They don't build 'em like they used to

April, 2003

Why preserve? There are many answers to this question, many of which have great merit: old buildings can be beautiful, they have financial value, they serve as reminders of the past. All of this is received knowledge. Many people in this room--panelists and audience members alike--have labored in their own ways to uphold versions of these arguments, to shelter historic, and beautiful, and otherwise valuable buildings against the storm that Walter Benjamin called progress. 

There are equally familiar arguments against preservation: property values diminish; perceptions of beauty change; history gets rewritten. Ultimately, however, it is progress, unwavering, sometimes unthinking, and undeniably American, that has provided the most dangerous and compelling traditional argument against preservation. Progress holds forth the promise that if memory, beauty, and profit are rewards of building, the construction of a new building in the place of an old one will offer still greater memories, and beauty, and profit. No longer.

When William LeBaron Jenney's structurally pioneering Home Insurance Building of 1885 was demolished in 1931 to make way for Graham, Anderson, Probst & White’s fabulously art deco Field Building, it is reasonable to say that Chicago gained as much, if not more, than it lost in the transaction. Was Henry Ives Cobb's classical, domed Federal Building of 1905 (demolished in 1966) a fair trade for Ludwig Mies van der Rohe's regulation modernist Federal Center of 1974? In this case I think it's fair to say that popular opinion would be divided. And as for the expansion of Holabird & Roche’s 1926 Soldier Field by Boston architect Carlos Zapata, well, “outrage” is one way to describe the general reaction.

Which brings me to my point. From my perspective, as a writer, editor, and curator who has devoted his career to advocating “progressive” architecture, the answer to the question “Why preserve?” is easy: They don’t build ’em like they used to. There is a profound lack of public trust in the capacity of contemporary architects and developers to meet or exceed the value of buildings of the past, no matter how you define value--and no matter how many talented architects and civic-minded developers a city may possess.

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