So we want to save buildings because older building stock has all this great brick and limestone and plaster and rests on land with existing infrastructure. It also discourages sprawl. And don’t even get a preservationist started on embodied energy.
Okay, yes. All of that. But we have to be careful not to reduce architecture to mere blocks of energy. Occasionally I feel the need to remind myself that I was a preservationist for many reasons before I ever started thinking about sustainability.
Perhaps the most thought provoking class in my preservation grad school program focussed on preservation philosophy. I remember feeling that my teacher seemed to be preparing all of us for the inevitable existential crisis that would arise after we were repeatedly questioned about WHY we wanted to save buildings. There are certainly a whole lot of arguments against preservation, and many of them are, well, practical. And compelling. But let’s not drink the zero energy Kool-Aid just yet.
Think of it this way: How do you justify landmarking places like Bronzeville, which has an incredibly rich and important story to tell us about African American history and some of its leaders like Ida B. Wells and Louis Armstrong? Despite the unique and powerful history of this “Black Metropolis,” the architecture alone (and certainly not the embodied energy argument) would not have made this area landmark-worthy.
But cultural landmarks help bring tourism and pride to neighborhoods that may have otherwise been blighted or bulldozed, and there is both a positive economic effect and a positive environmental effect to heritage landmarking. The more pride and attention that is brought to an area, the more building owners take measures to maintain their buildings and the more people will want to move back into these areas. Property values increase, and the existing infrastructure remains in use.
Cultural heritage is not at odds with new, efficient buildings either. Many of these areas that are culturally significant, but that emptied out during the post war years or the 1980s have solid buildings that can be reused and retrofitted. As tourism and property values increase, there is often a need for infill, which should be sensitive but also innovative. These areas often want new community centers as well, and these can be cutting edge, highly efficient structures that will attract families, community groups and students and can act as places of education and cultural pride.
I have seen this fusion of old and new in the lower 9th ward in New Orleans, and I noticed that many neighborhoods that had never before cared about environmentalism now have neighborhood groups that talk about green issues, bike maintenance, etc. This reconnects people with their built environment as well as the larger environment. It’s a fusion of history and environmentalism that is certainly the hope of that city, and could easily be the hope of many others. If you want to be really inspired, check out one of my favorite websites: http://www.helpholycross.org/
The fusion of old and new architecture is incredibly exciting. Cities are defined by their architecture, both old and new, and we need to honor both of them. Even with zero energy buildings, we need to do way more and be more creative than “bulldoze and rebuild.” It’s boring and stupid. And good lord, at some of these green architecture conferences I’m beginning to feel like I’m living in a Sartre play–let’s not be afraid to say loudy that our history and culture are IMPORTANT and COOL and INTERESTING.