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On Preserve (Fall 2015)

It is apt that the striking cover of the issue is a fallen angel among debris from the demolition of Penn Station 50 years ago. Its caption reminds us of Ada Louise Huxtable’s advocacy for the value that historic buildings bring to our life in cities and towns. She was equally courageous and insightful about new architecture.

This collection of pointed essays demonstrates a new willingness within historic preservation to reassess its guiding tenets. Max Page’s 1966 birth year coincided with the cover photo. Today, his “Values added” survey of outmoded concepts and promising new directions is as timely as it is cogent. His observation that the “mainstream preservation movement remains consumed with architecture” highlights the curatorial emphasis that seldom embraces the complexity of continuing uses in real buildings on real sites. Chris Grimley (“The PoMo puzzle”) poses the awkward question of how one generation may legitimately dispose of bad buildings by famous architects —  especially when they mark important transitions in architectural style. The very question underscores the abstract stylistic and associational content of preservation values that too often prevailed in the past.

The pieces that focus on sustainability by Jean Carroon [and Ben Carlson] (“Old is the new green”) and Jason Forney (“A good death?”) could not have been written even as recently as 25 years ago, when Huxtable was at the height of her career. The photos of half-crazy adaptive reuse in dramatic historic interiors with [Jean and Ben’s] story add wonderful torque to arguments about embodied energy. Jason speaks for a dignified demise for buildings that lack flexibility and quality. They turn our attention to varying shades of integrity and significance, words Peter Kuttner leaves implicit in his wonderful catechistic cartoon.

Historic preservation is a powerful way to strengthen places where architects detect potential. The movement is stepping into early adulthood having already made its mark on our world —  except, as Daniel Bluestone notes in his essay, in schools of architecture.

Henry Moss AIA
Bruner/Cott & Associates
Cambridge, Massachusetts

Preservation has been embedded in leading contemporary design practice for generations. Inspired work by contem­porary masters — Moneo, Piano, Foster —  has folded old and new together, with unabashed creativity. Even with clear distinctions, one vocabulary — and one vision — provides holistic design. If we isolate preservation as a specialty, we fragment this creative wholeness.

We know that vigorous advocacy shapes policy and practice. What takeaways do we glean from your issue to shape next steps and widen our cultural and political frameworks to address a more inclusive cultural heritage? Whose culture are we preserving?

As our politics and community diversify, what stories have been lost? How do we more deeply explore our 50 years of US preservation regulations?

Boston and other US settings are players, reckoning past with future, but wider, global settings and enlightened practices inspire and expand discussion. Work beyond our borders provides inspiration and breadth. Without these perspectives, we are parochial and limited. Design that seams together existing resources (land, buildings, context, and community) as framework for a sustainable world — that’s the model.

Thank you for tilling this soil.

Ann M. Beha FAIA
Ann Beha Architects

Max Page is right — this is “not your grandmother’s preservation society.” We have reached a moment of profound creative ferment in our field. Fifty years after passage of the National Historic Preservation Act, we are no longer lonely voices in the wilderness. Historic preservation and adaptive building reuse are now correctly seen as powerful tools for managing change, spurring economic growth, promoting health and well-being, and contributing to the betterment of sustainable communities. Through key policy tools like the historic rehabilitation tax credit, we are helping to unleash the transformative potential of older building fabric in cities all over the country.

From this foundation, we are moving beyond protecting individual buildings to focus on neighborhoods, landscapes, culture, and the historic fabric of communities. We are engaging new partners to help cities achieve preservation solutions to the problems of the 21st century, from affordable housing to community displacement to climate change. We have evolved past a “John Hancock slept here” conception of preservation to embrace a more diverse national narrative, one that recognizes the complex chapters that make us who we are, and works with all communities to tell our American story.

Stephanie Meeks
President and CEO, National Trust for Historic Preservation
Washington, DC

As a preservation planner long steeped in what Max Page describes as an “architecture-centric approach to preservation,” I was jolted by his provocative essay, which challenges the preservation community to rethink our fondly held 1970s-era principles of preservation and consider more progressive approaches that recognize how dramatically America has changed. I strongly agree that we must be honest about the limitations and potential harms of our old-school preservation tools and develop new ones that more effectively address issues of economic and social inequality, climate change, and sustainability — all the while asking, “Why should this place matter?”

The “Preserve” issue resonates from cover to cover and should have a permanent spot on the bookshelf (real or virtual) of anyone who cares about the future of Boston and the world’s built environment.

Lynn Smiledge
Chair, Boston Landmarks Commission

“Old Is the New Green” is rich with themes that make the case for a new paradigm in moving forward to create a more sustainable world. Architecture, technology, and energy-intensive systems are at a crossroads, facing critical challenges that will influence the objectives of our professional practice going forward. It is high time we act to address the building sector’s responsibility in creating significant environmental impacts, whether carbon emissions, water contamination, pollution, toxicity, or a seemingly endless waste stream.

Equally important is the case for sustainable cities. The concept of “less is more” can be stretched to less “me” and more “we” space; smaller homes; better mixed-use zoning, with more urban green space and greater public amenities; [and] countering suburban sprawl, where the only mode of transportation is on four wheels. Much can be learned from preindustrial-age city fabrics, where the efficient organization of abutting townhouses defined the street edge, and the punctuation of these streets with parks provided for the common good.

Jean Carroon and Ben Carlson rightly expose the issue of toxicity in construction materials and furniture. Partnerships with university areas of research — engineering, science, public health — would go a long way in developing alternatives to our cur- rent models. Local governing bodies could be more effective in regulating and taxing the offending polluters, making it desirable to reuse instead of building new.

Shirine Boulos Anderson AIA 
Principal, Ellenzweig Boston

The issue is a welcome reminder that creative use of existing resources is an essential part of a successful future. It also demonstrates that a singular focus on either new construction or, conversely, on preservation, fails to holistically consider what constitutes a successful city.

Max Page aptly states that the preservation community itself needs a shake-up. Too often, the preservationist’s default mode is to focus solely on architectural details at the expense of bigger-picture issues. Architecture is certainly one piece of the puzzle, but a perfectly restored building will fail in isolation. Good preservation can be catalytic for a neighborhood, but it’s imperative to take stock of the broader positive impacts, beyond one historic building alone.

Equally, the idea that new construction benefits the environment in a way that preservation could never match is simply wrong. As Jean Carroon and Ben Carlson note, a focus on the environmental impact of building operations alone misses the mark. There seems to be a failure to realize, as Daniel Bluestone states, that historic preservation and adaptive reuse should be the keystone of sustainability. Why do we feel the need to constantly demolish and rebuild? Boston has great examples of cohesive blends of old and new, such as the restored Burnham Building and Millennium Tower downtown. The vibrancy that results from a balanced built environment is what drives organizations like ours to support creative adaptive reuse and well-placed new development among old buildings. As Boston changes at an unprecedented rate, preservation has an exciting, central, and beneficial role to play in the city’s evolution.

Greg Galer 
Executive Director 
Boston Preservation Alliance