Preservation Under Assault, Again

For the past month or so, preservationists have yet again been the whipping boy in certain circles. It started with an article (“An Architect’s Fear That Preservation Distorts”) in the New York Times by architecture critic Nicolai Ourousoff. His favorable review of the OMA / Rem Koolhaas exhibition at the New Museum in New York raised the hackles of preservationists across the country because he essentially blames preservationists (working in concert with big bad government and bigger and badder developers) for transforming historic places that matter into Disneyland—a clean-cut version of history where everything is bright and shiny and attracts mainly tourists. In the exhibition called “Cronocaos” (the run at the New Museum was only for a month), Koolhaas examined “what the future of our memory will look like, and how our obsession with heritage is creating an artificial re-engineered version of our memory. Lacking a set of coherent strategies or policies and generally not engaged by architects and designers, preservation is an under-examined topic, but increasingly relevant as we enter an age of ‘Cronocaos,’ in which the boundaries between preservation, construction, and demolition collapse, forever changing the course of linear evolution of time” (New Museum press release).

In his seven years at the New York Times (he’ll be resigning the end of June to pursue writing a book about architecture) Ourousoff has proven to not be a fan of preservation, often depicting preservationists as pitch-fork wielding zealots. He paints a broad canvas of what preservationists do and who they are. Yet he doesn’t understand that the preservation movement has actually changed and diversified over the years and has come a long way since its “George Washington Slept Here” days. Offering simplistic views of a movement that works hard to protect our heritage and built environment is inaccurate and lacks true critical thinking. We only need to look at our own historic neighborhoods for success stories of the preservation movement.  Pioneer Square, Pike Place Market and the International District are local and National Register historic districts that were designated in the early 1970s when they were threatened with redevelopment. Neighborhood activists worked with the City of Seattle to protect these neighborhoods. These citizens were smart, forward-thinking (while valuing our past) and determined to save Seattle’s soul. They weren’t the “well-meaning but clueless preservationists” that Ourousoff describes.

In response to Ourousoff’s  article, Sarah Williams Goldhagen, architecture critic for The New Republic, wrote an op-ed piece in the New York Times (“Death By Nostalgia”) that seemingly tried to defend preservation but did it in a backhanded way, stating that preservation boards have too much power and are out of control. That’s not the case here in Seattle. New York Times readers wrote letters to the editor in response to the Goldhagen article; many of them have good points.

For other readings that balance these two articles, don’t miss the Historic District Council’s blog post, “Tell the New York Times What You Think About Preservation,” reacting to the articles. “HDC believes that these arguments denigrate preservation and the community of preservationists. While we are flattered to be thought of as the hidden masters of the urban world, this level of public decrial cannot go unanswered.”  Charles Birnbaum wrote an excellent retort in The Cultural Landscape Foundation blog. You MUST read it. In “Nostalgia 2.0: Has Historic Preservation Become a Spectator Sport?” Birnbaum says, “The New Museum’s Cronocaos press release speaks of the growing ‘empire’of preservation. If historic preservation is an ‘empire’ then maybe it’s time for the empire to strike back. The modern historic preservation movement needs to take action: the current climate demands that it recast itself, build better and more strategic bridges with the design community, rebrand and broadcast its message, and in the process get back in touch with its roots.”