ARCHITECTURAL PRESERVATION: BY WHAT STANDARD
Historic Preservation is an essential part of architecture in the world. By cataloging and preserving buildings from the past we are preserving a piece of our heritage, technology and culture that is essential to our future. But how do we decide what is worthy of being saved? The Department of the Interior and National Park Service sets a standard, but are those standards valid? Are they inclusive of more than just the cliche “historic” architecture in our communities? And by what standard or spirit could we include modern buildings as being worthy of protection and preservation for future generations? After all, old buildings were once new. In order to answer some of these questions, first we have to have a correct understanding of preservation in our modern context.
First and foremost preservation is not a new building in a historic neighborhood made to look like it’s historic neighbors. Neither is preservation only inclusive of “traditional” buildings. And, to add fuel to this fire, a building that is simply old does not make it historic nor does it make a building automatically worthy of preservation. But who decides? There must be a standard of architectural significance, a baseline standard, from which to judge. In the strictest sense preservation, or the Latin praeservare, simply means “to keep”. To keep what? To keep a record of, to preserve in a particular state or time. So then, architectural preservation is simply the keeping of a record of buildings within a particular time. And now that most Mid Century Modern buildings are more than 50 years old, we’re starting to see those standards applied across a much wider breadth and depth of architectural styles.
To this end, the keeping of a record, the National Park Service has set a standard of criteria for a building to be included on the National Register of Historic Places. The baseline states:
“The quality of significance in American history, architecture, archeology, engineering, and culture is present in districts, sites, buildings, structures, and objects that possess integrity of location, design, setting, materials, workmanship, feeling, and association…”
In addition to this, 4 additional criteria are included as a way to select only those structures that provide a significant window or representation into our past by:
(a) that are associated with events that have made a significant contribution to the broad patterns of our history; (i.e. Al Capone’s hotel suite in Chicago)
(b) that are associated with the lives of persons significant in our past; (i.e. Lincoln’s boyhood home)
(c) that embody the distinctive characteristics of a type, period, or method of construction, or that represent the work of a master, or that possess high artistic values, or that represent a significant and distinguishable entity whose components may lack individual distinction; (i.e. works by master architects or craftsmen like Frank Lloyd Wright, Le Corbusier, Todao Ando, Alvar Alto, I.M. Pei, etc.)
(d) that have yielded, or may be likely to yield, information important in prehistory or history. (i.e. archeology past, present or future)
As you can see, none of these standards mention a particular style or even a period of time or age. In fact, the 3rd criteria paints what I see as a very broad brush that has nothing to do with age or history at all. It really has to do with the characteristics of design and construction only and suggests that a building could be listed that had been constructed just yesterday. Unfortunately this is an argument rarely made and even more rarely granted, but it’s an important point to raise – we have been limiting ourselves too greatly by what we consider worthy of preservation. Old buildings were once new and our new buildings are no less worthy of distinction and preservation than those humble structures we now treasure. What ultimately needs to change is the care in which we take to design and construct our buildings with an eye towards creating the past of our future.