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The Politics of Contemporary Architecture in Historic Contexts
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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.   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.   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 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.   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 preservationists are more inclined to reconstruct missing pieces of historic buildings than their American counterparts. This tendency to reconstruct extends to replacement of deteriorated features. As one French preservation architect shared with me, "you Americans are worried about the historic integrity of each individual nail at the expense of the overall legibility of the historic monument and its context."

The fellowship gave me the opportunity to spend time in the offices of various preservation stakeholders, including the Commission Supérieur des Monuments Historiques, various Architectes en chef des Monuments Historiques (an exclusive cadre of 55 national Chief Architects for Historic Monuments), the SDAP in various cities, and The Ministry of Culture. While most of the American recipients of the Richard Morris Hunt Fellowship visit the same roster of preservation professionals, each person's research interests color the individual experience and filter the information received.

My biggest takeaway: Various "poster children" for contemporary design in historic contexts, including I.M. Pei's Grand Pyramid du Louvre, were denied approval by the Commission Supérieur des Monuments Historiques in the mid 1980s, but were constructed because President Francois Mitterand overrode the Commission's decisions. Other rejected projects include an addition to the 1831 Lyon Opera House by Jean Nouvel (constructed between 1985 and 1993) and the installation of the Colonnes de Buren in the Cour d'Honneur at the Palais Royal in 1986. I am currently continuing my research on the aftermath of these projects: how their public reception changed the ways in which French preservationists view contemporary architectural interventions.


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Although the Commission Superieur des Monuments Historiques rejected the contemporary designs for an addition to the Lyon Opera House (left) and the installation of the Colonnes de Buren in the Cour d'Honneur at the Palais Royal (right), both projects were eventually constructed after...



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