebuilding debate pitting “abandonists” —  ecologists and planners mostly from out of town — against “restorationists” — passionate but self-interested local officials and activists.

Into the breach stepped Brad Pitt, who raised funds and recruited prominent architects like Thom Mayne and Frank Gehry to help rebuild the Lower Ninth. Today, dozens of “Make It Right” houses are occupied by families displaced by the storm, reflecting the unresolved incongruities of the debate.

On the one hand, good for them for building while others just brayed. But air-conditioned tour buses now troll the designer houses, which forsake climate-adapted vernacular forms and are tricky to maintain. From a slight distance, they hardly dent the surrounding devastation, their roofs barely visible above the rebuilt levee nearby.

Restorationists note that the Dutch devote a meaningful share of their gross national product to protecting Amsterdam. But the third of Holland below sea level produces most of the country’s GNP. Abandonists, meanwhile, question why we should keep spending public money to perpetuate a mistake and protect neighborhoods that were struggling even before the storm.

Katrina has sobering lessons about the role of planning. Since it fell from grace after urban renewal in the 1960s, the planning enterprise has struggled for traction. Although rebuilding New Orleans could have been a shining moment, consensus proved elusive. Some wanted to let private investment dictate where rebuilding would occur; others wanted a universal “right of return.” In the end, sound planning did not triumph: The levees have been rebuilt even more robustly, but the neighborhoods they shelter have been rebuilt only haphazardly.

How can the lessons of Katrina help “make it right” — or at least better — the next time a community recovers from calamity?

  • Even after a crisis, plan deliberately. Experts from afar should learn how people want to live before asking them to make a difficult rebuilding choice or presuming to act in their best interest.
  • It’s untenable to spend public money to rebuild without asking the cost/benefit question; restoration can’t trump environmental and economic risk every time. But it’s foolish to think the debate ends there; it’s only one factor among many.
  • Forced relocation of residents is toxic, no matter how sensible. When the residents are low-income African-Americans, it wreaks injustice on top of that. Better to offer incentives — even seemingly extravagant ones — and active relocation assistance. The voluntary relocation effort should have as much priority as the planning and engineering.
  • When designing prototype houses for low-income neighborhoods, choose your architects wisely. ■

Can technology redefine craft?

When W. Brown Morton penned the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Historic Preservation in 1976, he addressed the craft aspects of project planning and execution. He could hardly have envisioned that ground-penetrating radar, infrared thermography, and camera-wielding drones — not wood joinery or pointing brickwork — would become the dominant technologies in historic preservation efforts. Conservationists have new materials that can seal masonry and concrete against water penetration, coatings that will bridge active cracks without themselves cracking, and substances that protect iron materials from corrosion.

Perhaps the most exciting uses of these new technologies are in structural engineering. In Italy, the strengthening of unreinforced masonry heritage buildings to resist earthquakes has become legendary, showcased by the rebuilding effort at the Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi. All over the world, structural engineers have new computer-based analytic techniques at their disposal. Older buildings can be mathematically modeled in three dimensions to determine their strengths and weaknesses, as well as to predict the effectiveness of a repair program.

In the United States, structural engineers often find themselves at odds with the Secretary’s standards, which strongly advocate that all interventions be reversible. This is often impossible, as the actions required to save or stabilize a building are so invasive that they can never be reversed.

At Wingspread in Racine, Wisconsin, Frank Lloyd Wright’s largest house, the walls of the octagonal Great Hall were being pushed out as the hip roof flattened. We designed 13 layers of carbon fiber fabric soaked in epoxy to be applied directly to the wood sheathing. This created a one-half-inch thin shell, much like an upside-down boat. The roof tiles were then reinstalled, and the building was fully stabilized.

At Wright’s Guggenheim Museum, the original sprayed concrete exterior walls were badly cracked. The preservation plan required that the existing exterior finish be left visible. Bands of carbon fiber/epoxy reinforcing had to be applied to the inside surface of the walls, a second-best location structurally. Over the past five years, the thermally driven cracks have not reappeared.

ABOVE: Privacy Lace, 2013. Linoleum flooring, wood flooring, lace, archival pigment print. 30.5 × 15 × 5 inches.

Perhaps the most dramatic use of structural technology was the repair of Fallingwater. After 65 years of continuous deflection, the living-room floor girders were found to be dangerously underreinforced. We called for steel cables to be affixed to each side of each concrete girder in a carefully draped geometry. When these were pulled tight, the stresses in the concrete and the reinforcing steel were significantly reversed.

Mies van der Rohe’s 1950 creation of the ideal welded steel-frame glass box, the Farnsworth House in Illinois, is elevated on eight steel columns because the Fox River, only 100 feet from the front door, floods regularly. As flooding has become more aggressive, its present owner, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, commissioned a study that devised a way to raise the house on hydraulic jacks just prior to an impending flood and then lower it back to its original position post-flood. A number of detractors, including Chicago preservation architect John Vinci, voiced opposition to this well-established hydraulic technology, which uses off-the-shelf components, as inappropriate for this revered landmark. But I join the National Trust in strongly endorsing the hydraulic solution as the most effective in responding to all the preservation issues on the site.

Today’s arsenal of technological skills, diagnostics, and products is redefining the art of preservation craftsmanship. Preservation professionals must embrace these new techniques — they are the future. ■

A good death?

Imagine jumping forward 100 years to visit a building you designed. Will it still be there? What will it look like? Will anyone want to preserve it? Imaginary time travel poses a tough question for designers. Can we assume the buildings we design today will be preserved? Our chances are better if we make our designs adaptable to future needs, but we certainly don’t get to decide.

Architects can learn a great deal about adaptability from our 19th-and 20th-century cohorts. I get excited when asked to rework an old building with good bones, ripe for reinvention. Usually, that means its style has stood the test of time and its materials have the patina of gentle use. Simple forms and flexible structural systems allow for removals, insertions, and modifications. Wood, brick, and steel can be removed and recycled. If the building was designed before cheap energy, it might have passive cooling, heating, and daylighting baked into its geometry, orientation, and fenestration. Architects have become skilled at finding transformative new uses for buildings: mill to museum, power station to performance space, church to art school. But when designing new structures, we may be ignoring the need for future transformation.

The Living Building Challenge is a rigorous environmental design standard. Among other things, it asks 21st-century designers to consider the futures of their buildings by creating an end-of-life plan. This influenced our firm’s thinking for an admissions building at Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts, an institution that plans to care for it well into the future; our plan puts adaptation first. Timber frames and masonry exteriors last for centuries in New England, so we began with a laminated timber structure enclosed in locally quarried stone. The timber frame has regular bays and mechanically bolted connections for future changes. Fourteen-foot unfinished ceilings make room for exposed mechanical systems that can be serviced or replaced. Interior wood and concrete surfaces are designed for long-service lives. But, if necessary, the building’s primary materials could be salvaged and the entire structural frame disassembled for reuse.

With all the energy and carbon that goes into constructing a new building, is it ever OK to end its life? Since reusing a building avoids new carbon expenditures, second and third lives are preferable to an end of life. However, I think a building can have a good death — if positive change will result.

In Boston, one and two-story automobile industry and fast food buildings along Boylston Street have been removed to make way for a new “urban village.” This group of new buildings supplies a portion of the housing our city needs in a location where people can live, work, and play without automobiles. In Seattle, a one-story pub was removed to make way for Bullitt Center, a six-story, net-zero-energy building. At a recent lecture I attended, the Bullitt Foundation’s CEO, Denis Hayes, called it a “template.” When it inspires future neighborhoods and cities, the embodied energy of that pub will be offset thousands of times over.

ABOVE: Untitled (swans), 2014. Window, molding, wallpaper, archival pigment print, rope. 35.75 × 26.75 × 2.75 inches.

We can’t go back through time to un-design our buildings. The next best thing we can do is consider their future as part of the design process. ■