Creative Conservation

Since mid-2015, the relationship between Historic Preservation and Placemaking has been one of my favorite topics of study. I have found that the greatest challenge is to imagine historic districts that preserve their identity and spirit, their coffee shops, small businesses and places of contemplation, while accommodating the needs of the 21st century and the conditions for Economic Development.

If we act with the conviction that the mission of our profession is to improve lives, we can make better cities with the help of those who will use them. By sourcing ideas from the community, it is certain that creativity and a wealth of knowledge will inform the implementation and governance will come easily.

Even the conversation of contemporary buildings with historic districts has the potential of unleashing rich urban processes and adding value to their neighborhoods. I’m thinking of the work of Alberto Campo Baeza in Zamora, that of Carlo Scarpa in Verona, or that of Renzo Piano in Paris (no, not the Pompidou Centre but the Atelier Brancusi, mind you). Even Frank Lloyd Wright’s New York Guggenheim would make this list. And now, The new Boston Public Library, which is among the 2017 CNU Charter Award winners. This year’s Charter Awards focused on preservation at many levels, and seen from many angles. As a side note, it’s worth a look here.

Successful interventions in historic areas have in common features that are reproduced over and over again. Architectural thinker Christopher Alexander found that successful spaces, buildings and cities had several elements in common. Alexander isolated these elements and found that they were composed of combinations of objects. A door, its weight and materials, the treatment of the wall that frames it and the difference of light on each side of the threshold make an “entrance” pattern, A patio, the vegetation it contains, the seating spaces, the shade and its relationship with the walls that surround it and its interior make a pattern of “outside stay”. Together, these patterns make up a language that has a structure and communicates a message.

The conservation strategy of heritage areas must take into account that buildings are sets of patterns that converse – or not – with the larger patterns of the neighborhood and the city. Conservation decisions should not only be about technical, constructive and material isues, but mainly about context and the impact of conservation projects on urban life. Hence the immense relief you feel as you walk around a corner where a nuisance has been demolished and experience a city that enhances the historical experience, connects to its context and allows for vistas that were obscured by concrete and bricks. Such is the case with Ellis Square in Savannah.

Contemporaneity forces us to see heritage as a useful asset and as part of a lively, open and multicultural city. The built environment is made not solely of buildings but of patterns, and these are, in turn, composed of smaller scale patterns. It is thus appropriate to imagine the conservation of historical areas as the rehabilitation of historical patterns and experience, and not just isolated buildings. This enormous shift in focus could allow cities to perpetuate their character and identity, and continue to enhance the user experience. The possibilities become infinite when we move from the linear thought process of conserving, restoring, rehabilitating or adapting a building, to an exponential one, where creative conservation processes focused on patterns, intangible heritage and urban experience preserve history beyond bricks and mortar.

The search for patterns to recover experiences over the focus on saving specific buildings is what I call “Creative Conservation”.

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