- Buildings, Landscapes, and MemoryCase Studies in Historic Preservation
These are changeful times for the field of historic preservation. Critiques of the more and less constructive sort have come from outsiders as well as insiders, and one has the sense that preservation as a cognate field of practice has lately been struggling. As I write, the National Trust for Historic Preservation is rolling out a rebranding and reorganization to make this leading national organization more visible and effective at reaching out to the public and securing financial support. Meanwhile, naysayers from outside the field have been attacking preservation: starchitect Rem Koolhaas has argued that preservation stymies creativity, and economist Edward Glaeser has concluded that preservation detracts from urban growth and prosperity.1 Neither criticism holds much water, and attacks on preservation are nothing new. But what is interesting and paradoxical is that these critiques portray preservation as a powerful and influential movement (although an uninformed and unimaginative one).
If only this were the case. Preservation is misunderstood even more often than it is criticized. From within the field, there is abiding uncertainty about whether preservation has strayed too far from its core function of curating historic buildings, or whether it has not ventured far enough in forming connections with design, economic development, tourism, environmental conservation, and so on. There is doubt about the very nature of the field: does it center on conservation and curatorial expertise or on public relevance and community support? "Preservation has been and ought to continue to be fundamentally about constituting a politics of place and a place-centered citizenship in which buildings and landscapes provide the grounds for us to critically understand and thoughtfully negotiate the relationship between the past and the future," writes Daniel Bluestone (18). The core function of preservation, then, is political; managing change in the built environment is a means to these ends.
The history and theory that form the basis of the preservation profession seem not to inform the worlds of practice, advocacy, or policymaking particularly strongly, although they are taught in graduate schools. Most citizens, public officials, and fellow design professionals regard preservation as merely an ideology—a position of resisting change, or saying "no"—just another of the varied, competing, shrill voices constituting what stands for public dialogue and debate over environmental quality and change. Thoughtful practitioners and advocates know this narrowed view of preservation is wrong, yet find little traction for their arguments that historic preservation can hold out the promise of stewardship, sustainability, and creative engagements between people and the places where they live and work.
Daniel Bluestone's masterful new book, Buildings, Landscapes, and Memory, calls loudly and clearly through this cacophony of voices. This volume represents historical scholarship at its brilliant and useful best. Its critical essays narrate several telling moments in the development of preservation thinking in the United States. The collection helps rescue preservation from exclusive association with Founding Fathers, World Heritage Sites, and big-name architects (although they all are part of his story) and finds the roots of preservation tied up with the everyday: real-estate development, courthouse squares, redundant waterfronts, roadside markers, and the like. Buildings, Landscapes, and Memory embodies and powerfully asserts the role of narrative in historic preservation's historical imagination. Out of events and places at once subtle and obvious, Bluestone constructs rich stories about place making in which preservation is a constant presence. Upon reading them, one has the sensation of having been told of wonders hiding in plain sight— or perhaps just waiting for such an expert excavator detective. The research behind Bluestone's book is deep as well as broad, and the evolution and meaning of buildings, sites, and cities are thoroughly contextualized.
The book is also a bit of a sermon—not in form, but in message—and a very welcome sermon at that. Bluestone disciplines this unruly, uncertain, and fairly roiling field by telling preservationists and their fellow travelers stories—cautionary tales and heroic...