- Literature Review
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Is there any subject within the field of architectural conservation more fraught than new design in historically sensitive contexts—more specifically, additions to historic buildings or historic districts? Within the vast topic of "adaptation," the addition, as both a primary means of adaptation and its clearest outward form, consistently serves as the focus of heated debate. The addition is also a public concern insofar as it fundamentally impacts the protection of historic building exteriors, which is a consistently legislated and regulated activity (this is far less often the case for interiors).1 Adding to historically significant fabric can therefore be seen as a broad-strokes kind of adaptation in which we, the public, almost always have a confirmed interest.
When it comes to additions, there may arguably be a kernel of consensus. We might frame the ideal intervention as a creative response that acknowledges the defining character of heritage while enriching and, in some measure, redefining or re-presenting that same character. But how this intervention is philosophically situated—how it operates specifically in relation to context—amounts to a broader set of cultural debates. These range from disagreements over conservation ethics and contemporary considerations of authenticity to modernism and how we read history itself.
With these larger issues still contested, discourse on additions remains inchoate. During the 1980s controversy over Michael Graves's proposed addition to Marcel Breuer's neo-expressionist Whitney Museum, then-New York Times architecture critic Paul Goldberger suggested that the expedient resolution would be to construct a limestone, "Beaux-Arts-style" building; Breuer's 1966 structure would become the "addition."2 For casual observers, the assumed roles of a stridently differentiated modernist intervention and the neighboring original landmark, now looking oppressed, would be familiar ones. Goldberger's suggestion underscored widespread attitudes on modernism's practical limitations in relating to historic fabric. But it also revealed public suspicions of a preservation practice that by its recent theories had legitimated such approaches. The cynical notion of a newly professionalized preservation field now acquiescent to, or even somehow aligned with, modernism's destructive iconoclasm probes the complex disjunction between conservative impulses that have long formed the basis for preservation's "grassroots" on the one hand, and its mid-twentieth-century development as a theoretical discipline, on the other. The driving issue of the disjunction in simplified terms is this: Is historic fabric safeguarded through the extension and reinforcement of its specific character, or do we defend material authenticity by making clearly legible the hand of subsequent intervention? The addition [End Page 203] project (and I use "project" to mean a larger endeavor of critical investigation rather than an architectural proposal) has been at the eye of this storm for decades. How additions to historic buildings and districts ought to look in relation to context, or what they should "do" for heritage, are matters that extend well beyond protecting material culture as this task has been typically framed. How we agree on what constitutes enhancement, disfigurement, or derivation has broad implications for nothing less than the consensus narrative of architectural history and the means by which we sustain the vitality and essence of valued historic environs—how we, in effect, preserve.
Given the breadth of these consequences, the anthology of critical literature on additions is surprisingly slim. At the same time, however, the addition has also proven to be terrain for comparatively more focused accounts; the library of literature on adaptation is vast and correspondingly amorphous. (Various subcategories of the genre range from the typical technocratic manuals on retrofit to primers on grassroots advocacy, and the sporadic interests of historians in material culture and collective memory as these intersect within the built environment.) One yearns for more scholarship that situates adaptation and specifically the addition as a creative and conservative act within a larger theoretical context, and the absence of such study has no doubt prolonged the confusion. The Architecture of Additions: Design and Regulation, by Paul...