I Would Prefer Formaldehyde to This!
In case you missed it, here’s the latest declaration from Daniel Libeskind on the future of architecture.
“It sometimes feels as if cities like Paris and Venice have been coated with formaldehyde and turned into museums. The old formulas of ‘respecting context’ won’t work. We must create a new context and puncture past beauty with raw, powerful contemporary architecture—buildings that shock and amaze and bring out the romance of relics of Victorian and ancient times. It was once true that the palace, Palladian villas, and churches were architectural, while the other structures in a city were just buildings. But I think the art of architecture is ready to come out in every single structure we erect.” Conde Nast Traveler web page
Because Libeskind has a significant following among the avant-garde (especially among architecture professors and the directors of art museums), it is worth taking a moment to understand what he is saying and why everyone with an interest in historic preservation or artistic culture in general should be appalled.
First, the reason many historic cities feel like museums is because that’s what many of them have become – historic environments hosed down in formaldehyde, segregated from everyday life and with high admission fees. But why? The “museumification” of cities like Paris and Venice is precisely the consequence of Libeskind’s modernist predecessors, who made an irreparable rupture between past and present the foundation of their practice.
Since the adoption of the Venice Charter nearly 50 years ago (1964), there has been a strict prohibition against additions to historic environments that might have the effect of keeping them alive: instead, new work must “be distinct from the architectural composition and must bear a contemporary stamp.” Modernist architects, in the spirit of the charter, refused to integrate new construction into the historic fabric except on the basis of conspicuous aesthetic opposition. This spurred many preservationists to oppose all change and relegate new development outside the historic centers, which soon became the exclusive province of tourists and residents affluent enough to pay higher rents. The blatant visual contrast and physical separation between the historic and the new have, indeed, preserved the old centers but at the cost of their economies and authenticity.
The current state of many of our historic places illustrates the difference between preservation and conservation (at least in American usage): The first preserves something that is dead, like a mummy’s corpse, and the second conserves something that is alive, like an ecosystem or a garden. Some historic centers have indeed become dead places, to be visited after buying a ticket, but others show how it is possible for them to remain alive. They do this by allowing growth and change so long as it is consistent with the historic character of the place. But this limitation is unacceptable to the architects, who are not content with the freedom they have to build as they please outside the historic places; they see those historic centers – indeed the continued existence of any traditional architecture – as an affront to their creative freedom.
Their answer is to end the sequestration of the old and the new by “penetrating” the old with the new. Libeskind’s evisceration of the War Musuem in Dresden and the “lovely, light-filled” (as the interviewer describes it) addition to the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto make clear he means this literally: The solution to museum cities is to penetrate them with glass shards and other architectural weapons of mass destruction.
Le Corbusier’s Plan Voisin for Paris in 1925 would have torn down the historic center and built a grid of skyscrapers in its place; Libeskind’s, presumably, would leave it there but plunge a handful of skyscrapers into its heart. Perhaps nothing would please him more than to see Venice with one of his glass needles erupting from the side of the Basilica di San Marco to “shock and amaze” us and “create a new context.” It is as if the way to bring renewed youth and beauty to an aging former beauty queen were to have a big machete projecting from her cranium at a jaunty angle. Clem Labine’s recent post indicting architects like Libeskind and their adoring fans as “the New Taliban” is right on target.
As I suggested in my previous post, the answer to the problems of historic cities is neither sequestration nor “penetration” but integration on the basis of knowledge and respect. Those of us who love beautiful historic cities and monuments must insist that economic authenticity and vitality for historic places require an architectural culture in which new and old are partners instead of antagonists.
If the only way to prevent these places from being destroyed by the likes of Libeskind is to pour more formaldehyde on them, so be it. This is the mainstream preservation answer at the moment, and at least it keeps the old bits around long enough that a potentially more sensible future generation might do the right thing. In the meantime, we can only hope that a half century of preservation efforts will not be swept away by a short-lived fad.
But there is a still better way: Change contemporary architecture from being the enemy of beauty to being the agent of its loving care. Train young architects in knowledge and respect for what is beautiful, sustainable and just in the historic environment and equip them with the skills needed to make more of it. Then we can put away the formaldehyde and instead nurture our cities with an economy and a building culture that will keep them alive, not as museums but as living cities once again available to all.
Libeskind’s other error is the idea that the historic distinction between “monument” and “fabric” should be abandoned, that “architecture is ready to come out in every single structure we erect.” As is so often the case with Libeskind and his followers, the words are not the problem. Why shouldn’t every building represent an artistic response to its purpose and site? It is when we see his work that we realize what he means. In contrast with the decorum of traditional cities in which the city hall, the church, the public library are given more noble expression than the private house, office building or apartment block, he is suggesting that every building, regardless of purpose, ought to be an iconic object. But if every building is a unique gesture, an isolated specimen, a sculpture intended to “shock and amaze,” then there is no city at all, but only an architectural zoo. Libeskind would replace the “museum” of historic Venice with the museum of objects designed by himself. Which of those museums would you willingly pay to visit?
So “the old formulas of ‘respecting context’ won’t work.” Really? Those of us who can still tell the difference between an architectural culture of inestimable value and the marketing slogans of a hustling architectural firm need to tell Daniel Libeskind, “Keep your hands off our historic places. We don’t need your new context. We want respect rather than vandalism and character-preserving transformation rather than ‘penetration.’”