history lesson needed

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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.

Bugsys Bagels

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. Blah! (**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:

  1. 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.
  2. I’d like my children to experience it the way I did so it must never change. (pssst…it already did)
  3. 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.
  4. 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.)
  5. Aren’t all of the (good) buildings from the same era? New buildings should copy the old buildings. (I shuddered when I wrote that).
  6. 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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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 the 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.


history lesson needed

10 thoughts on “history lesson needed

  1. We are indeed fighting an uphill battle. If one does work in the suburbs, even the attempt to do something vaguely authentic – well detailed, proportioned , and respectful of stylistic motif – is fought by builders and clients who just don’t care! The number one problem in my locale (Des Moines, Iowa) is that clients go to builders first. The builder assumes the role of the “creative lead” and uses the architect (or preferably unlicensed designer) as his/her draftsperson – just another sub-contractor! Often times the builder’s will meet exclusively with “their” (no construction contract, yet!) client , then exclusively with the designer and back and forth, utilizing the designer as a sales tool – since they cannot do anything without a set of plans.

    When single family residential is not regulated, and clients don’t know any better, they simply shop builder’s as they would going to car dealerships. How do we, as caring stewards of the built environment, turn this huge ship to a new direction? I feel endeavors such as new urbanism, “Not so big House” and Passive House are and will help. Yet, the real estate industry still convinces people that square footage and number of bathrooms is utmost, and anything unique will not re-sell. Houzz and HGTV (while positive in some ways) have had their negative affects too.

    It is time for residential architects to unite. A new professional organization ArCH: Architect Creating Homes has been formed to advocate licensed architects as the leader in residential design and help educate the public that going through a through design process with a licensed architect will get them their best house and oftentimes save them money in the long run. If you are a residential architect, consider joining ArCH http://www.archomes.org to help fight the good fight!

      1. Agreed, I veered a little off topic. I have not personally worked in downtown Des Moines. However, the city has done a wonderful job a integrating old with new, even using some renowned architects such as David Chipperfield and forthcoming, Renzo Piano.

        Currently a 1950’s modern YMCA (on prime river front property) is being demolished. The building was voted one of the top 50 of the 20th Century. I must admit, even I did not see much beauty in the building. Tho, it did contain some innovative brick murals on it’s facades – real period pieces. Like the Chicago buildings – Prentice Hospital and Michael Reese Hospital, people put up a fight to preserve the Y. Yet, they were way beyond feasible for any type of adaptive reuse. And intervention (preservation for preservation sake) would be very costly – and in my opinion not warranted by the merit of these structures.

        I think people are just adverse to change. I also feel people are very uniformed as to what has merit and what does not verses what “flavor of the month” they like.

  2. We are going through a process of revamping our city’s historic preservation plan. Unfortunately, it seems that much of what the consultants are saying falls on deaf ears. While having the plan in place will be a good thing, there is a very obvious disconnect between what people think historic preservation is, and what it actually is. Most think it is mimicry and aping ‘styles’ from the past. But they have no understanding of why things were built the way the where. Not everything done in architecture is simply about a style or aesthetics. Many of those features that people point to had functional / practical reasons for being that way that is lost in current ‘interpretations’ of them.

  3. dwmarc2014 says:

    Good post. Now a simple fact: Design fees diminish from any center city as you head to the suburbs. Where car culture dominates, architects do not. While renovation fees to old buildings may be worthy, a big box store will get you 1% if you are lucky.

    Builders hate detail, whether trad or modern, unless it is simple and well understood. Thus strip center folk copied Michael Graves forms en masse. BTW, the photo of Bugsy’s shows that “mutilated” old buildings, while tacky, can also be quite charming.

    The ultimate irony is once you have a well-informed public forming a design review committee in a historic area, they probably don’t understand the fundamentals for historic building renovation and addition promulgated by a National Park Service manual*….so modernists are misunderstood again. And so it goes…a long education process.

    *My neighbor Sharon Park, FAIA literally wrote and/or edited the book. And she enforced its precepts. If you wanted Federal approval, you had to understand the rules!

    1. I can’t disagree. I’ve avoided suburban retail for the most part and it hasn’t really come looking for me. I sit on my hometown’s HARB and I bring our guidelines to each meeting. They’re far from perfect, but they exist around the spirit of the NPS guidelines you mention.

  4. When my firm took a 15,000 square foot 1970’s retail store and turned it into the new town Library, we met lots of opposition. We used recycled limestone block on the exterior with contemporary lines and only two areas of glass in the entire facility. One was the two story full glass entry/reading space and the other was the 24 foot square pyramid shaped skylight over the adult reading area. How could we dare put such a building amid the beautifully articulated 1920’s brick buildings around it (my building being one of them)? The funny thing about it is that the readership of the Library almost doubled after the new facility opened. There are young people who all but live at the Library. They relate to the interior space with it’s bright colors and open plan. Even the seniors find the space under the skylight to be an inviting place to sit and read.

    Nobody complained about the old retail building that was there with it’s fake stucco and crossbuck wood pattern along the front facade. They just accepted it. It didn’t compete with the neighboring buildings, it just was there….a bad backdrop. Our design was competition, a new piece of architecture that was different, new and exciting on an otherwise quiet street. It wasn’t until people began to use the Library that they realized you didn’t need a Georgian style building with double hung windows and dim incandescent lighting to have a great Library.

    It was the architecturally uninformed who complained the most, who sent letters to the newspaper, who posted online and who even complained that the skylight reflected sunlight into their front windows during the afternoons in December…..really!!!!!

    The Library lives on and now with community acceptance. Those who objected have found other “Glass houses” to throw stones at. In the mean time I look for more opportunities to take old buildings that have no character and turn them into buildings that excite their community and become the basis for future growth.

  5. Living in London there are many examples of new buildings sitting along side older ones and they work really well in terms of aestheticism and functionality. In these austere times criticism as been made against those who spend money on ‘expensive’ architects building schools. What these social commentators miss is that there is a direct link between design and performance. Light classrooms with good acoustics and daylight will benefit a learners experience. A stimulating and comfortable environment has a huge impact not just for students but for all users of the building.

    1. I’m glad to hear the perspective from someone in Europe, specifically the UK to validate my point. I also agree with your comments about schools. I’ve read about that. Schools don’t necessarily need expensive big name architects, but they DO need the performance you mention. I’d like to think there are many capable architects that can bring those features as well as something inspiring. I read about Zaha’s school being the last fancy big move for schools. Her work is certainly eye catching, but everyone doesn’t need a statement like that to have an effective learning environment.

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