Ah, once again, I’ve had a milli-second of downtime this weekend, which has lead me to think about the philosophy of preservation. I went skiing out in Wisconsin and squealed with delight each time I passed a barn that looked like it was about to completely collapse. Drinking schnapps and hot chocolate in a ski lodge will make one reflect on their reactions.
I spend my time saving buildings and arguing that we should reuse existing structures whenever possible for both cultural and environmental reasons. But one thing I wrestle with is the fact that culture is not a static thing that can be simply preserved three-dimensionally. Barns are supposed to be used and used and used until they almost fall over, and then used another 10 years after that until they finally do fall over. That’s part of the culture. And then the boards can be reused, etc. I am not against restoring barns by any stretch of the imagination, and there are some great initiatives out there (my favorite is called “Barn Again!“), and no doubt there is a preservation philosophy unto its own involving barn restoration.
But I remember learning about various preservation philosophies throughout history and being especially drawn to John Ruskin, whose philosophy was that a building’s beauty increased with its age, and a building’s beauty was not fully achieved until it was in ruins. Watching a building decay is possibly the most beautiful thing in the world, at least in my opinion. You can see the construction, how the materials work together, how the wind and rain and sun have changed each part of the materials. You can see how time and the elements have taken a bright, rigid, angular structure and slowly, over decades, worn it down to rusted patinas and bent it into organic forms that will gracefully return back to where they came. I mean good lord, doesn’t that just bring you to your knees? I might have to start a campaign for human/old barn legal unions.
From an environmental standpoint, well, deconstruction is clearly the smartest route in a situation like this. A friend was telling me that she was just visiting her friend’s new cafe in Sheboygan that is made up almost entirely of recycled materials, much of which were salvaged from her family’s dilapidated barn (see above). It’s really, really hard to argue that that isn’t a creative and inspiring thing to do.
We are constantly replicating existing architectural forms and styles, but usually using new materials. Recently, there has been a push to once again focus on deconstruction and materials reuse. Where does that leave the beauty of decay–will people still be able to squeal in delight and delicious horror while looking at a barn that is still in use and just waiting to crush someone? How should preservationists feel about the preservation of materials but not form? Should we just let some buildings die in a more natural way instead of always harvesting their organs, so to speak? Can nostalgia and environmentalism coexist, and where does preservation fit into the mix? I expect a full report on my desk next week.