For years I was under the wrong impression. As we so often do in our work and I suppose in our personal lives as well, we take what people tell us and we assume it to be true, especially if we hear it repeatedly. Last week, I heard an old Main Street cliche that made me cringe a bit, “We don’t have a parking problem, we have a walking problem.” Neither of those statements are true, but it’s said so often that people just kind of assume it’s true, but I digress.
My first job in the Place Industry was for an adaptive reuse real estate development firm in Richmond, Virginia. So historic preservation was central to our work. I stayed involved in historic preservation through my work as a Main Street manager, as we were always taught that revitalization and preservation go hand and hand. Later, when I worked as the State Main Street Coordinator, we were under one umbrella organization with the official state preservation office. All this is to say, I became pretty versed in historic preservation.
I remain a preservationist, I value historic buildings and continue to advocate for saving quality construction whenever possible. But there was a concept central to preservation that took me a long time to unlearn and I believe it might be causing more harm than good.
It’s the idea that we can’t build anything of quality anymore. It’s simply not true, and in blindly accepting this fact, we discount the idea that it’s even possible, more so than, we don’t advocate for it or demand it. Honestly, I feel a bit cheated for all the years I didn’t realize it was possible to build pretty buildings today.
Look, I know I am treading on tricky ground here, but give me a moment to explain. I understand why this concept took hold. The argument for preserving our historic architecture is extremely salient and thousands of American cities and towns have bulldozed their way to irrelevance by demolishing all the buildings people cared about. I believe Donavan Rypkema put it best, “no community has ever demolished it’s way to revitalization.”
Historic buildings matter a tremendous amount. They are extremely important to the health of a community. For one thing, they are already built, which is typically a substantial cost savings and environmentally friendly. Yes, I know a lot of times they have been neglected forever and the renovation cost is expensive, but it’s been my experience that it is less expensive to renovate than demolish and build new. Second, old buildings are just cooler. Nearly every popular restaurant or retailer is in an old building. All the best apartments and condos are in old buildings. Third, it’s expensive just to start ripping buildings down for no reason. All too often, I hear the reason to start the bulldozers is because a building is an eyesore. I call shenanigans. I will take an empty eyesore building with potential, over an empty surface lot eyesore with no potential. No one looks at a rusted ’57 Chevy and demands it gets thrown in the sea. Old buildings, like old cars, just need the right person to come along and love them back to health.
Trying to prove my preservation street cred here so that those of you in the industry may see I understand and appreciate your work. But the argument I always heard and often ended up making myself is that we shouldn’t tear this or that building down because we couldn’t build it again today. This is an entirely sensible argument and is meant to discourage wrecking ball-crazed local officials ready to rip down anything with a cracked window.
This is a well-intentioned argument, but I believe has had some negative consequences. I spent decades of my career believing that we didn’t have the money or know-how to build anything of quality anymore. The fact that we don’t build many pretty buildings anymore doesn’t mean that we can’t build pretty buildings anymore, and conflating the two thoughts led me, and I am sure others, to believe that it was an impossibility.
I am 100% in favor of protecting and preserving all the pretty buildings that bring joy to a community and give people a sense of pride. That being said, not all old buildings are special, conversely, not all new buildings are garbage, well, at least they don’t have to be.
For the past year, I have been following a few accounts on social that have opened my eyes and made me realize that my years spent thinking it was impossible to build anything of substance today was wrongheaded. I have seen photos from Frankfurt, Germany of blocks of new construction that look hundreds of years old. A project called Catfiddle Street in Charleston completely blends in with the existing built environment. A new civic building in Budapest looks like it’s been there forever. Paris, Nijmegen, Barcelona, and even New York City all have examples of recently built structures that are a welcome addition to the landscape.
There are a growing number of examples of beautiful, classical-style buildings being constructed around the world that heal the urban pattern. Buildings that have context and help repair the damage done to street life. Structures that are gorgeous and make residents proud of their city. Projects that look like they belong and have always been there. These examples make me extremely happy to see because it gives me hope that we can undo the damage we have done to our cities and towns. This is why I think it is problematic to suggest we can no longer build anything of quality anymore because when everyone believes this to be so, the possibility of doing so becomes that much harder.
Preservation matters. It is fundamental to the revitalization of any community, but we should not give short shrift to the importance of aesthetics. We cannot overlook how much it matters that the built environment, whether ancient or brand new is lovable and charming. We have to remember that people derive a sense of attachment from things they find attractive and while maybe no one famous slept in the new project, it has a much better chance of growing old if it’s pretty.
Years ago, I was involved with my local preservation organization. It was time to decide on replacing the old wooden sign in front of the organization’s prized property. We ended up having an argument about replacing the wooden sign with a plastic sign and there were equal proponents on each side. It was a heated debate and it left me somewhat astonished at the time. I just assumed that preservation-minded people were also concerned with quality design. This was my own bias and not the fault of people working in preservation, but it also made me realize, that most communities don’t have an organization advocating for good aesthetics. This is a huge problem.
So much of what makes a person appreciate their community is beauty. We place a considerable amount of value on an object’s aesthetics. Humans have a greater sense of attachment to places that are pretty. We seek out charming environments and will pay more to visit them or live in them. Aesthetics make the world go round and we have to elevate their level of importance. Whether new or old, beauty is timeless.