We have a problem that involves history. No one knows anything about it, but they “know what they like.”
If you want to quickly get people’s opinion of architecture, suggest removing an old building in a city and see how they respond. Choose one with character if you want the best reaction.
Another method to provoke a reaction is to build a contemporary building among a series of buildings that predate it by almost a century. One can quickly discern another person’s opinion of architecture even when they’ve shown ambivalence in the past. The quality of the new insertion is somewhat irrelevant but poorly done new construction hasn’t helped the argument.
Of course, if you build in the suburbs, I doubt anyone gets too excited. Unfortunate.
If we go back to our demolition discussion, I’m not suggesting one go out with a demo crew and start knocking down everything in sight. In fact, I’ve been quite vocal about preserving the building stock that we have – especially in our cities. Demolition of an existing structure should be the last option after every other opportunity has been considered. Get this in your head – it is never about a single issue.
New versus old
It seems that in American cities we can’t find a balance between preservation and accepting new construction. I’ve seen this especially prevalent in smaller towns; I can’t speak from experience about larger cities. It seems that people either love new (contemporary) structures or they hate them. Granted, some horrible things are getting built, but it seems many adults react to trying new architecture much like children react to trying new foods. Blaaah! (**making yuck face**).
Nowhere can this be understood more than on social media. The advent of social media has given everybody a platform to convince themselves of their architectural expertise as they fluently spew opinion while hiding behind their Facebook page. I’m amazed at how uneducated the general public is about architecture or how they abandon reason and intellect for an emotional, infantile rant.
Disrespect and personal agendas
Another problem that I come across is people with the means to invest in property often are insensitive to older properties. Expedience, economics and general “cheapskatedness” prevails over general respect for preservation. When there is some type of architectural review board in place, sparks begin to fly when these two parties come together. On the other hand, members of architectural review boards at times might bring their own personal agendas and biases to the bench and rule from opinion more than following the intention of their guidelines. Fortunately the board I’m on has found the right balance.
Seriously, I weep for those in the next century who will inherit our cities.
Sorting out the mess
My office frequently takes on projects that involve the rehabilitation of buildings – many in my own town. This allows me to become conversant with the panoply of issues that are involved in seeing revitalization and lend a sense of empathy to the concerns and criticisms from both sides of the fence.
Taking my own advice, I’ve thought about this trying to divorce myself from my own feelings and analyze the new versus old from arm’s length. I think the reactions noted above can be summarized in the following ways. You’ll notice they have little or nothing to do with an understanding of architecture, construction, economic development, business or history.
My perception is that people’s visceral reactions stem from some version of these incorrect assumptions:
- I have positive nostalgic feelings about the city where I was raised. When parts of it are torn down, I feel I’m losing a part of my past.
- I’d like my children to experience it the way I did so it must never change. (pssst…it already did)
- I just prefer “historic” buildings (whatever that means), and I’m not open to contemporary architecture because I don’t understand it (or have seen good examples) which is why I don’t like it.
- Introducing new glass, steel and metal buildings among older brick and stone buildings seems imbalanced. Shouldn’t they all look similar? (Here’s a hint…look at Europe…they did it.)
- Aren’t all of the (good) buildings from the same era? New buildings should copy the old buildings. (I shuddered when I wrote that).
- I don’t have the money to restore this building (I got it cheap). I just want to get in and open my business or get tenants in here to generate income.
There are many logical fallacies to the general mindset, and we can debate the reasons for this mindset over and over again. I have no interest in persuading people to “like” modern architecture. I don’t even know how to define modern architecture – see this older post. For the sake of addressing the elephant in the room, I’ll respond to each of my incorrect perceptions.
- Nostalgia is good if one puts forth the energy to preserve their city as long as they understand the city was there long before them and will be there long after them. Their life experience is a mere glimpse of the overall history of the city. Making NEW memories is necessary for an abundant life, introducing new architecture is essential for a vibrant community.
- Our children will never see our towns the way we do or did. We ought to teach them to take pride in it, but just like us, they need to develop that sense on their own and cultivate new experiences. They need something they can relate to, so they take ownership and stewardship of their towns and communities.
- Everyone’s preferences ought to be represented in our communities, but property owners get to have their say because they’re taking on risk by investing their resources. There are many reasons why some buildings are renovated, and some must be replaced that are not visible to the public. Western culture is so individually focused, sometimes at the expense of the community.
- Cities evolve over time, but many American cities are barely more than a century to a century-and-a-half old. They change over time and should reflect as many of the eras of their existence as possible – simultaneously. That means “old” and new. The plethora of brick buildings was once contemporary at one point (the wood ones are primarily gone). Those people were using materials that were prevalent and available. Building technology has changed rapidly and radically. Cities in 2015 should reflect OUR time as much as the buildings from 1915 reflect their time.
- Variety makes cities vibrant and desirable. Diversity should be welcomed however one wishes to define that. Copying old buildings is actually disrespecting the past, and mutant forms of rich and former styles emerge that only confuse and misrepresent the past style. They come off like celebrities who’ve had too much plastic surgery.
- I was taught anything worth doing is worth doing well. A familiar Bible passage in Luke reads “Suppose one of you wants to build a tower. Won’t you first sit down and estimate the cost to see if you have enough money to complete it? For if you lay the foundation and are not able to finish it, everyone who sees it will ridicule you, saying, ‘this person began to build and wasn’t able to finish.’ Even in the first century, it was important to finish what one starts…with quality implied. Too many people at every economic level are looking for the quick buck. It goes back to the individual over community mindset. Don’t do it…not in my city.
Idle and empty buildings hurt everyone. If you see renovations or new construction happening, it’s good for the community. If you have such a strong opinion about what’s going on in your city or town or township or county or…make your voice known. Ranting, complaining and spewing out gutless drivel on Facebook never changes anything. There probably is a reason the buildings around you look the way they do – and no, you were not on the need-to-know list. Nevertheless, educated, informed and intellectual input can make positive change. Get past your own biases and effect change that benefits everyone.