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[Domus] Call to Account! A case for active preservation


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Apr 23, 2007
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Call to Account! A case for active preservation
An op-ed from Barcelona by Mario Ballesteros

Is preservation really inertia as Koolhaas maintains? Perhaps it's time that architects take on the task of giving life to innovative prospects for the reinterpretation of the past

Who would have thought it: The Past is the Next Big Thing.

Historic preservation is all the rage in avant-garde design journals and in the core curriculums of chic new architecture schools (Strelka), a hot conversational topic in online forums and art-crowd dinner parties. How exactly has preservation made a comeback and what opportunities does it hold for contemporary architecture?

At last year's Venice Biennale, in typically timely fashion and under a title worthy of a Mexican wrestling movie villain (Cronocaos), Rem Koolhaas approached the "under-explored" theme of preservation with his infallible mix of hard facts, intentionally messy collage and pumped-up rhetoric. He described 2010 as a point of "perfect intersection" for two tendencies in architecture: preservation and destruction.

Preservation isn't a new theme for Koolhaas. In 2004, he published a short piece titled Preservation is Overtaking Us. Along with Cronocaos, this text sums up the architect's views on the subject, which can be outlined schematically as: 1) The interest in preservation rises from a continued obsession with the past, 2) Preservation offers architects the possibility of inaction, and 3) Everything is now susceptible to preservation. To what degree are these assumptions, developed four years before the current economic debacle, practically at the height of the boom, still valid?

1. Obsession with the past
The budding interest and newfound relevance of preservation in architecture isn't born from an "obsession with the past," as the brief for Cronocaos affirms, but from a wariness of the present and concern for the immediate future.

The recession has pushed many architects away from building, and forced them into a standstill. Moments of uncertainty often lead to pause and careful consideration of what should or shouldn't be done next, what should be kept and what should be discarded. Coincidentally, this is also the basic focus of architectural preservation. In the deepest sense, preservation is a perfect strategy for moments of radical transition: it stems not only from fear or nostalgia, but also from a survival instinct. (Self-preservation, anyone?)

2. Inaction
Is preservation really a matter of inaction, "an architecture that does nothing," (Preservation is Overtaking Us) as Koolhaas has implied? In a way, preservation does oppose specific actions (destruction or construction), but it is never about "doing nothing." Preservation requires recording and studying and choosing and debating and occasionally fighting.

Preservation might oppose destruction or construction, but it always turns to reconstruction: of buildings, their histories, their briefs, their contexts. In this sense, preservation is as much about research, documentation, interpretation, and disclosure, as it is about physical conservation.

Perhaps it is time for architects to assume a role in generating critical, innovative, and relevant approaches to reconstructing the past. (Particularly the recent past.) Go out! Recover! Collect! Dig! Document! Hurl the important questions to the faces of those that got us here: developers, financiers, politicians, supposed role models and mentors.

Look in front of you: thousands of empty, crappy apartments in the peripheries of just about any city. Piles of construction debris from interrupted projects, and piles of paperwork detailing dubious transactions and backroom deals. Suburban tract houses and mini McMansions left to the wilderness like Mayan ruins. Towering resort skeletons left standing at half their projected height. The obscene, gaping holes of base excavations for failed skyscrapers, waiting hungry for a totem that will never come to fill them up.

In contexts of crisis, architectural preservation—of buildings, but also of structures, archives, discarded or abandoned plans, as well as other minutiae and ephemeral documentation—becomes an indispensable tool for critical, political, and historical disclosure. Historical value, in this sense, transcends formal architectural merit. Preservation needs to move away from nostalgia and surface; it needs to be cold, clinical, and combative.

A call to account, not to inaction.

3. Preserve everything?
If indeed "preservation is overtaking us," if it is no longer a retroactive, but proactive activity, if "everything we inhabit is potentially susceptible to preservation," then, the key question is not what to preserve, but if we should preserve everything. At a time when preservation no longer focuses only on buildings, but "on human experience itself" (Jorge Otero-Pailos), the task of preserving everything seems daunting, bordering on the absurd.

Should we preserve everything? Koolhaas says no. Both "Preservation…" and Cronocaos propose alternatives: a "bar code" for cities with random, alternating, strips of space that "could either be preserved forever or systematically scraped," or a number of guidelines for the obliteration of what AMO considers "Insignificant Universal Junk": "parts of the cultural or natural heritage [that] are insignificant and transient and therefore need to be demolished to facilitate the growth and development of mankind as a whole…" (Designboom) These might be controversial, thought-provoking measures, but they aren't viable solutions. Preservation cannot be left to chance, and the truth is that, in some cases, even junk needs to be preserved, because it's bad for us, and we have to remember that. Leftover or discarded products of corporate or official culture might seem insignificant, but they are never devoid of meaning and cues.

Preserving the ruins of the contemporary is no romantic endeavor. Architects and preservationists should keep in mind Kevin Lynch's simple yet powerful observation: "wastes are full of information." (Wasting Away. An Exploration of Waste: What It Is, How It Happens, Why We Fear It, How To Do It Well , San Francisco, Sierra Club, 1990, 79). An active, almost immediate move in preservation (or at least documentation, analysis, etc.) is needed to salvage evidence among the spoils of the current building debacle and finding ways out of it. If we can't achieve any sort of consensus as to what is, or what might be valuable or not, and if the "wrenching simultaneity of preservation and destruction [is] destroying [our] sense of a linear evolution of time" (Venice Architecture Biennale 2010) is sandwiching past, present, and future together at a dizzying speed; perhaps we need to begin by asking ourselves how to preserve everything, to which degree, through which strategies.

Perhaps it is time that, instead of lingering on naive utopias, or fixating on formal acrobatics, experimental and digital practices in architecture were put to a better use. Designing mechanisms for preservation and disclosure—through digital reconstruction, archiving and safekeeping, opening up workflow and legal records, building community-based architectural repositories, open spatial registers, digital memory imprints, etc.—could be a good way to begin. Just a thought.

Mario Ballesteros is an editor and researcher based in Barcelona. He sporadically blogs at Mañanarama