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With the nearing close of the first decade of the twenty-first century, the state of the world is far from healthy. Environmental degradation, economic malaise, cultural disjuncture, political isolation, and social strife all threaten the stability and future of life as we know it. Responses to these problems have taken different approaches and will undoubtedly yield different outcomes over time; however, all share in the recognition of the need to repair. Repair and reparation are old responses to that which is damaged, broken, or dysfunctional yet the global nature of today’s challenges is unprecedented. Each discipline and profession has an ethical if not moral obligation to confront these challenges through thoughtful reflection and decisive action.
Conservation of natural and cultural resources, in today’s parlance, “heritage” has always been about repair whether it is ecological restoration, building rehabilitation, or urban revitalization. While conservation of the natural environment has had a longer track record and greater visibility in terms of its scientific study and advocacy, the preservation of the historic built environment has had a less effective and widespread influence, at least in the United States, on how we should think about current concerns such as sustainability, human equality, and social and cultural stability.
A historical reading of the problem and its solutions reveals a number of past examples where damage to built heritage served as a conduit for repair and reparation: after the French Revolution, after the American Civil War, and after World War II in Europe. All these examples demonstrate a significant response to conflict and its consequences of physical, social, and cultural destruction. We would do well to study historical responses to natural and human disasters, but also recognize that the scale and complexity of the problems today of environmental degradation, loss of human rights, and the destruction of cultural heritage are unprecedented.
If there ever was a moment when conservation of the built environment had something to contribute to the current state of social and political strife, economic recession and environmental destruction, it is now. On the surface, conservation is concerned with the protection of cultural heritage from loss and damage so that existing built works and places deemed significant and valuable can continue to inspire, to admonish (from the Latin monere—to warn, as in monument), or simply to provide continuity from the past to the present. We advocate for conservation because objects and places hold important information, associations, and meaning; because they embody social and cultural memory that, if lost, would make the world a less rich and connected place in which to live. [End Page 3]
Consider recent world events—the destruction of the Bamayan buddhas, the Mostar bridge, even the World Trade Towers—all potent cultural symbols whose targeted loss says more about the power and significance of these places now than their existence ever did. Consider the ongoing dilemma of if and how to rebuild the vernacular urban neighborhoods of the ninth ward in post-Katrina New Orleans in order to preserve the rich and viable traditions of that largely African-American creole neighborhood or the current battles over the retention of Charity Hospital, also in New Orleans, as a viable medical complex and the waste of almost $1 million to buy land, demolish architecturally valuable houses, and relocate residents from a site that would not be needed by a smarter hospital plan using the existing Art Deco hospital; or the growing debate over the preservation of the recent past—a debate that has caused a serious reconsideration of how we view and define postwar modernism and how we will pass on that legacy. Consider the widespread destruction and looting of Iraq’s cultural heritage; each lost site and artifact a page forever torn from the book of history. All these examples engage in the phenomenon of loss of cultural heritage and the implications of that loss and repair on the future of human history.