Sunday, January 24, 2010

Place+Preservation=PEOPLE (or it should)

Last week I was in Portland, attending the first of HPLO’s “Round Tables” on historic preservation. HPLO (the Historic Preservation League of Oregon) brought us together to discuss how Oregon can better support and benefit from its 116 National Register listed historic districts and how those districts can remain, or become, more vital. It was an interesting event.

Historic districts are important collections of buildings but, as my old school buddy Dave Skilton politely reminded the assembled, it’s the National Register of Historic PLACES, not historic buildings. I agree. Those of us that work in and with historic districts in particular need to be continually reminded of the value of the collective. Unfortunately the way land use law works means that almost all preservation regulations are set up to deal with building-by-building proposals and so it's pretty easy for the larger philosophical issues to get lost in the trees. Or the windows and paint colors. That lack of larger vision for the district as a whole is further challenged by lack of an articulate, consistent, vision or goals to guide a district’s development.  Even when such goals exist, other forces such as changes in political leadership, staff, or simple economics make consistent implementation difficult.  As a result, focusing on paint color or windows or other  manageable  elements becomes an easy default position.

I'm not sure that detail focus is always the best, or the one that gets HP where I think it should be heading.  As I have often said, in more contexts than would seem appropriate, “We are doing this WHY, exactly?” By which I mean what is the real point, the real benefit, of historic preservation (and if you answered “to save our architectural heritage” please see me after class for additional reading). Preserving old buildings just to say you have isn’t a particularly self-sustaining activity in my opinion and it surely doesn't represent preservation at its finest.

I am always struck by old postcards of downtown. Of course the buildings and the architecture  are of interest, but what strikes me, and what most other people notice first, is all the street activity. There are PEOPLE everywhere. As our field changes I think PRESERVATION is going to have to come to grips with the reality that in all but a few exceptional situations the most valuable aspect our unique approach to the built environment, is our ability to enhance the strength of PLACE.  Good preservation focuses upon buildings, but it uses them to support improved community. It’s not really that complex, is it?

I realize this is borderline heresy but it’s just not always about the buildings. It should be about the fact that historic places engender PLACE so successfully. Yes, of course, historic preservation has and always should retain a strong connection to architecture, through scale, materials, quality of design, sustainability and all the rest but I am of the unwavering opinion that community is the endgame. The buildings are just a proven path toward success in that game. It's a viewpoint more tied to a flexible Rehab model than a stringent Preservation model.

The philosophical underpinnings of our profession and the process we work under have moved significantly away from what I used to disdainfully dub “dentil counting.” But there is much more to do when a few minor interior or exterior changes can be still be seen as intolerable desecration. I believe that if preservation is to remain vital and shed its often deserved reputation as a scold, we need to seriously rethink the legal framework, including both regulation and incentive, we operate under.

My next missive may be on the Secretary’s Standards and the interpretation thereof. Won’t that be fun.

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