Of late I have been thinking a great deal about the topic of historic preservation in architecture, thanks to a number of news reports which I believe the reader will find interesting. While spread across centuries, continents, and cultures, all of these stories bring home to us two key points. The first and perhaps most obvious is that we lose pieces of human history all the time, often without realizing what has happened until they are gone. Yet the second and perhaps more contentious is whether the question of historic preservation is something which only matters to those with the luxury to pursue it.
You may have read, gentle reader, of the destruction of a Mayan pyramid in Belize, which was bulldozed to be turned into road fill. This took place despite the fact that the archaeological site, and the structure itself, have been known and marked for well over a century now, as part of a far larger complex which has yet to be scientifically excavated. Even today, with all of our technology, the jungles of Central and South America still have many secrets yet to reveal to us. There are many more things to be discovered in these areas, and which continue to occur on a regular basis, such as was announced recently in the discovery of a large statue from a pre-Columbian ball game court in Mexico.
In Egypt, scholars are alarmed at the increasing rate of destruction at the site of the ancient Roman city of Antinopolis, built by the Emperor Hadrian to honor his boy toy Antinous, who accidentally drowned – or was murdered, depending on whom you believe – in the Nile near this spot in 130 A.D. Here, the nearly intact Roman hippodrome has been swallowed up both by the desert sands and an encroaching modern cemetery. In addition the area of the ancient necropolis, or “city of the dead”, which has yielded numerous superb mummy portraits, is being converted into farmland for the burgeoning population of actual living people in the area to work.
Even in the United States, we can see the shocking destruction of buildings which are, if not as ancient as the aforementioned, not only old, but beautiful. Take the demolition of old St. Patrick’s Church in suburban Albany. New York, a Neo-Gothic building from around the turn of the previous century. Due to various factors including declining mass attendance, many of these old churches now serve shrinking populations. Often this leaves the diocese or religious community which maintains these structures no choice but to put them up for sale. In this case, the church is being replaced with a supermarket, which is perhaps rather too-telling
The story of architectural loss in the Americas, Egypt, and elsewhere is one not only based on values, but on resources. It is all very well to pass a law saying that historic buildings must be preserved. However if there is no enforcement mechanism in place to impose that law, nor the budget to fund it, then all the good intentions in the world will not halt demolition or decay.
There is also a kind of absolutist tendency among some in the historical preservation world to argue that anything more than a few years old is “historic”, and worth preserving. We saw this in the battle over the hideous Third Church of Christ Scientist by “starchitect” I.M.Pei here in D.C., which unfortunately has yet to be demolished. And indeed similar arguments are being made to preserve the even more egregiously awful and failing FBI Headquarters on Pennsylvania Avenue. How anyone with an advanced degree could argue that, “I think if it can be saved, it should be,” with a straight face is beyond me.
As in everything in life, the key here is to strike a balance. For many poorer countries, preservation of architectural monuments and important buildings or ruins is simply not possible. There are organizations like UNESCO to help them, but as we saw in the destruction of ancient structures in Mali during the Islamist uprisings, even international organizations can only coordinate restoration efforts up to a point. These are often viewed as a luxury which wealthy, first-world countries alone have the means to play with. For all of us, the loss of these pieces of the past, however they come about, are tragic, and call for our attention and, yes, our financial support, if we care about history, or architecture, or art.
Yet even at home, we can do our part in our own communities. Rather than worrying so much over whether it is historically appropriate for our neighbor to paint his front door fire engine red, as is so often the kind of in-fighting that goes on in well-to-do historic neighborhoods, perhaps we ought to be looking with a more keen eye to see what is actually worth our time and effort to preserve. Nothing built by the hands of man will last forever, after all, and by tailoring our preservation efforts to those structures which are not simply old, but exemplary of the best that human beings can do when they push themselves, we will all be better-served.
Demolition underway at St. Patrick’s Church
Watervliet, New York