Lately I’ve been thinking about my mortality. A lot. In fact, I am pretty much always thinking about my mortality—it’s just a sweet, charming little thing I do. To exacerbate this, I spend most of my time trying to save buildings and the environment from being utterly destroyed. I think this is especially traumatizing for me with buildings, because we all hold onto the idea that like a paper cut, the environment can heal and regenerate itself. Buildings just die, either in a particularly public, violent way, or over an excruciatingly long period of decay. So, while I realize that buildings don’t have a central nervous system, I still feel utterly compelled to save them, even when I know that they will eventually die by bulldozer, fire, water, whatever. And so I’m compelled to explore this today, mostly because it’s interesting to me and because I understand that if a preservationist doesn’t understand their own preservation philosophy, whatever remains of it will be utterly compromised because, well, it’s easier to compromise when you don’t know why you believe what you say you believe.
So I’m going a little deep here today, folks. I’m thinking about the phenomenon of “death anxiety” and how it relates to preserving structures and also, by extension, the environment. Back to the question of “why do we preserve buildings when we know that they will eventually die anyway?” Well, why do we fight to preserve our own lives when we know that while that ginseng may help us remember who we are a little longer, our body is in a constant state of decay? We can stave things off for a bit—slap on a new coat of paint and do a little repointing when we break down or look a little old—but really, well, you get the point. We’re going to die. In fact, we’re probably going to die sooner than the brick two-flat we live in.
So this brings me to culture because decay logic just confuses me more. I don’t think we should ever think about preservation without thinking about culture. Sure, it is also important environmentally to reuse, repair, keep stuff out of landfills and stop using crazy amount of energy to create replaceable, throw away items or entirely new buildings when a viable structure already exists. But once we realize that everything eventually decays, we look to culture and symbols to immortalize us. Culture gives us a sense of place and meaning. We have flags, religious beliefs, social mores, clothing, language, and yes, architecture that will represent a big part of who we are long after we are gone.
These symbols are a part of who we are, they externalize our collective believe system, and that’s why they are so important to us. And while this may seem simplistic—to hold onto icons as a physical manifestation of our belief systems—I think it’s incredibly important. These objects remind us that we are part of something larger, a kind of family. Our culture, and, by extension, our value system, gives us a road map for acceptable behavior, a system by which we can measure right and wrong and act accordingly. This is a large part of why I prefer to landmark districts over single properties—it’s an easier way to preserve cultural values and hence, actions. When you know your neighbors, you feel more responsible for them and act more in accordance with a more general system of values, i.e. you don’t let your property fall into disrepair or sell it to a developer who just realized that they can build a 3 story box on your lot that will break up your entire street line. A cultural value system also gives us a way to excel. A system of values that is shared by a group allows an individual to rise in the ranks, i.e. to have the greenest or best-restored house on the block. It fosters a healthy competition and holds up a system of pride and respect.
Now I know it’s easy to be all “but the mob mentality leads to extremism” and yadda yadda. I know. I get it. But this is the other side of the coin, and I think that is sheds some light on why, why oh why, many of us spend so much of our time fighting to save our physical environment. I mean, right? Symbolism? Values? Discuss.