Koolhaas challenges the preservation movement

After debuting at the 2010 Venice Biennale, “Cronocaos” — an exhibition about the increasingly urgent topic of preservation in architecture and urbanism by OMA / Rem Koolhaas — is now at NYC’s New Museum. And it’s sure creating some interesting controversy.

According to the museum’s website:

It examines the growing “empire” of preservation and analyzes the consequences of these regimes for how we build, rebuild, and how we remember.

Twelve percent of the planet now falls under various systems of natural and cultural preservation. According to Koolhaas, heritage is becoming more and more the dominant metaphor for our lives today—a situation he calls “Cronocaos.” Koolhaas seeks to find what the future of our memory will look like, and how our obsession with heritage is creating an artificial re-engineered version of our memory.

The NY Times review in late May says that “the show draws on ideas that have been floating around architectural circles for several years now — particularly the view among many academics that preservation movements around the world, working hand in hand with governments and developers, have become a force for gentrification and social displacement, driving out the poor to make room for wealthy homeowners and tourists.”

The review continues:

Mr. Koolhaas’s vision is even more apocalyptic. A skilled provocateur, he paints a picture of an army of well-meaning but clueless preservationists who, in their zeal to protect the world’s architectural legacies, end up debasing them by creating tasteful scenery for docile consumers while airbrushing out the most difficult chapters of history. The result, he argues, is a new form of historical amnesia, one that, perversely, only further alienates us from the past.

In today’s NYT, The New Republic architecture critic Sarah Williams Goldhagen’s op-ed “Death by Nostalgia” argues that Kohlhaas is often right but that he is wrong to blame preservationists:

Some of Mr. Koolhaas’s criticisms are on target — but his analysis is wildly off-base. It’s not preservation that’s at fault, but rather the weakness, and often absence, of other, complementary tools to manage urban development, like urban planning offices and professional, institutionalized design review boards, which advise planners on decisions about preservation and development.

“In other words,” Goldhagen argues later, “preservation morphed into a four-headed monster: a planning tool, a design review tool, a development tool and a tool to preserve genuinely valuable old neighborhoods and buildings. Today decisions about managing urban development are frequently framed as decisions about what and what not to preserve, with little sense of how those decisions affect the surrounding neighborhood.”

Goldhagen’s critique is an interesting one, but I don’t think that her ideas can easily be laid over the Savannah preservation efforts. I’ll give it some more thought and welcome others’ thoughts on it.

Koolhaas’s critiques strike me as a bit more relevant to the Savannah experience. Off and on for years I’ve been writing in various ways about the impulse to sanitize the Landmark Historic District and even other historic districts in the city, all while doing plenty of cherrypicking from the past. Dive bars are largely gone from downtown, even though those were obviously a part of the city’s history for centuries.

For decades in the 20th century, Broughton Street was ablaze with neon signs, which are now pretty much impossible to get approved. Street commerce was common too, but almost-draconian ordinances stand in the way of street commerce today.

Population density has declined dramatically, in part because of rules against it. Drayton Tower, now in the ugly limbo of failed condo conversion, couldn’t even be built today with as many units as it had in the mid-20th century. Too many units, too many people.

But I think it’s tough to primarily blame developers for these trends, even though they have obviously been aware of zoning changes and benefited greatly from gentrification during the housing boom in the early 21st century. The preservation movement in Savannah began as a heroic effort to preserve buildings, but somewhere along the line questions of esthetics took precedence, even when those esthetics had nothing to do with building preservation. We became more focused on historical appearance, while at the same time almost forgetting about the history of use. If Savannahians want to have a bustling downtown, they’ll have to accept that commerce is sometimes messy — and that a commerce geared toward the local population might sometimes seem messy and unpredictable. Buildings might need to be used and reused in unpredictable ways. Nightlife must be supported. These are all things that I think Jane Jacobs would agree with . . .

If Savannahians, especially those who live downtown who have held enormous sway for years over preservation policy, don’t want to encourage that type of local population and commerce, they’re going to see — if and when a recovery really takes hold — increased gentrification, fewer residents, and a more tourist-dependent retail economy.

One of the great traits of the Oglethorpe Plan of squares and frequent streets, by the way, is that it is conducive to the success of either vision. Ongoing efforts to reconstitute the lost portions of the original grid should certainly continue.