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October 21, 2018 9:10 AM   Subscribe

"What if I told you one of the largest ever undertakings in American historic preservation was happening not through the graces of any large institution, but through the autonomous participation of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of individuals across the country, who are collectively stitching together their own narrative of architectural history?" Kate Wagner in The Baffler, The Archivists of Extinction: Architectural history in an era of capitalist ruin
posted by everybody had matching towels (14 comments total) 34 users marked this as a favorite
 
This means Big A-architecture and Big-P preservation are finally coming to terms with something online amateur architectural historians have acknowledged for a long time: resistance to change in the age of neoliberal capitalism is futile.

There are winners and losers in capitalism, and the losers don’t get to keep their buildings.
posted by infini at 9:17 AM on October 21


It might shock you to learn that a 2001 U.S. Census report found that the average age of a residential building was a mere thirty-two years.

It's not that shocking, given the growth of the US population in those years. The number of US residential housing units in 1969 would have been about 64 million, and 32 years later in 2001, the number was about 109 million. That growth alone tells us that at least 40% of all units are less than 32 years old, so a mean age of 32 years isn't that surprising.
posted by rh at 10:11 AM on October 21 [11 favorites]


Being the Baffler, I'm not exactly surprised by the take, but I did find it to be a bit one sided. "Populism" tied to nostalgia can be as toxic as anything in capitalism. Just take a gander at the fights over confederate statues for example. Holding on to the past just because it was "yours" isn't a particularly useful value in and of itself as "you" aren't the only person acting within the landscape and your memories shouldn't necessarily define what those who come after you or those who shared your time but not your happy memories experience in their landscape. Making a fetish of the past is not any better than gutting it all for capital gain.

The conversation needs more nuance than that as we do need to change while not completely forgetting where we've come from. The attempt to categorize historical buildings by their architectural/artistic or historical importance isn't a bad starting point, expanding that effort to be more inclusive of lives that don't fit the "great man" category but still have significant merit to the community would be even better if that process wasn't given over to making monuments for other misguided or narrow ideals. I don't see that as an easy task, especially at a time when even the first definition of importance doesn't hold much weight.

Personally I'm ambivalent over questions of how much architecture should be saved for historical, artistic, or populist values. I don't think its an easy question to answer in a lot of cities where space and use are areas of such enormous conflict. It's something that becomes easier to answer when you have the knowledge of what will be replacing the old building and comparing the overall gain and loss to the community. That's how I'd prefer to look at these kinds of issues, but unfortunately it never really works out that way.
posted by gusottertrout at 10:43 AM on October 21 [13 favorites]


The theory around the age of architecture matching the recovery period seems like it might have cause and effect backwards. Or it might not. Or they might be in a spiral with each other.

I don't know enough about the subject to know which interpretation is correct, but it seems kinda dicey to just assert that the connection must be there and in the direction the author thinks it does.
posted by jacquilynne at 10:51 AM on October 21


What if I told you one of the largest ever undertakings in American historic preservation was happening on Flickr?

What makes you think Flickr is going to be here in 10 years?
posted by Fupped Duck at 12:45 PM on October 21 [13 favorites]


I was impressed to see anyone mentioning Flickr in 2018.
And it's for good stuff. Flickr groups can be pretty handy.
posted by doctornemo at 2:06 PM on October 21


I started taking pictures of Texas' county courthouses long before there was a Flickr, just because I thought they were an interesting subject. Some were in decay, & some fine old buildings had been replaces, so I thought a little photo documentation might be worthwhile. I didn't get too far with the project though before the stat funded a massive restoration project for all the old county courthouses sill in existence, so I now have some interesting before-in-decay/after-restoration comparison shots.

Of course I started uploading them to Flickr once I joined, and shortly discovered that there are groups for courthouses of every state, & the US as a whole, & while I had one or two significant pictures, they have been photo-documented to death. There's a guy I follow who set out to bag all 264 Texas county courthouses, & once he'd done that in short order, expanded his reach to all the courthouses in the US & the dude is nearly 3/4's finished after 6 years of working at it. He also photographs post offices, Lions clubs & Masonic lodges whenever he finds them in small towns scattered across the country. we're talking 10's of thousands of photos by 1 individual, & very carefully logs the date & location of everything & has a pretty steady hand & eye for composition.

The enthusiasm for this sort of photo documentation is boggling at times & of course there's an explosion of it with the digital photo age, but people are also posting historical photos as well. Flickr is quite the repository of architectural photos, & also quite the time-suck to the casual enthusiast. I think it'll be a great boon to historians though, as the collections grow.
posted by Devils Rancher at 3:18 PM on October 21 [7 favorites]


The article makes some very, very good points about who gets to define "history", "architecture", "design", and "preservation". We do tend to default to "older" buildings when we decide what to landmark and preserve, and we do tend to default to shunning buildings with day-to-day significance for the "ordinary folk" when we preserve landmarks - we bend over backwards to preserve the buildings where George Washington and Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson did their significant work, but no one knows where Martha Washington or Eliza Hamilton did their grocery shopping, much less where the ordinary Revolutionary War soldier may have lived.

And yet - I find myself looking at the K-Marts being discussed in this article and wondering - what buildings were knocked down to build that K-Mart, and which buildings on which small town main street had to be shuttered and got destroyed because the mom-and-pop shops had to close up?

If populism has a chance to teach us anything about what things are significant and should be protected, I just hope that we remember the lesson in time for the next shift.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 3:45 PM on October 21 [5 favorites]


It might shock you to learn that a 2001 U.S. Census report found that the average age of a residential building was a mere thirty-two years.

Not around here. The average home in Pittsburgh was built in 1955 which actually surprises me; I would have thought it was much older. I can only think of a few neighborhoods with post-war houses.
posted by octothorpe at 4:21 PM on October 21


That's the average home age in the Pittsburgh MSA, which is about 100x100 miles.
posted by GCU Sweet and Full of Grace at 4:56 PM on October 21


That makes sense, I'd guess that the average house in the city was at least 80 years old.
posted by octothorpe at 5:06 PM on October 21 [1 favorite]


"nobody is caping for historic landmark status for the Olive Garden down the road"
In Los Angeles they are attempting to preserve buildings from the diner chain Norm's. Basically the same thing but Norm's is from the 50s and therefore worthy of preservation.

We tend to view the architectural style that came just before our era as something "old fashioned" that needs to be torn down. And simultaneously, we are horrified that our elders tore down grand old buildings to replace them with the architectural horrors we scorn. And those people who tore down those gorgeous buildings questioned THEIR ancestors' tastes and why they tore down beautiful buildings to build those monstrosities. And so on, going centuries back. This writer is one of a long line of people singing the same lament and thinking their perspective is unique.

For example, in Boston there was a huge wave of Gothic Revival buildings that got torn down at the turn of the last century to be replaced by Richardsonian Romanesque buildings - many of which in turn were torn down 40 years later to build Brutalist buildings. It's a cycle that dates back centuries, if not millennia. Even Stonehenge got redesigned multiple times, and moving those stones around was a tough job with the technology on hand.

Also, some buildings were not built to last and are meant to be torn down. Low-rise apartment buildings in Los Angeles are built with the expectation that they will be torn down in 30 years. Wasteful? You betcha. But trying to preserve those things can be as cost effective as lighting money on fire. If people are going to turn against an architectural style after 30 years, why make it last longer?

A Victorian home I once lived in was taken down to the studs both inside and out in order to "preserve" it. It took that much effort because it had been poorly built and poorly maintained. There's literally hundreds of homes exactly like it in Cambridge, and it would have made a lot more sense to tear the damn thing down and start anew. But Boston still has a hangover from the disastrous urban renewal program that eradicated the West End, and now the inclination is to spend twice as much "preserving" a crappy building as it would cost to build a new one. I put "preserving" in quotes because, if you're replacing everything but the beams, is it really preservation?

There is a middle ground between "bulldoze everything" and "don't build anything new."

And hey, guess what? That photographic preservation that is happening now on Flickr has been happening since the Advent of photography. Go dig into the Library of Congress photo archives.

Time for me to stop ranting and go get more coffee.
posted by rednikki at 11:53 PM on October 21 [5 favorites]


The enthusiasm for this sort of photo documentation is boggling at times & of course there's an explosion of it with the digital photo age, but people are also posting historical photos as well. Flickr is quite the repository of architectural photos, & also quite the time-suck to the casual enthusiast. I think it'll be a great boon to historians though, as the collections grow.

I used to think this sort of thing would be boon but now I think it is more like when a farmer prays for rain in a drought and then gets a flood. How can a historian even manage to wrap their heads around millions of photos of their topics of interest? Historians looking at the present are going to end up hyper specializing in decontextualized minutiae unless something dramatically changes in how we manage the data hose we have built.
posted by srboisvert at 7:05 AM on October 22 [1 favorite]


I always got the impression that the desire to save all the buildings is a 19th and 20th century sort of phenomena due to the fact it's now easier than ever to be a tourist. The Romans didn't care that much and tore down whole sections of the city to rebuild, the Japanese ritually rebuilt entire buildings every 30 years, etc.

Some cities like Venice are actively being hurt by the need to save the old buildings since the city lives to be built up since it is actively sinking into the lagoon.
posted by jmauro at 8:37 AM on October 22


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