Okay, so I returned from the National Trust conference in Austin last night, and I’m reeling. In a really good way. Here’s the thing about this field: it’s SO DIFFERENT from city to city and culture to culture. I probably shouldn’t travel as much as I do on my budget, but hell, there’s no other way to understand the scope of preservation work. And I mean yeah, it’s fun. I was only able to see a handful of seminars at the conference, but they couldn’t have been more varied and inspiring in their contrasts and similarities. I really, really love my field and the fact that it’s so impossible to sum up. I also really, really (really) love Torchy’s Tacos.
The sessions I attended included: There’s no place like Houston, Creative Solutions and Self-Determination for Historic Preservation; The Urban Density Debate: Good Density, Bad Density, and the Role of Preservation; Preservation Strategies in Low-income Urban Neighborhoods; Austin Modern; Rethinking How We Nominate Large Cultural Landscapes to the National Register of Historic Places; and What Happens When Dates Don’t Matter (debating the 50-year rule)”
Yeah, really all over the place. I was, as always, incredibly impressed with Preservation Green Lab, its Urban Density Debate and really all of their efforts to come up with and conduct meaningful studies and analysis of how we use places and spaces. These kinds of studies are essential to justifying the existence of older buildings, as they helped to measure the public response to them, basically arguing that the public at large knows a thing or two that developers may not. This is also crucial in the wake of green building trends, which aim to quantify everything as a way to elevate and distinguish these buildings from others.
Another lecture that I found interesting touched upon Aspen, Colorado’s preservation of 1960s (and beyond) structures that really define that area of the state. The system used to measure the buildings’ historic integrity and the impact of changes over time via a point-based rating system—a system similar to a green building rating system. This is called the Aspen Modern scoring system and also allows for perks like expedited permits. While there are thresholds that must be met to qualify for landmark designation, the system doesn’t document any social history or other less visible aspects of the architecture. It was interesting to see preservation groups taking cues from the green building movement, however, and I’m really curious to see where this kind of system goes, as it is still in the experimental phases.
And then, things got romantic. People were LITERALLY CRYING at the Preservation Strategies in Low-income Urban Neighborhoods session as videos rolled out of the demolition of the beloved La Gloria building in San Antonio. Several community activists involved in the battle took the stage and one described how the bulldozers couldn’t get through all of the concrete that made the structure–in fact, 2 or 3 wrecking balls had to be replaced from all the hard work
(talk about sustainability). Ultimately, the speaker simply said, “the building was fighting back.” And oh my god, it totally was, and while the video about the battle to save this building was playing, some members of the audience literally shook with every swing of the bulldozer. This was a site where every Conjunto musician (yeah, I didn’t know what it was either, but after this lecture, I was outraged—outraged!—that anyone would ever do anything to hinder it) worth his/her weight in salt had played and a huge part of the local community. For the latest battle for a similar venue in South Texas called the Lermas Night Club, see here.
Another heart wrenching session focused on public murals and their importance to their communities—how they are crucial as a form of positive expression, historic documentation, and local engagement. Murals are a tricky preservation issue as they are kind of their own thing, and often done on private, potentially historic buildings, but hell, you just had to care and want them to stay once the images and stories started rolling out. One mural featured was The Great Wall of Los Angeles, where one of the slogans on the website proclaims “we are architects of social justice.” Also, I just have to say, the Los Angeles Conservancy is amazing. I had no idea I even liked Los Angeles until I saw the kinds of work their Community Outreach Coordinator was doing.
Bottom line: preservationists got into preservation because they got emotional about architecture, even if most preservation jobs end up being rather repetitious and political. I get emotional about the stuff that gets torn down for soulless crap on a daily basis, but understand the need for both concrete facts that can affect policy, and the rallying of the troops in an outcry of cultural decimation and gentrification. We need them both if this field is to continue because stats aren’t enough to fire people up for an extended period of time, and emotions don’t always stop the bulldozers, even when the building fights back. Beyond this, what a fortunate thing to be able to engage poets, scientists and artists in a single passion to protect the built environment. My god, why isn’t this movement millions strong?
So yes, I love my field. That is to say, I love all of my fields.