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Changing Perspectives in Architectural Conservation

June 5th, 2013

While teaching in Rome this semester, it was a pleasure to meet one of the fellows in residence this season at the American Academy in Rome, Randall Mason from the graduate program in historic preservation at the University of Pennsylvania. Randy was here doing research on one of my favorite figures from early 20th-century Rome, the multi-faceted Gustavo Giovannoni, about whom I have written numerous times in this blog.

Corso del Rinascimento, Rome. This is a 20th-century street in the heart of Rome, constructed 1934-36 to provide a more efficient north-south traffic connection between the Prati district and the center. In the early 20th century, a proposal was studied to run the traffic artery down the middle of Piazza Navona, half a block to the west, but Gustavo Giovannoni and others fought this and counter-proposed a more surgical street widening that bypassed the Piazza. Arnaldo Foschini designed new facades that harmonized with the historical ones that remained. (Steven Semes photo)

Among his many accomplishments, Giovannoni was one of the fathers of modern conservation theory, not only in Italy, but worldwide, through his many writings, his role in the drafting of the 1931 Athens Charter on conservation, his authorship of the 1931 Italian Charter of Restoration and in his own architectural and urban design work. He is a fascinating, if also at times puzzling, figure who is currently being rediscovered by Italian historians and critics after almost 50 years of neglect. He is also starting to be noticed by non-Italian audiences, who will find much in his writing (so far almost none of it translated) to inspire a reform of present-day historic preservation thinking.

One of the most important things we can learn from Giovannoni is also the subject of Mason’s book, The Once and Future New York: Historic Preservation and the Modern City (University of Minnesota Press, 2009). Mason, by telling the story of the beginnings of preservation activity in New York in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, is recovering a cultural movement that has been too often forgotten or ignored in more recent times. Preservation in New York and throughout the United States did not begin with the demolition of Pennsylvania Station in 1963, as is often assumed, but has a longer and more varied history.

 

Washington Square Park, New York. One of New York preservation’s success stories, though not without some losses around the edges. The north side of the park is almost intact, and Stanford White’s Judson Church remains as the anchor of the south side. Places like this are central to the “memory infrastructure” that any city needs along with change and growth. Balancing these needs is what the preservationists of the progressive movement tried to achieve in the decades before 1920. (Steven Semes photo)

Preservation efforts prior to the Second World War had a different focus and political orientation than they took on afterward; early preservation was not opposed to growth and change in the modern city but was part of bringing it about. The creation and preservation of what Mason calls a “memory infrastructure” was seen as a necessary counterbalance to the market-driven development of the fast-growing metropolis without being ideologically resistant to it. Finally, early preservation was not primarily focused on individual buildings but involved a broad range of buildings, memorials, parks, transportation systems, landscapes and natural resources.

Today, one of the great challenges for the preservation movement is to create closer relationships with sympathetic constituencies in movements such as traditional architecture, New Urbanism and environmentalism – three movements sharing similar objectives that have nevertheless followed divergent paths over the last several decades. This isolation of different aspects of conservation was not evident in the decades around the turn of the 20th century, as clearly seen in the name of one of the leading organizations, the American Scenic and Historic Preservation Society, founded in 1895 by Andrew Haswell Green, one of the heroes of Mason’s story.

Giovannoni, too, advocated for individual architectural landmarks, but, more importantly, he also argued for preserving the settings in which the monuments are placed, the “minor architecture” that provides the physical, historical and cultural context in which the monuments must be understood. He was an urbanist who championed the historical center of Rome along the lines of the great theorist Camillo Sitte, seeing urban design and conservation as two aspects of a single enterprise. He also fought for the conservation of natural resources, including what are now called “cultural landscapes,” in which the physical setting is given greater significance by the historical presence of a distinctive way of life.

 

Peroni Brewery, Rome, designed by Gustavo Giovannoni, 1901-22. Breweries are not usually this attractive and most zoning ordinances were designed to keep such facilities out of “nice” neighborhoods, but Giovannoni designed one that created an urban neighborhood of diverse and architecturally distinguished buildings. Here is an example of “modernity” (an industrial complex) happily reconciled with the traditional city. (Steven Semes photo)

After the Second World War, historic preservation – in Europe as well as in the United States – became separated from architecture, city planning and natural resource conservation, as each of these fields pursued different and sometimes conflicting agendas. Architects wanted to rebuild everything according to the Modernist vision, and preservation became identified (rightly or wrongly) with an uncritical resistance to change, while environmentalism, seeing the built environment as a threat to the natural one, parted company with the other two groups.

Mason’s book argues for a return to the earlier model, in which the preservation of historic and artistically or culturally valuable built environments and landscapes is part and parcel of a wise environmental policy and good urban and regional planning. None of these fields needs to adopt an ideologically anti-growth or anti-market posture but can try to direct growth and inform the markets following the example of the Progressive movement of the early 20th century.

Architects, landscape architects, historians, conservationists, civic activists, business leaders and politicians aligned with the Progressive cause – pre-eminently President Theodore Roosevelt – saw the forces of modernity and the need to preserve “memory infrastructure,” as well as natural resources, as factors to be balanced and reconciled. The architects of the period often incorporated both restoration work and new design in their practices, and these two aspects informed one another in productive ways – as in the career of Grosvenor Atterbury, designer of Forest Hills Gardens and restorer of New York’s City Hall in the years before World War I.

But what Mason does not discuss is the post-World War II rejection by the architects of their own heritage. The progressives in early 20th-century New York were not opposed to new construction because, by and large, new architecture continued in the design traditions of the old. “Compatibility” was not an issue, except in terms of massing and scale. Today, contemporary architecture defines itself in opposition to historic architecture, making attempts to reconcile new and old construction difficult.

 

Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton Home and Shrine, Lower Manhattan, New York. Another segment of New York’s “memory infrastructure” was the home in the early 19th century of Elizabeth Ann Seton, the first American to be named a saint. The adjacent chapel from the 1950s is a supportive neighbor, as the two structures huddle together surrounded by skyscrapers. Preservationists increasingly became reactive against change, as modern architects all too often showed no respect for the past. Can the historic and the modern co-exist? (Steven Semes photo)

Giovannoni opposed the visions of Modernist urbanism but he was not opposed to modernity per se. He believed new buildings should be sympathetic to their historical neighbors, avoiding contrast while inevitably being identifiable as new. The 1930s project for the Corso del Rinascimento in Rome, while not designed by him or entirely realized according to his wishes, represents the influence of his thought.

But his views did not prevail. Among the final acts of the Fascist government in Italy was the promulgation in 1942 of a new Charter of Restoration, replacing that written by Giovannoni in 1931. The new law banned the use of historical styles in both restoration and new construction as a “double falsification of history” – continuing a traditional building culture was believed to diminish the value of both the new and the old – a principle later enshrined in the Venice Charter of 1964, as well as in the current Italian charter of 1972, and still applied almost universally around the world today.

In the United States, preservation became, on one hand, an effort to limit the potential impact of invasive Modernist projects and, on the other, a way of enforcing the rupture between the architecture of the present and that of the past as mandated by international norms.

The destruction of Pennsylvania Station and the subsequent battle for Grand Central Terminal brought these issues into sharp focus, and preservation became increasingly reactive. But as Mason argues, the result has been to isolate preservation and reduce its power to shape the way cities change and grow. Hence, the relevance of both his history of preservation in New York and his current research on Giovannoni’s Rome.

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