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Preservation in France: Reflections from Three Hunt Fellows
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Preservation in France:
Reflections from Three Hunt Fellows


Since 1990, the Richard Morris Hunt Fellowship, co-sponsored by the American Architectural Foundation and the French Heritage Society, has offered mid-career American and French licensed architects an intensive six-month exchange experience that showcases the latest scholarship and practice around historic preservation and architectural heritage.

The Hunt Fellowship is named for Richard Morris Hunt, the first American architect to study at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris. Hunt, one of the most renowned 19th-century American architects, helped to formalize architecture as a profession in the U.S. and to promote urbanism.

The American Architectural Foundation and French Heritage Society conceived the Hunt Fellowship as a means to introduce experienced preservation architects in France and the United States to preservation practice and technique in each other's countries. Awarded in alternate years to an American and to a French fellow, the program carries a stipend of $25,000 and includes extensive travel and interaction with local preservation professionals in the host country. It affords design professionals the opportunity to broaden their outlooks on architectural and cultural heritage. Americans see a variety of current projects and are introduced to the state institutions that govern French historic monuments and landscapes. French recipients are introduced to federal, state, and local preservation organizations and professionals in public and private practices. They also visit significant historic sites and projects applicable to their proposed study in the United States.

The alumni fellows from France and the U.S., now numbering 24, constitute an active professional network for the program. They gather for biennial reunions in both France and the U.S. [End Page 23] Three American Hunt fellows share their experiences in the following essays.

The Politics of Contemporary Architecture in Historic Contexts

The focus of my six months in France in 2007 was on the politics of contemporary architecture in historic contexts. I especially wanted to focus on cases when such decisions were contested and the discussion topics were controversial.

French historic preservation law creates a very different regulatory environment than that in the United States, and the long history of historic preservation in France creates a different cultural context. A summary of some of these differences is necessary in order to understand the nuanced discussions the French have regarding contemporary design in historic contexts. Specifically:

  1. 1. French preservation policy is dominated by a centralized government structure that codifies who may work on historic monuments and how such work is funded. The Commission Supérieur des Monuments Historiques, the equivalent of the American Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, was founded in 1837. Unlike the U.S. Advisory Council, which only reviews projects that are government-owned or government-funded (aka Section 106), the Commission Supérieur reviews all projects proposed for Monuments Classées (those of national importance), regardless of funding.

  2. 2. While the U.S. uses the Secretary of the Interior's Standards, France (and most of Europe) uses the Venice Charter for the Conservation and Restoration of Monuments and Sites (1964), the document upon which the Standards are loosely based. Notably, the Venice Charter implies that a singular monument is inseparable from the setting in which it occurs. With that belief in mind, the French Code du Patrimoine enforces a 500-meter protected radius around classified monuments, requiring exterior design review (in a preservation context) for any architectural modifications or [End Page 24] new construction within this zone. For a city like Paris, with numerous monuments, these protected radii overlap, and there are very few places within the city limits that escape preservation review. As a result, the Service D'Architecture et Patrimoine or SDAP (the local preservation planning office) is adept at reviewing, discussing, and passing judgment on new construction in historic contexts. Historic preservation review is, therefore, the norm and not the exception for all projects within the city.

  3. 3. The father of the French preservation movement, 19th-century French architect Eugène Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc (1814-79), has a lasting legacy. Known for his interpretive "restorations" of medieval buildings, Viollet-le-Duc's influence is still evident and, as a general rule, French...