#tbt My Preservation Date // WWJRD: What Would John Ruskin Do; A Critique on Cronocaos│Koolhaas

Years ago, while I was in graduate school, I wrote a blog about historic sites as potential places to go on dates. I always enjoy re-visiting the blog and re-reading my snark. So much so, that I thought I would share selections from it across this platform. From Summer 2012:

As a part of a recent job interview, I was required to pass a written primary round.  One of the questions inquired about one’s position on the exhibit Cronocaos by Dutch architect and Harvard professor, Rem Koolhaas and subsequently, programming opportunities its relocation presents.  Perhaps it is because I have been busy writing historic landscape blogs and real estate development memos for the past year that I have rediscovered the high I get from writing about the built environment.  For this reason, I deviated from my old format [discussing historic sites as potential for date-settings] and reworked one of the questions from the written round to share with my blog readers.

As a graduate student in historic preservation at the University of Maryland School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation, I was granted educational opportunities that exceeded the traditional bounds of a historic preservation program. Its interdisciplinary approach allows students in the program to take courses not only in preservation, but also urban planning, anthropology, and architecture, enroll in study abroad sessions from different, yet relevant, fields, and participate in design and development competitions.  Reciprocally, the program welcomes students from these programs in preservation courses and its signature Great Britain study abroad session.  The University of Maryland is lucky in that the school leadership is composed of visionaries who encourage interdisciplinary connections.  For reasons such as this, I believe the field of preservation will increasingly become more integrated with its allied fields.

It is unfortunate that this is not the perspective of Rem Koolhaas.  The perspective of historic preservation that Koolhaas presents in Cronocaos is what I would consider inaccurate; of an antiquated stage of preservation from which we are more than 50 years removed.  Furthermore it is incredibly irresponsible for someone in such a position of authority, to make such dangerous generalizations regarding preservation.

During the Maryland graduate historic preservation theory seminar, the professor leads an exploration on why and for whom we preserve.  I can speak for my generation of preservationists when I say that we are quite cognizant of history that is not particularly picturesque.  It is our sentiment that this ugly history is most imperative to depict in the built environment and landscape, as it is a reminder of former struggles of our society.  Our professional goals completely contrast Koolhaas’ accusation of “airbrushing the most difficult chapters of history.”

Our opinions were exemplified by the first sessions of the course, a discussion about two iconic figures in both preservation and architecture: John Ruskin and Eugène Viollet-le-Duc.  It was the opinion of the vast majority that between the two schools of thought, Ruskin’s approach was more appropriate, give or take modification.  The restoration approach that Viollet-le-Duc employed was insensitive and frequently described as “Disneyland-preservation,” exemplified by attractions such as Colonial Williamsburg.  Koolhaas’ dual-sided exhibit demonstrates Ruskin’s mode of preservation as what should be implemented and Viollet-le-Duc’s mode of preservation as what should be avoided; thus ultimately sharing similar stances on preservation as my generation, albeit lack of focus on the root of what he regards as the problem.

The curriculum I undertook at the University of Maryland, a mix of historic preservation and real estate development courses, has given me a realistic perspective on the built environment.  The money-hungry culture of the United States allows real estate developers to make the important decisions.  More frequently than qualitative results, these decisions tend to be made on the quantitative metrics, such as net present value, internal rate of return, and cap rate.  With the exceptions of review boards, consultants, and in the case of financial incentives, governments, when it comes to rehabilitation projects, which is the type of preservation that Koolhaas has been frequently quoted as critiquing, preservationists have minimal involvement.  Preservationists do not fund rehabilitation projects, nor do they design them – they are a collaborative effort, exemplifying how preservation is increasingly more integrated with its allied fields.  Preservationists are the scapegoat for Koolhaas’ Cronocaos and the perspective of this exhibit is an unfortunate example of the short sightedness of an old school generation.

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