How do we enhance past architecture without debasing it?

How will people interact with the building a generation from now? What path will we blaze back to now for future discoveries?

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emergency gibberishTORONTO, Ont., April 3, 2017 /Troy Media/ – Environmentalists have long bemoaned our throwaway society. When Greenpeace was the rage in Vancouver, some spoke of opening up excess packaging in the store and leaving it there to discourage its use. I refused bags at McDonald’s. Some people promoted the use of ceramic coffee cups rather than disposable ones.

We also have a problem with what American preservationist James Marston Fitch calls “the throwaway city.” He’s quoted in the book Tabula Plena: Forms of Urban Preservation (2016), edited by Bryony Roberts. The title capitalizes on the term tabula rasa, originating in “ancient wax tablets melted clean” and thus the “clearing of urban sites for late modernist urban renewal … the freedom of operating without the constraints of existing conditions.”

New York city planner Robert Moses was good at this. In fact, although his legacy is being reassessed positively, a consensus is that he was just too good at using federal housing money to demolish neighbourhoods and start anew.

Tabula plena refers to “urban sites full of existing buildings from different time periods … a full tablet.” On North America’s east coast, some buildings have been refurbished and repurposed several times, and thus may be from several periods.

Tabula rasa isn’t just found on greenfield sites. In one chapter of Roberts’ book, Daniel M. Abramson deals with tabula rasa through obsolescence. In 1897, the 20-storey Gillender Building at Wall and Nassau streets in New York was the world’s “loftiest office tower.” Thirteen years later, it was demolished for “a taller, more up-to-date structure.”

Today, we’d preserve. But how? We can put Plexiglas around it. We can rip out the inside and preserve the facade. We can attach modern structures to it. But as another contributor to the book, Eduardo Rojas, notes, the “heritage area must be as attractive as a place of living … and not the preserve to tourists and schoolchildren on history tours.”

In Erik Langdalen’s chapter, we get a hint of how to proceed. Preservation and conservation seem “to deal exclusively with the past … rarely seen as a creative practice.”

How about the future? How will people interact with the building a generation from now? How is what we’re looking at urban archeology and a window on our past? What path will we be blazing back to now for future discoveries? What we build is also a time capsule.

Everybody’s of several minds on this issue – not just property owners, city officials and neighbours. The 1964 Venice Charter for the Conservation and Restoration of Monuments and Sites required that what’s added or new “be distinct from the architectural composition and must bear a contemporary stamp.” I guess they didn’t want reproductions masquerading as the real thing.

This played out at an ancient Roman theatre in Sagunto, Spain. Jorge Otero-Pailos documents how designers constructed a wall, or reconstructed a missing wall of very different brick “to differentiate it from the original.” This was criticized as “too obvious and too overwhelming.”

The matter went to court. Isn’t court the ideal place to determine just what good art and urban design are?

The Spanish Supreme Court ruled the addition had to be removed. The Spanish law of cultural patrimony forbids reconstructions in new materials, which seems to contradict the Venice Charter. The Regional Supreme Court of Valencia ruled that “it was physically, legally and financially impossible” for it to carry out the orders of the higher court, so the new bricks stand. The law is an ass, of course. So are rules, regulations, and artistic opinions. Additions “must be obviously expressed but also appear insubstantial.”

To help them meet this contradictory rule, designers turned to glass and plastics – and not the kind that were made in ancient Rome.

But is it all just more disposable packaging to be discarded at some future point?

Troy Media columnist Dr. Allan Bonner has consulted on some of the major planning and public policy issues of our time on five continents over 25 years. He is the author of Safer Cities. Allan is included in Troy Media’s Unlimited Access subscription plan.


The views, opinions and positions expressed by all Troy Media columnists and contributors are the author’s alone. They do not inherently or expressly reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Troy Media.

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